Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Harrar Blue Horse and Neighsaying

The background ...

George Howell, one of the fathers of specialty coffee in America, has an interesting philosophy. For those of you who don't want to read the linked write-up by perennial Pour Quality reference favourite Jim Schulman, in a nutshell George's philosophy is that coffee ought to be a clean cup that reflects the terroir of the region in which it is grown, rather than the processing method. This means that George is definitely not a fan of dry processed coffee, as Jim explains:

"I've been advocating the dry processed Yrgacheffes (sic) in my reviews; and although I'll never know a fraction as much about coffee as George does, he invited me to set me straight. Yrgacheffe has always been wet processed for export, and to George, this excursion into dry is just another garden path that will ruin farmers. He never even orders dry process coffee from areas where it is traditional, since he thinks this tradition needs to be scrapped. According to him, producing truly high grade dry processed coffee is a losing gamble for farmers. Virtually all dry processed lots are spoiled when runaway fermentation occurs in beans whose skins crack; and if one sorted these out, the labor would be higher, and the yields lower, than with wet processing."

I simply don't have enough experience to make a blanket statement either way, but I do wonder if the difference between the two points of view reflects the different ways in which Jim and George consume coffee. In a nutshell, Jim seems to be more of an espresso guy, whereas if you take a look at the coffee offerings from Terroir, you will see that George's focus is more on brewed coffee. (By which I mean methods other than espresso.)

The coffee ...

This particular lot of Harrar is from the prolific "MAO" exporter, but is a special preparation. From what I can gather, this preparation usually goes to Japanese buyers and has not made it to Australia before. I presume that this is still a dry process lot, but you would be hard pressed to tell that it wasn't wet processed by looking at it - the screen size appears to be quite even and there isn't much chaff on it.

My particular interest in this coffee relates to my previous experience with Harrar, which has always been an exercise in frustration. Incredible cups were peppered with cups that just tasted tainted by excessive ferment to me. Over the past few years I have even had instances where I have thrown out a whole bag. In other words, I have been able to appreciate George Howell's take on dry processed coffees. As I have mentioned before, this frustration was compounded by the fact that descriptions of Harrar almost invariably seem to use the word "blueberry." Whilst I have certainly tasted blueberry on occasion, I can't help but feel that this particular descriptor is used where it really doesn't apply. All of this led to the question - 'what do you do if you want to get an awesome cup of Harrar?'

I have now had Blue Horse on three or so occasions, from different roasters, roasted to different levels and extracted on different machines. I am yet to have a cup that tastes ruined by excessive ferment flavours, which is great news. The cups do have that classic Harrar profile; last week I threw an espresso roast into a (sighted) cupping and although the roast level was not calculated to maximise the aromatics in brewed coffee, it was unmistakeable. As for the flavour itself, I'm happy to concede that you could say blueberry, although personally I like to think of it as "purple." Maybe even cantaloupe.

Two random points to ponder ...

(a) Is "blue" coffee producer parlance for "clean"? Blue Batak is reputed to be a cleaner Mandheling and "Brazil Blue Washed" keeps on cropping up ...

(b) So if Blue Horse is consistent ... and regular Harrar is not ... is it possible that they're throwing the crap from the Blue Horse lots into the regular Harrar lots? This highlights a classic coffee farmer's dilemma and draws attention to something that coffee buyers ought to consider.

# Update #

(a) OK, after sitting down with some blueberry yoghurt, dried wild blueberries and espresso I concede that this thing does indeed taste of blueberry.

(b) A quick excerpt from Tom's entry on Harrar Lot Number 14659 at Sweet Maria's:

"I honestly thought we would stock no Harar this year. It's not a rare coffee, there are tons of lots available from the usual coffee brokers. But the samples have been dismal for the new '07 crop; musty, dirty, moldy, fungusy, or just plain flat. ... I was surprised to cup a small lot of Harar at random and find it was not only free from those defective "dirt and rot" flavors, but was a really nice cup."



At 6:19 AM, Blogger Jaime van Schyndel said...

You are right on the blueberry thing. I just tasted a shot of espresso (esmeralda) where someone said blueberry and it freaked me out. After som later discussion, yeah, it was real blueberry fruit, just covered with all kinds of sweet florals and a sugar cookie sweetness.

In regards to Jim and George, it's not really a fair comparison. one is an expert who helped establish the CoE and has a resume of hands on work that would make you nervous, the other has made a couple thousand posts on many forums. I encourage you to research more about what George is saying. His roasting style will not thrill you (loves acidity) but he knows his green quality.

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Luca said...


Wow ... blueberry in Esmeralda?! I have only had one bag from Miguel, but that is probably one of the coffees that I would least expect people to pick up blueberry in.

As for George vs Jim, I'm sure that Jim himself would concede that he doesn't have a skerrick of George's experience or expertise. In fact, that came through pretty well in the linked article. The reason why I referred to Jim was simply because he wrote that rather nice article explaining George's philosophy and happened to have a slightly different point of view. Jim is certainly not alone in liking natural processed coffees - there seems to have been a whole bunch of big names in the US coffee scene going gaga over the Ethiopian Biloya, Aricha, et. al. Jim's point of view is representative of theirs.

Jim does have a two things over George and many of the other professionals that we both respect. First up, he is totally independent - he isn't going to gain or lose money by telling you that a coffee is good or bad. Second, his writing is clear, concise, prolific and often makes reference to actual experience. Whilst I don't always agree with what Jim has to say, I often find that his writing gives me a great starting point from which to learn more and conduct my own experiments.

As for researching more - naturally! I hope that you didn't think that my post was expressing a concluded opinion one way or the other. The idea was to provide some info to stimulate my regular readers. (Yes, both of them!)

A friend of mine has actually ordered some coffee from Terroir for us to get and try in a few weeks. I can't remember exactly what he has gotten, but it's part of the microlot runout thing that Terroir is doing at the moment. I actually really like the idea of roasters saying "I'm going to do one roast of this awesome coffee on this date." I might well not like whatever my friend has ordered as espresso, but I don't mind some acidity in brewed coffee, as long as the cup is otherwise clean. Which is exactly what I'm expecting!




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