Smell the Coffee

Addis Ababa Ethiopian Restaurant
2431 Riverside Ave., Mpls.; (612) 337-0262
Hours: Daily 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.

Everybody makes such a big stinking deal about curare. Oooh, it's such a deadly poisonous root, but people in South America figured out that they could eat it if they boiled it, pounded it, buried it, and then boiled it some more. Wow, that's so crazy--I mean, who were the recipe testers on the first versions! Haw-haw.

But get this: There's another tropical plant, an evergreen that grows high up in the mountains of Africa, and this evergreen makes a little berry that takes seven months to ripen, and there's barely any berry to it at all, it's mostly just two seeds that fit together into a ball, and around that there's a parchment membrane and some sticky pulp and then a tough outer skin. It's not an attractive fruit--as twigs are to zucchini, so are these meager nubs to peaches, passion fruit, papayas.

Still, people figured out that if they collected enough of these things and let them dry in the sun, and then worked them over with rocks and pulled the double-thick skins off, and finally collected about fifty of those seeds, and roasted them till they spilled smoke all over the place, and then they took the charred things, ground them up into a fine powder, and boiled that powder with water, it would yield a non-nutritive beverage, and everyone would want it. Go figure.

Now, somehow, I've managed to go to a bunch of coffee tastings, or "cuppings," as they're known in the trade, but I never managed to absorb what an amazing discovery coffee really is. For one thing, that tortuous route from wild thing to food makes you realize how much of our diet began as a quixotic experiment--I mean, I can't think of the last time I looked at something and said, 'You know, I'm going to take that little tiny thing there and dry it, and really break my back trying to husk it, and then roast it, and then grind it up, boil it, and see if it's any good then.' (For all I know, this would make the cassette tapes and paperbacks that line my shelves delicious.)

For another, remember the environmentalist refrain that we can't afford to destroy the rain forest because we don't know what treasures lurk within it: Thinking about coffee's origins, the only response can be: Jumping jahoozefats, yes! Get in there and taste it all! And finally, examining the twisty tale of coffee has an unnerving way of knitting together all of human history, from prehistoric nibbling in the mountains of Ethiopia to the double latte spilled on your mouse pad.

Ethiopian coffee is particularly close to those prehistoric origins: It grows on the same line of trees, in the same soil and much the same climate as it did tens of thousands of years ago. Most important, it is also processed the same way--the ripe fruit picked by hand, dried in the sun, and then painstakingly stripped down to the bean. In contrast, most South American coffees are processed by soaking the ripe fruits in water, which allows the outer layers to ferment off. This is a big deal in coffee circles, with some arguing that "wet processing" removes subtle flavor while others maintain that a dry process can allow the fruit to overripen and the beans to sour.

Nessim Bohbot, president of Alakef Coffee, a local roaster, says it's not simply a matter of which method is better or whether Ethiopian coffee is really superior to any other: "It is true that most of the time Ethiopian coffee has a very rich body," he explains. "But coffee is like wine--you like one for one reason, another for another reason. People like Ethiopian coffee for its profile and complexity, but even people who love a certain Costa Rican coffee might like an Ethiopian sometimes for a change."

That change is easy to come by: A quick run around Loring Park recently scared up three varieties of Ethiopian coffee. Dunn Bros. was selling a batch of big, whole, beautiful, and freshly roasted beans imported from the highlands near the Ethiopian city of Sidamo, for $9.15 a pound. Across the park, Starbucks offered another, darker-roasted Sidamo at $9.95 a pound. They also had a water-processed Lekempti, which despite the steep $13.65-a-pound price tag looked dismayingly bashed up and broken.

Back home I cupped all three coffees--a goofy process whereby you douse fresh-ground beans with boiling water, let them cool for a minute or two, break the crust of grounds that forms on top with a spoon, and slurp up the liquid making a lot of noise and endeavoring to spray the coffee over all the regions of your mouth at once. My first discovery was that all my finds made beautiful brews. The Dunn Bros. Sidamo was one of the fullest coffees I've ever had, the grassy, herbal top notes and bright acidity rounding out essential, strong bass notes. The Lekempti from Starbucks was a delicate, beautiful thing smelling faintly of lavender and finishing with a chocolatey fullness. The Starbucks Sidamo basically didn't stand up to the other two, though it might have done fine had I tested it against less noble beans.

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