I wasn’t allowed to drink coffee as a child, but occasionally my mother would favour me with a sip from her cup at breakfast. She drank it with a touch of milk and just the merest hint of sugar. My sister, seven years older than me (today is her birthday, btw ), never touched a drop of the stuff and attributes her admirable height (173 cm or 5 ft 8 in) in contrast to mine (153 cm or just above 5 ft) to having abstained from coffee throughout childhood. This always seemed reasonable to me, until this morning when it occurred to me that my two brothers –180 cm or 5 ft 11 in, and 178 cm or 5 ft 10 in – both taller than my sister, most likely never even considered eschewing their breakfast coffee. I realize now of course that it is not the occasional indulgence in morning coffee as a child that has led to my being deprived of my rightful share of the family height. Just pure genetics, and I got the short end of the stick (pardon the pun).
I have just finished my morning cup of Elan Amaro Gayo. Drank black. This superlative Ethiopian coffee has made me stop drinking coffee as my mother did, that is laced with milk and sugar. (Isn’t it amazing how we take on some of our parents’ eating and drinking habits?) I used to say, when asked how much milk I wanted in my coffee, that the end result should match the colour of my skin – piel canela, or in Tagalog, kayumangging kaligatan. Even with such a minuscule amount of milk (no sugar), it seems a sacrilege to mask the rare combination of blueberry, raspberry, and chocolate notes in this distinguished coffee. Lest I appear to be totally sugar-free (alas, pastries are my downfall), I do have a slice of a little sweet something to go with my morning cuppa.
Today it was a bit of Margarethenkuchen (marguerite cake) from one of Bonn’s oldest café-patisseries, Muller-Langhardt, on the Marktplatz. As you can see, the shape of the cake mirrors its floral namesake.
I’ve mentioned Elan Amaro Gayo before as being exported by the only woman coffee exporter in Ethiopia, whose pickers are 80% women, and no doubt this accounts for a major part of the superb flavour of this Arabica coffee. According to Joel Lumagbas of the Philippine Coffee Board, whose expertise on all matters pertaining to coffee growing I tapped for a coffee production project in the Ikalahan community of Imugan, Nueva Vizcaya in 2012, women make the best coffee farmers. Why so? Because, he said, they are meticulous in selecting only the fully red, and thus ripest, berries when harvesting by hand. (And in Imugan, as in other traditional Philippine montane farming communities, women have always been the farming experts. In the ancient division of montane agricultural labour, men were responsible for clearing and stabilizing the slopes and preparing them for planting by their womenfolk. I anticipate an especially distinctive Imugan Arabica coffee — I wish to call it Kalahan coffee or Kape Kalahan – arising out of this sustainable development project in 5 – 6 years’ time.)
But the full range and diversity of flavours of Elan Amaro Gayo (EAG), or any other Arabica, coffee is not attained until after harvest. EAG develops its incomparable flavour spectrum as it dries — the seeds (the coffee “beans”), normally two, remain inside the fruits (the coffee “cherries” or “berries”) as they are laid in the sun to dry. It is the natural action of the Ethiopian highland sun gradually working its magic on the coffee fruits — the length of time from about 3 to 5 weeks — that leads to EAG’s enhanced fruitiness, lower acidity, and creaminess or increased “body.”
I promised a high school friend, also a coffee aficionado, quite a while ago a summary of the coffee seminar I attended at Kaffee Kontor, in Bonn’s Altstadt (Old Town). I cannot hope to cover everything, but I shall give a précis of what gives EAG its distinctive character. Whatever method of drying coffee is used (natural, semi-washed, washed), the beans end up with about 12 – 15% moisture. The longer the drying process, the better the taste.
Christiane Hattingen — roaster and Kaffee Kontor’s affable proprietor and a certified coffee sommeliere, who led the seminar and to my knowledge, the sole source of EAG in Bonn — attributes the chocolate and berry notes further developed in EAG to particular attention during the roasting process. It is the Maillard reaction — the same chemical process that occurs as bread bakes and browns — that proceeds throughout roasting that enables complex flavours to further develop. Coffee possesses around 1000 aromatic components, of which only 850 have been analyzed and named. During roasting, the carbohydrates and amino acids in the beans undergo multiple and complex chemical recombinations that bestow upon EAG its unique aromas and flavours. Again, as with drying time, the longer the roasting, the more complex the aroma structures that form.
Finally, the brewing process itself is another contributor to the ultimate taste of our morning cuppa. The quality (freshness) of the beans, the mineral content and character of the water we use, the fineness of the grind, the amount of coffee grounds, the brewing temperature, and length of contact time between water and the ground coffee – all of these affect how our cup of coffee tastes. Additionally, the type of cup we drink it from has an effect as well. A paper or plastic cup in which to serve gourmet or specialty coffee is sheer travesty. I am partial to my favourite mug – a handmade one from a nearby pottery, with a turquoise and freckled cream glaze.
To begin with, I find Bonn water to be excellent – it has neither chemical smells nor tastes. This difference was notable when I drank tap water in Mora d’Ebre, Spain: not a pleasant experience; it was not at all palatable. In Bonn, I find that I can drink water straight from the tap, and it is fresh, pure, and clean, with no detectable taste or smell whatsoever, as water ought to be. And, dare I say it, Bonn water tastes rather “sweet” to me. I have also marked a silkiness and lack of any bitter or harsh notes in my brewed Elan Amaro Gayo once I put two EM (effective microorganism) ceramic beads inside my water boiler.
To the women who grow and harvest Elan Amaro Gayo with care, and the woman who exports it to Germany (half of the world’s coffee harvest goes to the EU), and the woman who roasts it with loving attention here in Bonn — thank you, thank you, thank you most deeply for my lovely morning cuppa!