A roaster’s guide to “heirloom” coffee

Matteo Pavoni
December 3, 2021
heirloom ethiopian coffee

Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee and the world’s fifth-largest producer today, is virtually unrivalled in the genetic diversity of its beans.

Home to more than 130 widely cultivated regional or local landraces, its farmers produce coffee with characteristics ranging from heavy and winey or floral and tea like.

“Heirloom” is a term traditionally applied as a catch-all to Ethiopian coffee varieties. It emerged around the same time as the specialty coffee movement, when buyers classified a mixture of varieties from the same lot as “heirloom”.

As transparency and traceability in the coffee supply chain improves, the term has begun to fall somewhat out of favour. However, understanding what it is and its role in the coffee sector remains fundamental for roasters.

To find out more about heirloom coffee, I spoke with the founder and CEO of Impact Roasters, Daniel Halalla.

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heirloom ethiopian coffee farmers
Heirloom is a term used to describe a mix of varieties from the same lot

What does heirloom mean?

According to estimates, there are between six and ten thousand coffee varieties in Ethiopia. Each one has its own set of distinct characteristics, which are further influenced by differences in growing conditions, processing methods, and farming techniques.

Owing to this great diversity and a lack of genetic testing, the term “heirloom” is often used to encompass the many different coffees that come from Ethiopia. Specifically, it refers to one or more unknown varieties coming from the same lot.

Daniel was born in Ethiopia and grew up roasting coffee with his mother. He tells me that although heirloom is the umbrella term for Ethiopian varieties, most of the country’s coffees are delineated by the region from which they are grown.

“You often hear Ethiopian coffees being referred to by their growing region – such as Jimma, Yirgacheffe, and Sidama – rather than varieties like Bourbon or Typica,” he says.

“This is because most of the beans are small and irregular compared to other African or Latin American coffees. They are not hybrid and they have just been there for centuries; so they are mainly named after the area from which they come.”

Today, thanks to the work of World Coffee Research, the Jimma Agricultural Research Centre (JARC), and scientists such as Getu Bekele, it is possible to distinguish between two main groups of Ethiopian coffee varieties: regional landraces and the JARC-improved varieties.

Regional landraces are broadly defined as coffees that grow wild in Ethiopian forests.

JARC-improved varieties, on other hand, are those developed by the JARC, one of Ethiopia’s most important agricultural federal research centres. There are currently around 40 varieties that fall into this category.

heirloom coffee cherries
Region, climate, and processing methods can all influence the characteristics of heirloom coffees

What are the characteristics of heirloom coffees?

Ethiopian heirloom coffees deliver considerably different cup profiles depending on a number of factors. These range from altitude and soil quality to shade and average rainfall. Some can even vary from one forest to the next within the same region.

As a result, it’s notoriously difficult to pin down the characteristics of an heirloom coffee – which can make the name somewhat problematic.

“All Ethiopian coffees are named heirloom,” Daniel explains, “but Yirgacheffe heirloom can be totally different to Jimma Heirloom or Kaffa Heirloom, for example.

“So the term is very general and the characteristics in the cup can change. It is also very complicated because it is believed that Ethiopian accounts for around 5,000 different varieties. So, of course, there is huge diversity in genetics and flavours.”

However, one of the most noticeable influences on heirloom coffee’s characteristics is undoubtedly processing methods.

Natural or dry processed heirlooms can be funky and sweet with rich, fruity flavours. Whereas fully washed heirlooms tend to deliver higher acidity and a cleaner aftertaste. Honey processed heirlooms generally fall somewhere in the middle.

roasting beans
Roasters may need to take a different approach to the beans depending on their growing region

How to roast heirloom coffee?

Due to their vast genetic diversity, coffees from Ethiopia tend to be fairly irregular in shape and size. It is therefore important to take a careful approach to roasting in order to achieve even development.

Daniel explains that while this somewhat extends to coffees from the same farm, the focus should be predominantly on regions.

“In my experience, microlot coffee from the same area or village might have subtle irregularity,” he says. “But they are easier to roast evenly.

“However, if you have a certain roasting approach for a Jimma Heirloom, you’ll probably need to change it when you roast a Yirgacheffe Heirloom because they are considerably different. Jimma beans, for example, tend to be bigger in size, so they’ll need a different approach.”

As well as region, it’s also important to consider the processing method. Washed coffees tend to be denser than natural coffees, which means roasters should add slightly more heat during roasting to penetrate the structure of the beans.

Finally, take into account the preferences of your customers. If you’ve noticed they tend to prefer espresso roasts, then don’t be afraid of extending the development time.

If, on the other hand, they’ve shown an interest in the subtle characteristics of the coffee, then you might consider ending the roast just after first crack. This way, you will maintain all the distinctive flavours inherent to the beans without tipping them in favour of the roast.

Ultimately, the best approach is to continually taste the outcome of the roast through cupping. It is the best way to understand what needs tweaking by applying your sensory skills and experience in a way that many customers don’t have the means to do.

heirloom coffee
High-barrier sustainable packaging is essential to preserving the flavours and aromas of heirloom coffee

Although the term “heirloom” may be falling out of favour, understanding its significance to the coffee industry remains important. For roasters, knowing how to approach heirloom coffee is the key to highlighting all the distinct characteristics influenced by terroir and processing methods.

To preserve the freshness of your heirloom coffee, sustainable high-barrier coffee bags are essential. Not only do they protect the coffee from exposure to external factors, such as oxygen, light, and moisture, they also showcase a commitment to the environment.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable coffee packaging. Our expert design team can help you create the perfect bags, all the way from concept to completion.

For information on our recyclable coffee bags, contact our team.

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