An Irish chef explores connections with Ethiopian coffee.
It’s a tense moment. It always is, as the cream (shaken, not whipped) slowly pours down the back of the spoon and onto the sweetened, fortified coffee. Kevin Thornton might be one of Ireland’s most skilled and respected chefs, but he knows the risk involved in this ceremonial act of Irish hospitality. And having an audience doesn’t help the nerves.
There are rules to making what Thornton describes as the “great beauty” that is a perfect Irish coffee. Crucial to success is floating the cream on the surface. “When you get that head of Guinness look, that’s when you’ve made a good one,” he explains. Easier said than done, however, “so you’re hoping that the first strand of cream doesn’t go down: Once it holds, you’re in business.”
The Irish coffee was invented in 1942 by an Irish chef to warm up weather-beaten passengers from an aborted cross-Atlantic flying boat flight. As fans of the concoction know, its unique pleasure lies in the contrasts of flavors and taste sensations. “The first thing you get is the cold cream and then the hot liquid,” says Thornton, adding that when the flavor profile is correctly balanced, “you get the coffee first and the whiskey coming second.”
Thankfully, Thornton’s cream holds. After all, if you’re going to visit the hub of Ethiopian coffee trading to teach some of the country’s top coffee professionals how to make an Irish coffee, you want to get it right.
Irish whiskey meets Ethiopian coffee
Though popular throughout many parts of the world, the whiskey-based Irish coffee is not well-known in Ethiopia. But when Ermias Eshetu heard about it, he found himself intrigued.
As the CEO of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, which in 2015 traded nearly 60 percent of the 390,000 metric tons of coffee produced in Ethiopia, Ermias was one of thousands of visitors from over 100 countries who traveled to Dublin for June’s World of Coffee conference.
Ireland, of course, doesn’t produce coffee. But its world-famous coffee cocktail makes great use of the whiskey for which the nation is known, having invented the stuff. Ethiopia, on the other hand, represents the birthplace of Arabica coffee, with thousands of varieties growing wild and a great range cultivated in various parts of the country.
Ermias began to wonder what magic might happen if you paired these two archetypes, and the idea of an Irish-Ethiopian coffee was born. But with so many varieties of Ethiopian coffee to choose from, he needed to put together an A-team of tasters to judge how well each variety worked. Fortunately for Ermias, he recalls, the prominent Irish chef Kevin Thornton just happened to be in Addis Ababa at the time.
Thornton travels to Ethiopia twice a year, to teach at a technical culinary college in the historic town of Lalibela and to check progress at two local cooking schools he helped set up in 2011.
His first visit to the country, which “was all about exchanging knowledge,” proved life-changing for Thornton. He recalls how on his first day in Lalibela, with the late afternoon light coming down into the room in which he stood, overlooking the valley below, he watched a local girl make coffee from scratch. The full coffee ceremony took an hour and a half.
“I had never seen this in my life: Roasting the coffee, taking the skins off, washing it down, pounding it down, and then discarding the first two brews. I was mesmerized,” he adds. “I just fell in love with the place and everything about it.”
Combining flavor profiles
On his most recent trip to Ethiopia, then, Thornton jumped at the invitation extended by Ermias to visit the ECX. “I always try to educate myself and explore and see if I can understand things a bit more,” he says. He teamed up with Mekonnen Hailemichael Salla, head “cupper” at ECX, where he oversees the grading and specification of all the coffee.
From there, the pair worked with some of Ethiopia’s best-known varieties — such as Yirgacheffe, Sidama, Limmu and Harar coffees — to see how their flavor profiles would work in an Irish coffee, recalls Mekonnen.
Interestingly, they found that many of the natural characteristics of the different Ethiopian coffees are accentuated by the addition of whiskey and cream. With the washed bean from Yirgacheffe in the central southern Highlands, for example, the jasmine and floral notes persist but the blueberry character is notably “magnified and longer lasting when it comes through the cream,” Mekonnen says. With the naturally processed beans from the same area, the style’s signature creaminess becomes even more pronounced.
In contrast, with washed beans from Sidama in southern Ethiopia, which offer caramel, spicy and some floral notes, the addition of whiskey accentuates the spicy character. And for naturally processed Harar beans, the mocha and almond notes come through but the signature creaminess is greatly amplified.
“When it comes to using the different Ethiopian coffees in the Irish coffee, each had its own unique character,” says Mekonnen. “Each are very different, so it depends on your coffee flavor preference,” he adds. For Thornton, however, there was a clear winner of the day — but it wasn’t as simple as finding the perfect match.
The Irish chef convinced the Ethiopian tasting team to go off on a creative tangent with him. Their micro-experiment involved infusing a Sidama-based blend of Ethiopian beans with whiskey during the roasting process, with a view toward creating a whiskey-flavored bean for use in specialty coffees. “Nobody’s done it before,” Thornton says with infectious enthusiasm. “The alcohol burns off, but what’s left after the infusion is the character of the whiskey: the toffee flavors, the barrel it was matured in, the barley it’s made with.”
The big question for Thornton was whether those aromas would come through as flavors in the final drink. And they did. “Everything just came together,” he says. “It was really incredible; you taste the coffee but in the coffee you could taste the whiskey flavor more so than in the others we tried. I was so excited that it would work.”
The research is still in early stages, and more work needs to be done to analyze the infused bean and identify its caramelized flavors. “I’m not used to working with alcohol,” adds Mekonnen, “so we’re still working on identifying that character.” But he is excited to research how consumers use coffee in different parts of the world, and which Ethiopian coffee flavor profiles can offer additional character to those specialty coffees.
Thornton is also excited to see where this latest twist in his Irish-Ethiopian adventure might bring him. “We’re very similar people, the Irish and Ethiopians,” he says. “We both come from hardships, and we take nothing for granted. But we’re also open to new ideas — to trying something new, and analyzing afterward.”
Less than 75 years since the Irish coffee was invented by one Irish chef, might another be about to revolutionize it?
Aoife Carrigy is a freelance food, wine and travel writer based in Ireland, where she started her career in food by learning how to make the perfect Irish coffee at the local restaurant in which she worked. Her travels have taken her to many wonderful corners of the world, but Ethiopia remains one of her favorites.
The Perfect Irish-Ethiopian Coffee: A recipe.
• 60 ml freshly brewed Ethiopian coffee
• 30 ml Irish whiskey
• 20 ml cream
• 1 tsp sugar
• 1 roasted coffee bean
Shake the cream in a bottle to thicken to a slow-pouring consistency.
Place a teaspoon into an empty wine glass and pour in some freshly boiled water to heat the glass (the teaspoon will prevent it from cracking with the heat, although it’s best not to use your finest crystal, just in case).
Add the sugar and whiskey. Top up with hot coffee, stirring to fully dissolve the sugar.
Finish with a layer of thickened cream, pouring over the back of a spoon directly onto the surface, and garnish with the coffee bean.