The Alchemist: Semeon Abay

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2013, Joseph Brodsky held a blind cupping of prospective coffees for a select panel of his Ninety Plus Makers. Attending was Ninety Plus’ Ethiopian field director Semeon Abay who was responsible for sourcing and overseeing East African coffee processing. Abay, newly returned from a five-year stint working for Novo Coffee in Denver, was a charming but somewhat mysterious young man who was rumored to have been a child actor.

As the Makers moved down the cupping line, the coffees Abay brought for evaluation ranged between very good to simply excellent. Then they reached the last cup. It quite simply blew minds. Sidelong glances, raised eyebrows, barely suppressed groans of pleasure. This mysto entry was an incredibly complex and layered coffee with tasting notes ranging from white chocolate and macadamia nut to lychee candy and peach. Odd-Steiner Tollefsen took one sip and declared, “That’s going to win a world championship!”

Then Abay let the penny drop. The coffee was his. Developed in secret, with no prior approval, completely off radar of Ninety Plus. Brodsky was incredulous…hovering between ecstasy and a cosmic WTF?

Abay looked down the table and grinned mischievously. “What can I say…I’m dangerous.”

The story came out later: earlier that year, Semeon had been drawn into the buzz centered on top-barista Craig Simon’s groundbreaking coffee hacking with Joseph Brodsky at the Gesha Estates farm in Panama. Although trained as a roaster, Abay felt he had absorbed enough coffee wisdom in his homeland to try processing from the tree forward. He decided on his own volition to manifest a hunch into the improbably delicious.

Semeon chose a small lot of peak harvest, heirloom variety cherries grown at 1800-2000 meters, and rather than processing them in a way that would guarantee quality and a good price, he took the cherries and applied an experimental drying process of his own design. He started by arranging the coffee cherries one layer thick on raised beds for the first several days. After this initial period, the cherries were layered three deep and Semeon would shade the beds at the hottest parts of the day.

“He broke the rules and stacked the coffee in multiple layers, which resulted in multiple styles and temperatures of fermentation in each layer giving it amazing complexity,” says Ben Put, a champion barista and early adopter of Abay’s coffees. “This layered style also slowed the drying time to over 35 days. This extended contact with the cherry has given this coffee incredible sweetness and intense fruit.”

This was later revealed to be the most time-consuming and labor-intensive drying method that Ninety Plus had ever undertaken. Cherries were constantly sorted throughout the process and rotated every hour. Each drying table was individually sampled before being shipped. This style of processing was as unproven as it was innovative.

“Semeon’s intentional non-uniform fermentation style made roasting this coffee very risky,” observes Put “…because the differences between each bean meant that it would roast differently from bean to bean. So, we separated the green coffee by screen size and then roasted and tasted each size separately.”

The results were unexpected, intense, revelatory, and ultimately award-winning. Odd Steiner Tollefsen won the 2015 World Brewers Cup using with the original coffee from 2013. This flew in the face of all conventional coffee wisdom that says that all coffee, no matter how good, goes “baggy” and stale after a year.

“It’s so sweet, and it’s so fruity and so balanced…it’s so flavor-intense,” says Tollefsen, who used Abay’s coffee again at this year’s World Brewer’s Cup. When he opened his bags of competition coffee shortly before traveling to Dublin, Tollefsen was at first bemused, then perplexed.

“When I received this coffee at the roastery I couldn’t believe my eyes, “relates Tollefsen. “It was the strangest selection for different sizes and shapes…tiny, tiny beans that most roasters wouldn’t even consider using. To be honest I was concerned…is this my competition coffee?”

But Tollefsen, a risk-taker himself, stayed on the journey with Abay.

“What is most fascinating is that it’s a quite ordinary Ethiopian coffee. It’s not a single-origin cultivated project…it’s selected smallholder farms of mixed heirloom varieties. But Semeon was thinking outside the box, going against the mainstream in a fearless way. He had deliberately chosen the odd beans, the underdogs, and combined them in a genius pattern…making this ordinary raw material into something truly extraordinary. The key element to Semeon’s processing method is the simplest and oldest method of all…fermentation.

“And done the right way, it tastes like heaven.”

Also published on Medium.