Chances are, you have never tasted wild coffee. Only an estimated 5% of Ethiopia's production is wild, what is known locally as "forest coffee" (Cultivated plantings in Ethiopia are called "garden coffee"). Willem Boot, a noted importer and an expert on Ethiopia, thinks it could be even less, around 1% or 2%.
But that tiny amount accounts for the most diverse sampling of coffee in the world. By one estimate, Ethiopia is home to 98.8% of arabica coffee's gene pool. Most of that diversity is found in the forest.
How many wild coffees are there? It's hard to say – the scholarship doesn't exist. The number some kick around is 1,000, while others think it's higher. These coffees are the stuff of myth. They fire up the imaginations of many leading traders and roasters in the industry's creative class because there's a decent chance that they include some of the world's most spectacular and distinctive coffees. The reasoning goes: if the farmed coffee of Ethiopia is (at its best) that good, just imagine what has yet to be discovered, and what it might taste like if it was processed carefully.
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How many strange, delicious coffees are growing wild in Ethiopia? We will never know. Just when we're ready to appreciate the unfamiliar – this generation of tastemakers is fascinated by the peculiar, the mind-blowing – it looks like coffee's most diverse catalogue of flavours will steadily diminish, and probably disappear. The loss of tonnage will be made up elsewhere, but the loss of possibility will be absolute.