March 3, 2021

“Unlike anything I had ever tasted before”: What is Wush Wush coffee?

Originally found in Ethiopia, Wush Wush is a low-yield, rare variety that has become popular in specialty coffee over the past few years.

Compared to Geisha and other famous rare varieties, Wush Wush has a unique cup profile that can stun and surprise even experienced cuppers. But just why is this variety so popular?

To answer this question and leadrn more, I spoke to Elena Lokteva from Ally Coffee, Patrick Seeney from New Order Coffee, and Jon Allen from Onyx Coffee Lab. They told me about the history and sensory profile of one of the most intriguing varieties in the coffee sector. Read on to find out what they said.

You may also like our article on understanding the myth of heirloom variety coffee.

The origins of Wush Wush

Many notable heirloom varieties from Ethiopia’s coffee growing regions are named after the location where they are first found. Wush Wush is no exception.

Wushwush (no space) is a small area in southwest Ethiopia, not far from the renowned growing regions of Jimma and Sidamo. Wushwush is known for its fertile highlands, where rich, vibrant teas grow, with sensory properties like those of Wush Wush coffee.

Following the path of Geisha, another famed coffee variety hailing from Ethiopia, Wush Wush arrived in South America around 30 years ago.

Today, it can be found in Colombia, where the altitude and fertile growing conditions support the fruitier, delicate, and floral cup profiles that consumers expect from these rarer, more sought-after varieties.

Elena Lokteva is a green coffee buyer for Colombia and Ecuador at Ally Coffee. She says: “I heard stories from producers who adapted seeds from nurseries of Cenicafe (a Colombian Coffee research institute), brought Wush Wush directly from Ethiopia for research purposes, or replanted from farms that are pioneers in Wush Wush production in Colombia.

Elena adds that depending on climate, nutrition, and seed origin, the variety can adapt and change in significant ways. Its tree morphology varies significantly, meaning mature tree selection is required for replanting.

“[I have been told] that Wush Wush has over 20 genotypes and the genome cord is not prone to mutation,” she says. “The mutation could depend on all the factors and conditions where the seed is bred; nutrition, diseases, and so on.

“The truth is that, like all other varieties that were not developed from certified seeds, it could be anything that acquired its morphological structure and genetics from locally bred species through natural mutation.”

Cup profile

Elena elaborates on her tasting experience with Wush Wush: “I [tasted] Wush Wush in Colombia from four different farms several times over the past five years. Each has its own personality, intensity, and unique flavour, with notes like blueberries, vanilla, maple and lavender.

“Sometimes it would have spicy or botanical notes, as well as [flavours of] unripe strawberries. It would be unfair to say that all Wush Wush tastes the same within their variety strains.”

Patrick Seeney is the Director of Coffee at New Order Coffee in Detroit, Michigan. He says that at New Order, the team recently showcased Wush Wush as a newer, rarer offering. 

“We brought this in for our ‘Rareshare’ line of exotic coffees,” he says. “[Wush Wush] seemed like the perfect summer coffee. It was unique, unlike anything I had ever tasted before.”

New Order’s Wush Wush was natural processed, and fermented for 120 hours before being dried on raised beds. Patrick said this allowed the sweetness to develop and gave the coffee an almost candy-like intensity. 

“[The coffee tasted] just like a watermelon Jolly Rancher which was a nice ‘aha’ moment for people that have a hard time picking out tasting notes,” he says. “[It also had] strawberry and floral notes.”

Although these kinds of flavour profiles might not suit the traditional palate, Patrick says New Order leverages Wush Wush in a different way.

“When a customer wants to try something different, it is what we recommend,” he says. “We also sell it as an espresso tonic and it is a really nice and fruity, refreshing drink.

“Customers really like it; it is a dessert coffee for most.”

Jon Allen is the owner and Head of Coffee at Onyx Coffee Lab in Arkansas. He says that it was a customer’s keen interest in the variety that brought about their first Wush Wush coffee purchase.

“We roasted it for a customer of ours, who is a big fan of high-end specialty coffees; they were in contact with the farmer directly,” he says. “It was like next level direct trade, where the customer contacts the producer to pick the coffee, and then pick the roaster.”

Even with this unconventional sourcing method, Jon says the coffee still worked well with Onyx’s branding. He says customers enjoyed the flavour profile. “It was very tropical, and very, very sweet,” Jon says. “Almost sickly sweet, with flavours of date, or banana, or overripe fruit.”

What should roasters expect from Wush Wush?

As their distinctive flavour profile, Wush Wush beans are also unconventional in appearance. When profiling this coffee for the first time, Patrick says roasters need to take care. 

“The beans are all so different and really small, which meant that the air flow would fling them into the chaff collector,” he says.

“I roast using a fluid bed roaster, so the biggest issue I found was ensuring that I didn’t have too much air left during the roast.”

Smaller-sized beans are generally denser, meaning that the sugars develop further during the roast. Ultimately, this means sweeter and more complex flavour profiles in the cup.

Experimental processing methods are also common with varieties like Wush Wush, as producers attempt to elevate the fruitier characteristics of the coffee.

While these processes can result in high-quality and unique flavours, too much fermentation can produce overly acidic coffees that have metallic flavours.

Jon says he had some difficulties in determining a roast profile that highlighted the desirable characteristics of Wush Wush. “The coffee is natural processed, and it was wild, a little more fermented than we wanted,” he says.

“[We dialled] that back [and left] the good [characteristics] intact.”

Understanding some of the common processing techniques that producers use for Wush Wush will help roasters adjust their profile accordingly. Long periods of fermentation and “funky”, sweet, and fruity flavours are common in many Wush Wush lots.

Wush Wush: What does the future hold?

In Jon’s experience, rare and unknown coffee varieties can be hit-or-miss with customers. However, he says that Wush Wush has the uniqueness and sweetness that consumers tend to enjoy. 

“If it doesn’t say Geisha, it’s usually pretty hard to move,” Jon says. “[But Wush Wush] moved really well.”

However, even though the coffee has a desirable sensory profile, it is important to consider what the market is looking for.

Naturally, people compare any rare or expensive variety to Geisha. Jon draws parallels: “I think that Geisha was so profoundly different than what was being cultivated at the time,” he says. “It really just had a lot of steam behind it.

“I don’t think anything will take over again like Gesha did, because that separation just doesn’t exist anymore like it did ten (or so) years ago.”

Elena adds that Wush Wush provides producers with a solid base coffee for experimental processing, allowing them to achieve a wide range of flavour profiles. 

“It seems like a perfect base for any type of fermentation: double anaerobic, lactic, acetic, aerobic, bleached, cold fermentation, and so on,” she says. 

However, Jon warns that because of this, some of the more delicate natural sensory characteristics of the variety can be overshadowed. 

“With the development of processing and drying techniques, [as well as] experimentation [with] bacteria strains, anaerobic fermentation, and so on, we’re tasting Caturra and Bourbon and Typica [coffees] that you…might think [are] Wush Wush,” he says.

Elena notes that Wush Wush has great potential to succeed in different international markets, and not just because of its flavour profiles. She tells me that it is also a robust crop that suits a range of different climates. 

This is especially pertinent at a time when climate change is reducing the amount of suitable farmland for cultivating arabica plants around the world. Resilient, versatile varieties are already becoming more desirable among producers.

“Wush Wush is a unique variety,” she says. “It has excellent production potential and sufficient tolerance to drought, flood, hot weather and chilly temperatures at higher altitudes.

“It fits perfectly in the Colombian mild category, which opens doors for Colombian specialty coffee to enter new markets.”

Both Wush Wush and Geisha have followed similar paths through the coffee supply chain. They both originate from Ethiopia, have been relocated to the Americas, and have unique sensory qualities that specialty coffee consumers often look for in the cup. 

However, while Geisha is now a force to reckon with in the global specialty coffee sector, Wush Wush is still very much emerging. Producers, traders, and roasters alike are still trying to improve its profile and visibility in the sector.

Ultimately, thanks to its highly desirable flavour profile, resilience, and hardiness, it may not take long before this happens. Next time you visit your local specialty coffee shop, keep an eye out for this unique coffee. It could have a big part to play in the decades to come.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on coffee varieties debunked: why not all Geishas taste the same.

Photo credits: Onyx Coffee Lab

Perfect Daily Grind

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!