Feb/Mar/April 2013: Origin Issue: Ethiopia

We asked Aleco and Thompson, just back from a sourcing trip to Ethiopia, to share some thoughts on the country, and sourcing coffee there.

Why is Ethiopia an important coffee-producing origin for Sweet Maria’s? Why do you go so often?

We purchase more coffee from Ethiopia than any other origin. Ethiopian coffees are floral and sweet; in a way they are incomparable to any other coffee origin. Kenya, Rwanda, Guatemala, and Colombia: all these and others can have amazing coffees. But Ethiopia is unique not only for the intensely aromatic flavor profiles, but also as the birthplace of the Arabica coffee plant itself.

We like to visit Ethiopia early in the harvest season (October or November) to see the progress of the crop and establish buying strategies. Later, we like to go back to cup separate lots from the wet mills and begin constructing shipments. Hopefully we find something great that we didn’t necessarily plan on getting otherwise. We often go 3 to 4 times during the harvest and after, which means we are dedicating a good chunk of time and expense to be on the ground in Ethiopia. The short answer is that Ethiopia is worth it!

What is different about working with farms in Ethiopia versus other places, like Central America?

Ethiopia is unique geographically and culturally, and both of those factors are at play in the coffee sector. The coffee producing areas are heavily forested in the West and most of the South. This type of coffee farming is unlike anything you experience anywhere else in the coffee world. Growers talk about their production in terms of how many trees they have instead of how much land. In most instances they’re more like backyard gardens than farms. This is where the vast majority of coffee is from; these small holder farms that are organized in farmer cooperatives. It is rare that you go to Ethiopia and buy from an estate or farm; there are very few of them.

Why does Sweet Maria’s offer so many Ethiopian coffees throughout the year?

Because Ethiopian coffees are so special in quality and hold up better than any other origin over time. It may have something to do with better drying conditions or storage in the capital Addis Ababa, which is an ideal place because of its cool, dry climate. It’s hard to say exactly, but Ethiopia is one of the lucky origins that stays fresher than the others.

What regions of Ethiopia are most interesting to you now?

The regions in the West (Agaro, Kaffa, Illubabor) are exciting to us because they were only known for their low-grade, dry-processed coffees a decade ago. A major blend component for large, commercial grade coffee roasters. The project work we’ve done with our partners out there gets better and more expansive each season. Something new and great appears annually. By offering technical crop assistance to increase cup quality, as well as business assistance to guide the nascent cooperatives toward financial stability, it’s a winning formula for us as well as the farmers. They are receiving higher prices and a better “second payment” bonus after the harvest than any of the well known coops from Sidama and Yirga Cheffe.

The government changed the rules on how coffee is exported several years ago, allowing only cooperative “Unions” and private farms to export with full transparency about the coffee origin. All other coffees must be tendered through the ECX (the Ethiopian Coffee Exchange) and the traceability of the coffee is lost. This move was made to increase the monetary value, build trust between buyer and seller, eliminate price fixing, and make the prices more transparent to the farmer. It’s had some success, but the limits on direct dealing have hurt traceability of lots. We have found ways to deal with this by working with Unions better, but in Harar we haven’t found the quality of coffee we want from the Unions. Hopefully we will this season.

Working with the Unions or coops can be complicated and rather mysterious, especially in the Southern areas (Sidama-Yirg). Not all coops are transparent in the way they work, and they aren’t able to maximize quality by keeping quality standards for the ripeness of the coffee cherry their member/farmers are delivering. There are often problems with maintaining the wet-processing standards at the mills, too. Somehow, these amazing coffees come from rather haphazard situations. Perhaps it is another reason that our work in the Western zones is rewarding. And we see the positive effect on the lives of the farmers on each visit.

Coffee is widely consumed in Ethiopia; it is a ritual. Ethiopians perform the coffee ceremony by roasting, grinding and brewing the coffee over a small charcoal fire. They do this daily or multiple times a day. Each part of the process has a name, as does each tool or utensil, including the jebena, the spouted pot they brew the coffee in “cowboy style”. Ethiopians also make a tea from the dried skins of the coffee fruit, called Qishr or Gesher, as well as a rather unpleasant tea from the dried and lightly roasted leaves of the coffee plant, called Koti. Ethiopia has many connections to coffee on all fronts.

There are countless numbers of varietals growing in Ethiopia. I’ve heard agronomists say upwards of 1,000 different varietals. Again, Arabica coffee is native to Ethiopia. The unfortunate situation there is that the government is strict about sharing information, or rather not sharing it all. If you ask a farmer what varietals he or she grows they will tell you Sidama or Yirga Cheffe or Agaro or Bedele or whichever depending on their location. They haven’t been given the information either.

What does a farm look like in Ethiopia? What does coffee mean to Ethiopians?

The trees are slim and spindly, don’t have many leaves and produce less fruit in comparison to other varietals we see around the world. They are survivors, which is essentially how coffee growth began in the wild forests prior to seeds being commercially cultivated. Coffee is a part of Ethiopian culture, unlike in other countries. It’s much more than a paycheck. In some areas of the West I found farmers who didn’t want to trim their trees after the harvest (which is good for plant health and fruit production) because they felt the tree is sacred.

What types of coffee are grown in Ethiopia? What are “Heirloom Varietals”? Are Grandma and Grandpa really handing down coffee seeds to their children?

Heirloom varietals are ones that are unique to the origins of different producing areas or producing eras. What we mean is they were introduced over a long period of time and naturalized to the local climate. The ones replanted by farmers are simply the ones that worked. By default it is safe to say that virtually all Ethiopian cultivars are heirloom; no new cultivars or hybrids have been introduced to the country. And why would they?

What’s the most interesting experience you had on the last trip to Ethiopia?

The single best thing I saw on this last trip to Ethiopia was the native dancing at a local venue in Addis. The style, the rhythm and general positive energy in the whole place makes for the best nights. The venue is called a Tej House, tej being the locally produced honey mead served in these beautiful glass flasks called bereles. But it’s less about drinking than the culture of dance and community. In the Tej House, a musician plays the masenqo, a singlestringed lute, with amazing ability, while accompanied by drums. This strolling minstrel, called an azmaris, sings both traditional songs and improvised tunes to both praise and insult the visitors. Everyone laughs it off, but I think the adlib lyrics can be pretty harsh. – Tom, Aleco, Erica