Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a relatively new origin for us, and one that we love. It produces coffees that are like the finest champagne: refined, complex and simply exquisite.

Ethiopia produces some of the most mind-blowingly complex, elegant and nuanced coffees in the world, and some of the most sought-after coffees in the industry. You can recognise an Ethiopian coffee by scent alone – as soon as the beans are ground, they release a tantalising and fragrant tea-like aroma. Once brewed, the delicate fruit acids and floral notes combine to create an unforgettable, intricate cup of flavour with a characteristic sweetness.

HISTORY

Ethiopia is often widely acknowledged as the birthplace of coffee, and this may not be far from the truth; recent genetic testing has confirmed that the main species of Coffea arabica likely originated in Ethiopia. This means that, unlike in other countries, the plant was not introduced there by others.

Ethiopia also has the most ‘heirloom’ varieties of coffee in the world. The term heirloom refers to seeds that are passed down from generation to generation, or farm to farm, over many years. Amazingly, the genetic diversity of Ethiopia’s coffee alone is more than is found in the rest of the world combined. The most common Ethiopian heirloom varieties are Kudhome, Gesha, and Djimma.

Coffee was probably exported as early as the 17th century, but became a significant trade in Ethiopia from the 19th century, and is now responsible for around 70% of all export earnings across the country. An estimated 15 million Ethiopians are employed by the coffee industry, with 3.5 million bags of coffee exported annually – that’s around 210 million kilograms of coffee output every year! Ethiopia is also one of few countries where the population actually consumes a significant part of their coffee production themselves, with a further three million bags of coffee consumed at home. The growing, processing, and drinking of coffee has been a part of everyday life for Ethiopians for centuries, ever since the trees were discovered growing wild.

PRODUCTION

There are four main coffee production systems in Ethiopia:

  • Forest coffeeis harvested from coffee trees growing wild without any human intervention; it makes up around 5% of the coffee production in the country.
  • Semi-forest coffee allows farmers to introduce different varieties into the forest, or take out others, and to thin canopies or remove underbrush as needed. This production system makes up around 25% of coffee production in the country and is most common in the csouthwest, with farmers being strategic about the varieties they grow, usually based on how the coffees perform.
  • Estate coffees are generally from medium to large farms – of up to hundreds or thousands of hectares in size – owned by investors in the southwest. This accounts for around 10% of the coffee in Ethiopia.
  • Garden coffee is the other main coffee production system, where coffee is grown on very small lots around the grower’s home. A large majority of these growers have just a few hundred trees from the local heirloom variety, on less than a hectare of land, with garden coffee making up an estimated 50% of the total production in Ethiopia. While it is common in the south, garden coffee is also grown in the eastern and western parts of the country in Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, Guji, Hararghe and Wellega.

PROCESSING

Ethiopian coffees are processed as fully washed, eco-pulped, or natural. While coffees were traditionally naturally processed in Ethiopia, the washed method has become more common, with more than 50% of all coffee now processed using this method, which highlights a coffee’s more delicate, floral notes.

Generally, washing stations first purchase coffee from the surrounding smallholder farmers. This means that one 100-bag lot of coffee can be made up of cherries from hundreds of farmers that deliver to the station daily. Each day the coffees are hand sorted before they go into production, and tagged with a date and grade.

Washed coffees are pulped with a disc pulper, which removes the fruit and skin, and then graded by density in water. The parchment with mucilage is fermented underwater for 24–48 hours, depending on the effects of temperature and the weather conditions. The coffee is then graded in the washing channels by water flow, which separates the coffees by density. It is then soaked for 12–24 hours in fresh, clean water before being moved to drying tables.

Alternatively, eco-pulped coffees have their mucilage removed mechanically (rather than via fermentation, as above), which saves water (and can be adjusted to specific levels of mucilage removal to produce honey coffees, though this is not yet common). After being hand sorted, the coffees are put through the eco-pulper, which removes the skin, pulp, and mucilage through a centrifugal device. This eliminates the need to ferment the coffee in order to remove the mucilage. The eco-pulper usually leaves 10–20% of mucilage on the parchment, and most producers then remove the rest by soaking it in clean water inside concrete tanks for up to 12 hours. Washed coffees are best dried at higher altitudes, and the parchment is normally dried in the sun for 10–20 days, depending on the weather. The coffee is covered in shade nets at midday and overnight.

Coffees that are naturally processed require the same attention to detail, and are usually processed the later end of the harvest period, when the coffee is peaking at higher altitudes. The ripe cherries are carefully selected and hand sorted to achieve a sweeter and cleaner end product. The first phase of drying involves spreading the coffee in thin layers on tables, moving it carefully to avoid damaging the fruit. This first part is crucial to avoiding fermented flavours, and coffee should reach the ‘raisin’ stage at about 25% moisture in a few days. From 25–12% moisture, the layers are built up and constantly shifted and moved during the day, and rested at night. This natural process requires a lot of labour and attention in order to achieve high quality levels, as uncontrolled drying can increase the fruity flavours of the coffee and make it unstable, while drying too slowly can allow mould to develop or result in other irregular flavours. After the coffee is processed, it is typically held in the warehouses at the washing stations before being trucked to Addis Ababa for sale. The washing stations normally produce up to 150 bags of parchment as one lot.

REGIONS

There are three trademarked coffee-growing regions in Ethiopia. The first, Sidamo, is a large growing region in the fertile highlands to the south of Lake Awasa, in the Rift Valley. It is made up of more than 20 ‘woredas’ or administrative districts, each with varying microclimates and altitudes. There are at least 50 cooperatives, as well as many private buying stations, with over 200 washing stations around the various districts. Sidamo is known for having the perfect conditions for coffee, with an altitude of 1,500–2,200m above sea level, generous rainfall, and fertile soil.

The second, Yirgacheffe, is part of the Sidamo region in southern Ethiopia, but coffees from this area have become so well known and sought after that it’s been sub-divided into its own micro-region and trademarked by the Ethiopian government. Most of the coffee in the heavily populated Yirgacheffe region grows at an altitude of 2,000m above sea level or higher, with around 62,000 hectares of garden coffee grown in the steep, fertile forests.

The third trademarked region is Harrar. Coffees grown here are almost always processed naturally and are traditionally classified as longberry (large), shortberry (smaller) or Mocha (peaberry). The coffees come from wild native trees on small farms in the eastern part of Ethiopia, and have a nutty, chocolatey profile, which reflects the slightly more arid climate of this region. These coffees are often used in espresso blends, rather than as single origin coffees.

Other regions like Djimma and Limu also produce excellent coffees, although they are less well known than the trademarked regions. Djimma, in the southwest of Ethiopia, is one of the larger producers of coffee in the country, with many commercial grade coffees being grown here. The Limu region is also in the southwest, located 1,100–1,900m above sea level, and the washed coffee here is considered to be one of Ethiopia’s best highland-grown coffees.

ECX

In Ethiopia, commodities such as wheat, maize, sesame, and coffee are sold through a trading platform called the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX), considered to be an equalising market force for sellers and buyers. On arrival at the ECX, all coffee is repackaged and categorised according to cup profile and quality, before being auctioned to the highest bidder. As 90% of coffee comes through the ECX, this has resulted in a lack of traceability in the market; in the past, it has been incredibly difficult for roasters, importers and buyers to determine the precise and accurate origin of the coffee.

However, changes made as recently as 2018 have allowed producers with privately owned washing stations to sell their coffees directly, outside of the ECX, in an effort to create the opportunity for more people to export traceable coffees. This means buyers are now able to fully trace their coffees directly to the washing stations. This, in turn, allows stations to pay a second dividend back to the farmers when the coffees are sold at a premium. This positive change encourages farmers to deliver better quality cherries, and it encourages washing stations to invest in producing higher quality lots.

HOW WE BUY COFFEE IN ETHIOPIA

All of the Ethiopian coffees purchased by Melbourne Coffee Merchants are selected on the basis of their exceptional cup profile first and foremost. This drives our purchasing decisions every year. We look for exceptional washed lots that are complex, elegant, floral and tea-like. We also buy well-processed naturals when we come across them, and look for lots that are intensely sweet, rich and fruit-driven, but also clean and balanced.

Ethiopia is an incredibly complex origin to source from. We began sourcing directly in 2014, and are slowly building relationships with washing stations and single producers, and improving traceability of the coffees we source as these relationships deepen. Our goal is to have longstanding relationships with all the washing stations and single producers we work with, and we’re confident that this will be possible in the next two years.

This year, we have purchased several washed and natural lots from Yirgacheffe, Guji and Djimma, which are all traceable back to privately owned washing stations and/or farms. The quality of these coffees is exceptional; they are all stunning examples of what this incredible country can produce.