Among coffee-producing countries, Ethiopia holds near-legendary status not only because it’s the “birthplace” of Arabica coffee, but also because it is simply unlike every other place in the coffee world. Unlike the vast majority of coffee-growing countries, the plant was not introduced as a cash crop through colonization. Instead, growing, processing, and drinking coffee is part of the everyday way of life, and has been for centuries, since it was discovered growing wild in the lush southern forests of Sidama.
From an outsider’s perspective, this adds to the great complexity that makes Ethiopian coffee so hard to fully comprehend—culturally, politically, and economically as well as simply culinarily.
“In Central and South America, the small specialty coffee farmers can be kind of like winemakers: They want to show you what they’re doing, and their process, and the farm—they’re excited about it,” says Jason Long, Café Imports’ CEO and the head buyer of our Ethiopian coffees. “In Ethiopia, where every farmer has about 0.7 of a hectare of coffee planted, it’s not like that. They do drink the coffee, but they’re not going to say, ‘This has apricot and citrus overtones.’”
Where the specialty-coffee market savors the heady berry aromas of a natural or the delicate tea-like florals of a washed Yirgacheffe, Ethiopians see coffee as more of a catalyst for social and familial interaction: The coffee ceremony is an hour-long event shared among friends, family, neighbors, or associates, and while it’s certainly partially about the coffee, it isn’t, strictly speaking about the coffee, if that makes sense.
Similarly, while much of the Ethiopian economy is about the coffee, it also isn’t, strictly speaking, about the coffee. “Ethiopia gets a large percent of its economy through foreign exchange,” Jason says. “When coffee prices were low, Ethiopian Airlines couldn’t buy jet fuel, and Coca Cola couldn’t buy bottle caps. Ethiopia has a real need to get foreign exchange, which is one of the reasons that the government created the ECX.”
The “ECX” stands for the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, a market established by the Ethiopian government in 2008 with the intention of democratizing marketplace access to farmers growing beans, corn, coffee, and wheat, among other commodities. As farmers in Ethiopia typically own very small plots of land and are largely sustenance farmers—growing what crops they need for household use and selling the surplus for cash—it was decided that standardization would be the most egalitarian way to improve economic health and stability in the agricultural sector.
In response to the tremendous disparity that existed within the agrarian economy, leaders in Ethiopia strove to eliminate the barriers to sale by giving farmers an open, public, and reliable market to which to sell their products for a set and relatively stable price. At its inception, the ECX rules dictated that any coffee not produced by a private estate or a co-operative society was required to be sold through the Exchange, which established guarantees for farmers, but by design, it took the “specialty” coffees we love so much and turned them into a commodity—escaping all traceability aside from the most basic regional and grade information.
“The need for the ECX wasn’t stupid: There was a need for foreign exchange, and the thought was, ‘Let’s have transparent prices like the [National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers],’” says Jason, who had been buying Ethiopian coffees more directly since before the installation of the ECX. “Commodities have transparent prices, they do help in that way. It’s just that they also took a unique premium product and tried to standardize it.”
Part of the definition of a “commodity” is that it must be replaceable: For instance, 100 bags of Grade 1 washed Yirgacheffe bought in December must be of equivalent quality to 100 bags of Grade 1 washed Yirgacheffe bought in August, period. No matter who grew the coffee, no matter the variety or the more esoteric “flavor notes” we obsess over in specialty coffee: Coffees are assigned grades based on their uniformity, cleanliness, and presence or absence of defect.
In other words, commodities are not romantic, and they’re certainly not sexy—even if they taste great.
After pushback from the specialty-coffee industry and several rounds of intense negotiation, a later iteration established that washing-station information was made available only after the coffees were purchased, though certainly tracing them down to the individual producers would prove impossible. In order to piece together a full container from one specific washing station, for instance, a buyer would need to purchase vast quantities of coffee in the hopes that they will wind up with enough bags from the same mill to put together for marketing purposes. While certain regional characteristics were consistent from lot to lot, it became virtually impossible to repeatedly buy coffees from the exact same washing station or groups of smallholders.
“The ECX traceable lots were, in a way, too complex to share all the information [about the coffee and the buying practices] and have it be received and comprehended, Jason says. “It was at a complexity level that took time and investment to truly understand it.”
Just a few months ago, in March 2017, the ECX voted to allow direct sales of coffee from individual washing stations, which will not only allow for increased traceability, but will also allow for repeat purchases and relationship building all along the chain—a change that increases the potential for higher prices to the farmers.
“The goals going forward are also to find small private farms, so we can have a better selection and pay a premium that goes back to the farmers,” says Jason.
Regardless of the seemingly constant stream of changes to policy and procedure in Ethiopian coffee sourcing, one thing remains the same: There are some truly spectacular coffees coming out of the country, and their arrival is always a moment to be celebrated!
This year we have both washed and natural lots coming from several different washing stations in various microregions around Yirgacheffe, in addition to coffees from Sidamo. The diversity of profile among these relatively small geographic areas is remarkable. Here is what we typically expect from some of the coffees:
Adado: Delicate stone fruit with citrus and floral layers that create a nice balanced structure.
Aricha: Complex and almost tropical, with a juicy fruit base and a sugary, floral sweetness.
Beriti: Prominent florals backed by a creamy citrus.
Chelchele: Cooked-sugar sweetness more like toffee or caramel, almond, and a floral, citrus overtone.
Kochere: Fruit tea backed by citrus and stone fruit.
Konga: Peach and apricot—more floral stone fruit—along with a strong, tart citrus.