When we think of Ethiopia, we are often drawn to its past, especially when it comes to coffee: As the birthplace of Coffea arabica and one of the first places to fully embrace coffee drinking as a ritual with social and cultural significance, Ethiopia can truly boast the world’s oldest and longest history with this magical plant and beverage. To simply look at Ethiopia as a relic of the coffee-producing world, or to assume that it is entirely wrapped up in tradition would be a mistake, however, and perhaps more so this year than ever when we think of Ethiopia at Cafe Imports, the phrase “back to the future” comes immediately to mind, in more ways than one—even beyond the coffee.
From the landscape itself, to the changes the country’s coffee industry is making to its engagement on the world market, to the innovations and adaptations that are happening at the farm and mill level, even to our own personal involvement there as green-coffee buyers—forward progress is being made here in leaps and bounds, but with one eye always to what came before, even if simply to nod at the heritage and ancient influence that still guides us to this day.
Photos by Claudia Bellinozi, Cafe Imports green-coffee buyer, December 2017
Cafe Imports’ most recent sourcing trip to Ethiopia is actually something of a perfect metaphor for the transitions happening this year, as it also marked the beginning of a “changing of the guard” among our green-coffee buyers: In late November/early December, as the harvest was getting up to full speed, Cafe Imports’ head of sourcing Jason Long embarked on his 14th trip to the country as a buyer, bringing brand-new green-coffee team member Claudia Bellinzoni along for her first visit there.
Claudia joined the Cafe Imports family this year and will be focusing her efforts in Africa, allowing Jason more time and energy to explore new sourcing opportunities and develop new relationships in regions where we haven’t yet set our sights (or our cupping spoons). The trip was an introduction between Claudia and several of our exporting partners in Yirgacheffe, Guji, and Shakiso, and they all took to each other right away. “It was ten days that were very hectic, very intense, and incredibly great,” Claudia said over Skype just a few days after returning to her home office of Berlin. “I learned a lot.”
Though Claudia is an experienced buyer and coffee professional, and has lived in Tanzania, among other places—her passport is very well-stamped—she was impressed by how culturally distinct Ethiopia is. “It’s very different, from a cultural point of view,” she said. “I found it economically more dynamic than some of the other countries I know, and it’s growing economically, with coffee of course being a priority.” She was also moved by the personal relationship that producers have with coffee themselves, something else that is quite different from other growing regions. “It’s a tradition for them, a part of their daily routine, and really part of their culture,” she said. “They’re not just growing it for export, they really love coffee, they are really interested in it, and they have a spiritual and religious background that is very, very deep with coffee.”
As for Jason, he found that traveling with Claudia in a country he knows so well was a re-invigorating experience after having made so many solo trips. “It was fun, and it made it more exciting,” he said. He was also happy to have the time to get to know her more closely as a colleague, since we are often working rather remotely from one another as a small team working across a big planet. “She’s really nice, really smart, very intellectual, very considerate, and ethical—I think that’s extremely important,” Jason said. “She’s also a good cupper,” he says, which is obviously one of the highest compliments an experienced buyer like Jason can give to any fellow professional. Jason explained that he and Claudia cupped in the Addis Ababa office of one of our export partners, whose quality-control agent joined them in the tasting. Jason and Claudia were both pleased and somewhat relieved by how naturally the three of them were in tune with one another.
“He was great, very good with the high-end flavor descriptors—really describing the flavors well. All three of us were really looking at the same thing,” Jason says, while also noting that even where preferences might vary, understanding of objective quality is key. “[Claudia] liked the Naturals that are like really strawberry, and maybe a little too fruity for me—but that’s really just preference. We can determine things about what’s best for the marketplace, and we were all describing the same sensations.”
Claudia agrees with the calibration in the cupping lab. “We cupped together with this guy and we were really happy because he was completely in alignment with us with the scoring and the description of the cups.” One of her favorites, she said, “was like strawberry juice—like actually squeezing strawberries and drinking the juice.” Both Claudia and Jason said the coffees were tasting a bit fresh yet on the table, and they did notice some concerns with the prep and sorting of the cherries at a few of the mills, but the conversations they had with various mill managers seemed fruitful (pardon the pun), and should result in lots that show much better, cleaner, and more attentive care when we start to receive the samples from origin.
Jason thinks that having Claudia along helped to add a new dimension to some of the sourcing plans for this season, and contributed a fresh perspective as well as some new collaborations. “I think they liked some of the ideas we had,” he said. “A younger buyer’s not going to have the same experience in a lot of ways, but she has an enthusiasm and a sense of wonder,” which he said probably contributes to the willingness a partner of long-standing might have to look at a problem or an approach in a new way. (More on this later, too.)
One of the other most noticeable things Jason and Claudia reported from their trip, and which has also been making headlines in eco-news lately, is the increased attention that the Ethiopian government and various other organizations are putting on stopping or at least slowing the rampant deforestation that the country has experienced, especially in the past few decades. In the 16th century, Ethiopia was more than 40 percent forest cover, where today only about 4.4 percent of the country has old-growth or wild forest remaining. Competition for land use is partially to blame: Urbanization and new industrial facilities, as well as pasture land for the nation’s 70 million livestock cattle inspire the widespread razing of trees and other heirloom vegetation. Simultaneously, the reliance on timber as a fuel source in rural areas threatens natural old-growth tree forests, and wild coffee has been vanishing at a startling rate thanks in part to climate change.
In short, the Ethiopia of today when seen from above looks almost nothing like the Ethiopia of the earliest days of Coffea arabica’s lore and legacy, but that “back to the future” mentality has raised hope that the greenery can be replaced and a more sustainable solution to the land management will make things greener from border to border.
Extra efforts to protect the woodlands without displacing the people who live in and rely on them is both time-sensitive and sociologically sensitive, and Jason noticed the difference when he and Claudia were in Guji. “There are a lot of old-growth trees in the area,” he said, “and the government is trying to save some of them, and to prevent people who live there from cutting them down for the charcoal trade.” The government is encouraging farmers to plant coffee around the existing plants, to provide shade and to keep the ecosystem intact.
While deforestation, urbanization, and an increase in the removal of coffee to make room for qat plants are all certainly real concerns for the future of the coffee production and history, the landscape of Ethiopia still retains much of the breathtaking beauty and lush fertility that spawned it in the first place. “The soil, it’s so red,” Claudia said wistfully. “The land is so diverse and beautiful. Not just the landscape, but the vegetation, the plants—the soil itself seems to be so rich. I think the coffee can only be good with a land like this, so many natural resources and soil that looks full of minerals. We saw a green that Jason and myself were both like, wow, this color really exists?”
Though that color does, in fact, exist in nature, unfortunately there were other instances of green that were somewhat surprising and perhaps a little troubling as well—with regards to coffee, anyway: “For the first time, I saw more red and green cherries on the same branches on the same trees,” Jason said, and Claudia echoed him: “We noticed that on the plants we saw many cherries on the same tree that were completely red and beautiful and others that were very green, which is strange for the cherry development to be in such a range, it was very mixed up.” While there are coffee-growing regions throughout the world where blossoms, green cherries, and red cherries can be found on the same branch, this is not as common in Ethiopia, and both buyers wondered what exactly was the root cause. “I couldn’t get a straight answer,” Jason said, “but I think it’s inconsistent rain.” Claudia said she thought that with correct and attentive hand-picking, as well as very selective sorting during processing and drying, we should still expect good quality cups this year. We simply hope this isn’t the new normal.
Perhaps the single most significant “back to the future” development in Ethiopia this year has to do with the market itself, which has been cracked open thanks to sweeping policy changes by the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX), the national body that has overseen and regulated the sale and marketing of Ethiopian coffee since it was established in 2008. The nature of the Exchange made it so farmers were guaranteed an ostensibly more stable price for their output, but by the nature of the institution it also erased much of the possibility not only for coffee traceability (by escaping all but general regional and processing identifiers as well as grade) but also the potential for specialty products, such as could formerly be requested of a single producer or a single mill. Coffee flowing through the ECX did offer some stability but many advocates for specialty and relationship lots were frustrated by what it curtailed from the development side.
This year, however, the ECX rules have changed, and a recent decision from leadership there has made it possible for washing stations and mills to sell coffee directly to buyers, rather than going through the Exchange first. Whether this will be ultimately good or bad for everyone involved—whether coffee farmers will see higher prices, and whether coffee lovers will taste better quality—is yet to be seen, but the possibility of making more direct and transparent connections with producers and mills is exciting, nonetheless. “The partnerships have a good potential,” Claudia said, noting that several of the folks whom she and Jason visited seemed interested and excited to work with Cafe Imports on special preparations or particular small lots of select coffees.
It might be a bit soon to blow the lid off what we’re working on with growers and mills specifically in Ethiopia for this coming arrival season, but if you keep your eyes trained on our website and social media platforms, you may be among the first to know where we’re headed in this land of past, present, and future.