We believe Ethiopian coffees are entitled to have a special place in every coffee lover’s heart. It can be so pure and full of flavor nuances. They can be more like fruit juice or fruit tea than what we think of as coffee. And maybe that is just what coffees should be like?
Ethiopia is a diverted and a complicated place to work in. Exporters know what they are looking for and will be cupping through loads of coffees every year to choose the exceptional ones. They are usually buying both fully washed and natural coffees from Yirgacheffe, Guji, Sidamo and places in the west like Agaro, Limu and the greater Jimma area. The coffees can be from both Cooperatives and private washing stations as well as from medium to larger farms. Many of Ethiopians are used in competitions and for signature coffees. Generally they are used from everything like different drip and pour over coffees to Espressos. They also hold up very well, and we have seen Ethiopian coffees at the peak more than a year after harvest.
Ethiopia has a huge range of flavor profiles dependent on where the coffees are grown. They are trying to find a wide range, and select the best representatives for any region with great potential, and seek the ones with most uniqueness and complexity. Finding great coffees in Ethiopia requires a good insight in the complexity of the country, regions the trade and politics. The coffees can be extremely bright, crisp and at the same time full of flavors and sweetness. But even from the same exporters, regions and suppliers it’s also mediocre coffees that can be nutty, astringent, unbalanced, full of quakers etc. They always taste and separate out and select coffees with certain and distinct flavor profile through extensive cupping.
They do work strategically towards our suppliers, and have many returning Cooperatives and washing stations that they have supported over many yea
rs. The office and cupping lab also attracts a lot of “new” farmers and producers. There is a constant flow of “new” producers approaching us with their coffees. This way they get to see a very broad range of coffees from all over Ethiopia. They are also happy to analyze coffees and give feedback to producers that they are currently not working with.
Their staff in Ethiopia are also there to chase and follow up the producer and the deliveries, samples of stock lots, milling, pre-shipment samples, shipment, financing. This is crucial to access the best qualities and to ensure efficient milling, logistics and quality control.
THE STRUCTURE AND SUPPLY CHAIN
Exporters are usually buying coffees from Cooperatives where they have established relations over time, private farms that sells directly to them, and private Washing stations that are offering their coffees to exporters through the ECX (Ethiopian Commodity Exchange), or now also directly to them. They changed the system and regulations in 2017, so it is now “allowed” and completely in the open to buy directly from private washing stations.
All the washing stations are purchasing coffee cherries from the surrounding smallholders. A typical smallholder can have a few 100 trees in their garden from the local Ethiopian Heirloom varietal. Meaning one 100 bags lot of coffee can consist of cherries from hundreds of farmers. The daily coffee deliveries from the farmers will be mixed in the process for that day, and get a tag for the date and the grade. The coffees are either processed as traditionally fully washed coffees, eco pulped or as naturals.
The cooperative coffees will be bought directly from the Cooperative Unions that is the umbrella organizations, and acts as the marketer and exporter of all Cooperative coffees in Ethiopia.
The coffees from the private producers (washing stations that buys coffees from local smallholders) have the past years been bought through the ECX. These coffees are always selected purely based on it’s flavor profile and uniqueness at origin through extensive cupping.
A new “window” opened up in 2017, that again allows private producers outside of the cooperative structures to sell directly to importers. Private producer Meaning the tracesability will be 100% and fully official.
It’s mainly small gardens belonging to a family. On average farmers are having a farm size of less than 1 hectares. Most coffees are organic by default. Organic compost is common, pruning less common. A farmer can typically have less than 1500 trees per hectare, and 1 tree is typically producing cherries equal to less than 100 – 200 grams of green coffee.
A mix of local varieties. Such as native coffee of forest origin transferred to family smallholder plots. The varieties are referred to collectively as Ethiopian Heirloom, which is a myriad of local native Typica hybrids and new improved varieties based on the old strains. The different areas do also have improved cultivars. They are developed by research institutes and often named by numbers. They also refer to them as e.g. Yirgacheffe type, Limu type, Sidamo type and so on.
PICKING AND SELECTION
Smallholders that are growing coffee in regions throughout the whole country will pick the coffees themselves in their coffee gardens and deliver to the nearest site for cherry purchase. In some cases they do selective picking, or sorting of the cherries before they sell it to the washing stations. In many places the Cooperative and private buyers can compete side by side for the cherry purchase, and the farmers are free to deliver to any producer with the better prices.
The washing stations will process all the cherry deliveries accordingly that same day. It will normally be processed as one daily lot.
TRADITIONAL FERMENTATION AND WASHING
Most producers in Ethiopia is still doing the traditional pulping and wet fermentation. If they are quality focused the ripe cherries are hand sorted for unripes and overripes by the farmers or the workers before they go into production. They are typically pulped by a 3 disk Agarde (or similar) pulper that just removes the fruit and skin, and graded by density in water: The parchment with the mucilage is then fermented under water for 24-48 hours, depending on the temperature and weather conditions. After which again graded in the washing channels by water flow that separates the coffee by density. Its then soaked 12-24 hrs in fresh, clean water before it’s moved to the drying tables.
In many of the new Cooperatives, and even some older washing stations they are now having mechanical removal of mucilage in eco-pulpers (also called aqua pulpers). The concept here is that the process saves a lot of water as you remove the mucilage mechanically. Theoretically you can also adjust the amount of mucilage removal and produce honey coffees. But this is yet not common in Ethiopia.
In this case the cherries are potentially hand sorted for unripes and overripes by the farmers or workers before they go in to production. They generally use a Colombian machine called Penagos. This eco pulper removes the skin, pulp and mucilage through a centrifugal device. With this machine, they don’t need to ferment the coffee to remove the mucilage. Still it normally leaves about 10-20% mucilage on the parchment. Most producers using this technique in Ethiopia removes the rest by soaking it in clean water in concrete tanks for up to 12 hours.
DRYING OF WASHED COFFEE
Drying coffees in higher altitudes in Ethiopia is pretty much ideal. Still they have to manage it well to get the better coffees out of it. In some places they do skin drying the first hours unders shade. In others they bring it directly out on the African drying beds in the sun. The parchments is normally dried in the sun for about 10-20 days, depending on the weather conditions. Coffees are covered in shade nets during midday and at night.
PRODUCTION PROCESS NATURALS
Producing great natural coffees is challenging and it requires at least as much attention to details as producing good washed coffees. You have to carefully select the ripe cherries. The cherries are then hand sorted for unripe and over ripe cherries to get a sweeter and cleaner product. The Natural coffee is normally processed at the later part of the harvest and that’s when the harvest is peaking at the higher altitudes.
The first phase of drying is crucial and should be in relatively thin layers on the tables to avoid fermented flavors. It should reach what’s called the “raisin” stage at about 25% moist in a few days. It’s important to move the cherries carefully to avoid damage on the fruit. In the second phase, from 25% – 12% moist, the layers are normally built up, and it’s constantly moved during daytime, and needs some rest mid-day and at night. An uncontrolled drying sequence can increase the very fruity flavors and make it unstable, and if to slow it can create mold and other off flavors. It’s a costly process that requires good labor and attention if you want it at the highest quality levels.
The parchment will sit in in the warehouses at the washing stations more or less until the season is ending, and will then be trucked as separate stocklots for sales. The washing stations will normally gather up to 150 bags of parchment as one lot. (Approximately 100 bags of exportable greens ) Even the top producers generally prefers to manage it this way. That is partially the reason for a limited amount of micro lots coming out of Ethiopia.
CUPPING AND PURCHASING
The coffees from the higher altitudes normally starts to come in to the warehouses from January and onwards. This is the time for cupping and purchase. To accurately know the quality of the coffee suppliers will have to wait for the parchment delivery to the dry mill. Here, experts will evaluate and choose the superior coffee, order and sign a transfer contract.
DRY-MILLING, GRADING AND BAGGING
There are now a lot of new mills being built. Both by the Cooperatives and private producers and exporters. The seller of the coffee will normally dictate the mill. And it’s hard to e.g. get the Cooperatives to process their coffees with a private miller. The milling will be followed up locally by our representative in Ethiopia. He will be there during the milling of the coffees to ensure traceability and will do quality control for milling, grading and sorting. If it is not up to standard after checking, it will be reprocessed before shipment.