As a flurry of fresh crop Ethiopia coffees will hit the menu very soon (Adorsi and Daannisa are already here!), it’s better late than never for an update from our most recent sourcing trip to Ethiopia back in December of 2018. Ethiopia is a country with particularly unique logistical challenges - many growing regions, diverse regional languages, a large annual production, complicated trade regulations, and a complex political status. Because of these factors, we rely heavily on our importing partners to assist us in the sourcing process. 90% of our Ethiopia offerings over the past 5 years, as you might have noticed on the ‘in partnership with’ label on our bags, have come from Trabocca. Trabocca serves as our eyes and ears on the ground in Ethiopia all year long. The founder, Menno Simons, was one of the initial leaders diving into Ethiopia and pushing specialty coffee back in the early 2000s. This is highly beneficial for us, as we’ve been able to jump right in and start exploring deep rooted relationships that Trabocca has throughout the country with many farmers, cooperatives, and exporters. We spent a little time in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, visiting Trabocca’s office, but the bulk of the trip was spent driving throughout the countryside in the South. Here we visited many well known growing regions - Yirgacheffe, Guji, and Sidamo.
The journey to Ethiopia, from a coffee roastery’s perspective, is almost indescribably beneficial. More than tasting through this year’s harvest and more than simply seeing the farms and the processing, it’s important for us to visit to fully wrap our heads around the intricacies in the supply chain. We’re going to break this blog post into two parts: first up, we’ll briefly touch on a few key differences in Ethiopia compared to the rest of the coffee growing world. In part two, we’ll move onto some specific updates from the places we visited during our trip.
Washing Station Model
In Ethiopia, as well as other places in Africa, coffee is predominantly grown by smallholder farmers with very small amounts of land. Families mostly grow coffee in plots surrounding their homes, and the average sized farm is only about 1 hectare (~2 acres). All of these families deliver coffee in the cherry form to washing stations that are scattered throughout coffee growing regions. Usually the names of our coffees from Ethiopia are of the washing stations, as that’s the furthest back we can trace in the supply chain - so the coffee we purchase in Ethiopia is actually a blend of hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of farmers’ coffee. Things get a bit complicated here in terms of who owns what - the processing stations can be owned by private companies, exporters, cooperatives, or sometimes even single farmers (a newer development that we’ll touch on later). This is all in stark contrast to the way that more traditional estate style farming works across Latin America, where coffee was intentionally introduced as a cash crop. Here, coffee farmers own 10s - 100s of hectares of land, process and dry the coffees themselves, and sell the dried parchment directly to exporters. In some cases, there’s some vertical integration at play here as well and the farmer will own their own exporting company and handle milling and exporting for other producers in the area. Nonetheless, within this model, the coffees are very easily traced back to the specific farms and farmers responsible for each lot. Smallholder farming absolutely exists across Central and South America, of course, but this widespread model of selling cherries to delivery sites and processing stations scattered throughout the county is definitely unique to Africa.
ECX - Ethiopian Commodity Exchange
For the past decade, all coffee in Ethiopia had to be sold through a centralized auction system known as the ECX. The intentions here were theoretically good. It sought to add some structure to the coffee trade and minimize corruption in the supply chain. To this end, it absolutely succeeded; the ECX greatly improved price transparency and got more money in the hands of farmers. However, this was all at the expense of traceability. Through the ECX, all coffees were blended and sold by their region and grade, and exporters were not allowed to be involved directly at the farm or processing station level. There was no guarantee that the coffees being purchased were in fact Suke Quto or Worka Sakaro, for example. They were sold through the auction as Guji Grade 1 or Yirgacheffe Grade 1. Importing and exporting companies found some ways around this, but it was a bit unnecessarily complicated and risky. The washing stations would notify an exporter when their coffee was going to the auction, then the exporter could bid and purchase the Guji Grade 1 that day, cross their fingers timing lined up perfectly, and come out on the other end 99.9% sure that Suke Quto was purchased. Big changes to the system came very recently in 2017. It is now legal for private washing stations, cooperatives, and even single farmers to directly export themselves and bypass the ECX altogether. We feel that this has been a huge step in both increasing transparency and increasing payment to the farmers.
Trabocca works largely with a number of washing stations that are directly owned by exporters. For example, our newest washed Ethiopia release, Adorsi, is owned by an exporter named Testi Coffee. Or in the case of Suke Quto, Tesfaye Bekele owns his own farm, a station that processes other smallholder farmers’ coffee, and also an exporting company. We’ve seen this model work very successfully, as exporters can provide crucial funding these stations need to really thrive - higher prices for cherries and large infrastructure investments to continually push quality and efficiency. This past year we’ve also seen an explosion of single smallholder farmers securing export licenses and trying to sell directly to Trabocca, and in fact, we were lucky enough to visit a few of these producers in the Yirgacheffe area back in December. Though they are not purchasing from anyone directly quite yet, Trabocca is actively exploring the idea for the future. On one hand, it’s a great way to cut out a middle man and get even more money directly into the hands of farmers; but on the other hand, it’s quite risky. Established exporters have the experience necessary to successfully move coffee throughout the country and get it milled and onto a cargo ship very quickly. Working with someone brand new to that section of the supply chain could potentially result in a plethora of issues along the way.
Widespread Coffee Culture
This is perhaps the single most fascinating part about travelling in Ethiopia. Coffee is everywhere. Widely recognized as the birthplace of coffee, the plant and the beverage are both deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life. Coffee was not brought here from another country and cultivated as a cash crop; it was here that coffee was first discovered, thriving in the forests. As you drive through the countryside, traces of coffee can be found everywhere - plants growing along the roadside, clouds of smoke billowing out of store fronts, aromas of freshly roasted or brewed coffee drifting from people’s homes, cherries scattered along the ground to dry, salesmen (young kids) tapping on your car windows and waving ziploc bags of green coffee in the air. Ethiopia actually only exports 50% of their total coffee production, and the remainder is kept in country and consumed. The pinnacle of this, as seen throughout restaurants and homes and washing stations throughout Ethiopia, is the traditional coffee ceremony. Coffee is roasted, immediately prior to consumption, in a pan over a charcoal fire. After ‘grinding’ with a large wooden mortar and pestle, the coffee grounds are mixed with water in a clay pot with a long, thin spout - called a Jebena. The Jebena is placed over the coals and heated to a boil to brew the coffee. The finished product is a dense and syrupy liquid, a bit similar to an aeropress brew, with a high concentration of flavor. The coffee is served in multiple rounds in small three ounce cups. Though you can purchase a coffee quickly prepared in this style almost anywhere, to sit and be present throughout the entire ceremony is a truly unforgettable experience. It’s a period of rest in the busy day where anyone and everyone can peacefully enjoy a coffee and socialize with friends or family. For a little over an hour (sorry, no paper to-go cups here), all five senses are fully encompassed and the rest of the world seems to completely fade away as time stands still.
Though there’s a plethora of other factors that make Ethiopian coffee both extremely special and also particularly challenging, it’s difficult to fully convey the grand scale of it all without visiting to see the supply chain working in real time. Below we’ll attach a few links for further reading if you’re wanting to explore the ECX a bit more or perhaps just interested in a short video! Make sure to subscribe to our mailing list if you’re interested, as we’ll dig into specifically where we visited and what we learned in part two of this Origin Update.