Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, & More: A Guide to Ethiopian Coffee

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Widely acknowledged as the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia is highly respected in the specialty coffee industry. Beans from this nation are a staple on coffee shop menus around the world.

But why is Ethiopian coffee so well regarded? And how much do you really know about this origin?

Ethiopia’s coffee-producing regions are hugely varied, with cup profiles that differ dramatically among each region, micro-region, or even farm. But many are exceptional Arabicas that will have you asking for more. Read on for some more insight into the birthplace of coffee.

Lee este artículo en español Yirgacheffe, Sidamo y Otros: Una Guía de Los Cafés de Etiopía

Forest-grown coffee in Ethiopia. Credit: Mikael Portanier

Coffee Is at The Heart of Ethiopian Culture

In Ethiopia, coffee production is both a labour of love and an important source of income. The crop is woven into the nation’s culture and economy.

The country is the sixth largest producer of coffee and it is reported that in 2018, the industry directly and indirectly employed up to 20% of Ethiopia’s 100 million population. In 2017, the nation produced approximately 470,000 tons of green coffee, of which it exported roughly 160,000. This means that Ethiopia exports less than half of the coffee it produces. The rest is consumed within the country.

Coffee is woven into Ethiopia’s social fabric and has been for centuries. It’s reported that the common phrase that refers to the act of socialising is “buna tetu,” which translates to “drinking coffee” and that one of Ethiopia’s best known proverbs is “buna dabo naw” or “coffee is our bread.”

Learn more in Understanding The Myth of Heirloom Variety Coffee

A member of the Balekara Primary Cooperative of Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union carries a basket of coffee cherries. Credit: Fairtrade Africa

The coffee ritual is a time-honoured tradition that cannot be rushed. The green beans are roasted in a pan over hot coals, pounded with a pestle and mortar, and then brewed in a traditional pot with a narrow spout. The coffee is drunk from small cups without handles – yet another detail that offers no other choice than to sip slowly and patiently.

Paul Arnephy is the co-founder and Head Roaster at Café Lomi in Paris, where he often roasts Ethiopian coffees. He says, “Ethiopian people have a relationship to coffee that is wholly unique. If someone offers you a coffee at their house in France, likely they will load up a capsule and 17 seconds later you are served. Being offered coffee in Ethiopia requires a spare 45 minutes in your planning. I love it.”

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Paul Arnephy, co-founder of Café Lomi, at a traditional coffee ceremony in Ethiopia. Credit: Mikael Portanier

Ethiopian Coffee Production Methods

Ethiopian coffee is usually produced in a sustainable way, with the majority grown as garden coffee. This means that it is planted by farmers close to their houses and is often intercropped with other plants. It’s also common for producers to grow coffee in a semi-forest system, in which natural forest is modified with slashing of weeds and bushes for shade regulation and coffee seedlings are introduced. Only an estimated 5% of coffee production is on a dedicated plantation in Ethiopia.

Getahun Gebrekidan is Product Manager for Coffee and Tea in East and Central Africa for Fairtrade Africa. He says, “There are out growers [contract farmers], plantations, and smallholder coffee producers in Ethiopia… Smallholder coffee producer groups in Ethiopia are organised based on principles of cooperative societies. They are voluntary and open to all individual farmers. 

“Any smallholder farmer willing to join the cooperative society and able to accept the responsibilities of membership is able to do so without discrimination on the basis of gender, social status, race, disability, religion and the likes. Cooperative societies are democratic organisations run by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions; each member has an equal voting right.”

Bags of green coffee beans at Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union’s processing unit. Credit: Sarah Charles

Getahun says that coffee cooperatives “support and capacitate their individual coffee farmers in using good agricultural practices, to collect red cherries, process coffee cherries in washed or dry processing, and if there is export capacity, to export coffee and distribute the dividend to their individual farmer members.”

He tells me that two or more primary cooperative societies can form unions and that in Ethiopia’s coffee supply chain, the unions support individual primary cooperatives in harvesting and processing and “to do secondary processing including hulling, sorting, polishing, and packaging, and exporting coffee and sharing the dividend to their individual cooperative societies.”

It is an effective layered system that focuses on sound, consistent monitoring and adherence to rigorous international quality standards – a vital factor for specialty coffee buyers.

Andualem Shiferaw, Deputy Manager of the Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union, at the organisation’s headquarters and processing unit. Credit: Sarah Charles

Coffee Processing Choices in Ethiopia

Both washed and natural processing are common in Ethiopia. Getahun tells me that in natural processing, “farmers place coffee cherries on a flat surface where they are then dried in the sun. This process normally takes about two to six weeks, and the beans are raked and rotated so that they dry evenly. Once the seeds have dried, they are then removed from the cherry.”

Paul says that “the archetypal Ethiopian washed coffee oozes elegance. It has delicate flavours on the floral and citrus end of the spectrum and is clean with a silky body. But the flavour profiles are seriously regional.

“Naturals tend to have more depth with big, round, fruit flavours… The better natural processed coffees maintain the clean citric and floral notes with a touch of added sweetness and body compared to their washed counterparts. When you find one of these, it is not too far off magic. We are seeing more and more honey processed coffees coming out of Ethiopia, I guess as a result of producers being able to sell directly to market, with incredible results.”

Learn more in Washed, Natural, Honey: Coffee Processing 101

Workers at Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union’s processing unit sort green coffee beans. Credit: Sarah Charles.

Ethiopian Coffee Regions & Their Flavour Profiles 

Because Ethiopia has distinct variations in landscape and altitudes, as well as a huge range of varieties and uncategorised plants known just as heirloom, there is vast diversity in flavour among its coffees. This lack of specificity around variety means that specialty buyers differentiate coffees from Ethiopia by region, altitude, and cupping score, rather than by variety.

Here are the main Ethiopian coffee regions and associated flavour profiles.

Sidamo

A large area in the fertile highlands in the Rift Valley, Sidamo is one of three trademarked coffee regions in Ethiopia (along with Harrar and Yirgacheffe). It’s 1,550 to 2,200 m.a.s.l and has ample rainfall, optimum temperatures, and fertile soil.

It’s reported that around 60% of coffee produced here is washed processed. Sidamo coffees are known for their rich, full body, vibrant crisp acidity, and floral and citrus notes.

Workers sort green coffee at a farm in Ethiopia. 

Yirgacheffe

Yirgacheffe is part of the Sidamo region, but it’s sub-divided into its own trademarked micro-region due to its exceptional coffees. Most of the coffees produced here are washed processed, although some naturals are also produced.

The Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union (YCFCU) has 28 primary cooperative members that represent over 45,000 member farmers in the region. Andualem Shiferaw, Deputy Manager of YCFCU, says, “The general YCFCU coffee can be characterised as a bright, medium-bodied coffee with distinct floral tones in aroma, an intense and complex flavour, flowery, medium to pointed grandly exhilarating acidity, flavour-saturated finish with good and extended aftertaste.

“The characteristics may vary from low land area to highland areas; for example, coffee produced in an elevation of 1,600 to 1,800 m.a.s.l in Chichu and Michle cooperatives is herbal in its aroma. However, coffee from Idido, Adadao, and Aramo cooperatives – produced at an elevation of 2,000 to 2,400 m.a.s.l – may exhibit a flowery aroma.”

Coffee farmers at a cooperative in Ethiopia. 

Harrar 

This is a wild Arabica that is grown on small farms in the Oromia region (formerly Harrar) at elevations between 1,400 and 2,000 metres. It is typically natural processed.

Harrar is known for its intense flavour and fruity acidity. It is described as rich and pungent with strong hints of blueberry or blackberry. It is typically heavy bodied and has been likened to dry, red wine. Its intensity means it is most commonly used in espresso blends, rather than single origin.

Limu

Limu coffee grows in the southwest of Ethiopia at between 1,100 to 1,900 m.a.s.l. A washed coffee with relatively low acidity, it has a well-balanced body and a distinct spicy flavour that is pleasantly sweet and often has floral notes.

An Ethiopian coffee ceremony. 

Jimma

This region in the southwest of Ethiopia is a large producer of commercial-grade coffee. It grows at an altitude of 1,400 to 2,100 m.a.s.l. Also spelled as Djimmah, coffees from this region are reportedly best when washed and can take on a medicinal flavour if natural processed.

Paul says, “We have a honey processed coffee from Jimma, it’s my current favourite. It has some stone fruit flavours of yellow plum and apricot, some tropical flavours of mango, and some sweet citrus flavours of orange zest. A bright citric acidity and a lovely silky body holds the coffee together. The finish is clean and satisfying. I kind of love drinking this on espresso.”

A member of Negele Gorbitu Primary Cooperative works at a drying bed. Credit: Fairtrade Africa

Challenges to Ethiopian Coffee Production 

Climate change is a serious threat to Ethiopia’s coffee production, particularly because of the increasing incidence and duration of drought. New weather patterns are seriously disrupting agriculture, on which 85% of the population depends.  

A 2017 report published in Nature states that “39–59% of the current growing area could experience climatic changes that are large enough to render them unsuitable for coffee farming, in the absence of significant interventions or major influencing factors.”

Learn more in The Price of Climate Change on Ethiopia: Extinction of Wild Arabica

Workers at the Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union’s processing unit sort green beans. Credit: Sarah Charles

Getahun tells me that the industry is also challenged by low access to the Fairtrade market, a poor application of good agricultural practices, lack of income diversification, high costs of production, and lack of market information, among other issues. 

He says, “Unsustainable consumption is challenging farmers in covering the cost of sustainable production. We can see the current market players offering less than US $1 per pound for ethically produced coffee. This subsequently prevents buyers and importers from sourcing ethically. The Fairtrade systems together with civil societies are working aggressively on consumer awareness of sustainability and ethical consumption.”

Andualem tells me that “coffee market volatility and other policy matters are affecting cooperative businesses and YCFCU is looking for a way to overcome these.” This includes installing roasting and grinding machines to allow producers to roast and grind their own coffees. “The new value addition project is mainly to supply our product in roasted and ground level to those corners of the world that have not been addressed in our green product,” he says.

Workers sort green coffee at a farm in Ethiopia 

Traceability & Transparency

Cooperative unions and plantation coffee owners can directly export their coffee to international buyers, but private exporters generally purchase their coffee through the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) and export their coffees to international buyers. The basic function of the ECX is to provide a centralised, standardising body where agricultural goods and futures can be traded.

All coffee that enters the ECX is given a grade and a geographical designation. But Andualem tells me that this means only the region or microregion, and that it is difficult to trace the product back to its specific farm of origin through this system. This is less than ideal for the specialty coffee market, which values traceability.

Andualem says, “The specialty market is all about traceable products with consistent production and quality. The market needs unique cup profiles of products consistent for years. Without traceability we can’t say a product is special and sell it in specialty market.”

Getahun says that if you’re looking to buy traceable, high quality coffee from Ethiopia, “use any of the supply chain options to source directly, ethically produced coffee from producers and at least meet the cost of sustainable production. Sourcing directly from farmers ensures traceability and sustainable quality coffee and reduces costs by cutting off rogue trading supply chain actors. Roasters need to collaborate with coffee farmers and fight unsustainable consumption and to contribute to sustainable coffee production.”

Coffee brewed in the traditional Ethiopian way. 

Ethiopia is a major coffee producer, consumer, and exporter. The quality and diversity of its coffees is undeniable and it’s a great origin to explore if you’re looking to source some exceptional coffees.

Paul says, “All facets of Ethiopian coffee are deeply fascinating, in terms of flavour profile, production history, future potential, as well as potential risks.”

By choosing to buy directly from a producer or cooperative, you can increase your chances of getting a coffee that is not only unique and delicious, but traceable back to its farm of origin.

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Written by Sarah Charles. Feature photo: Trainees from the Homa Primary Cooperative of Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union work at a drying bed. Feature photo credit: Fairtrade Africa.

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