This month we are truly excited to present a special processing pack, with two outstanding examples of Ethiopian coffee, the fruits of a relationship with an up and coming producer working in the highlands of the north-eastern Sidamo region. Coffee production in Ethiopia is distinct from most of the rest of the world, with very different coffee varieties grown in very different systems, even when compared to neighbouring countries like Kenya. This month, we’re sharing a washed and a natural coffee, both from the famous Sidamo region, but located over 200 km east of the the region’s main coffee producing spine, including Yirgacheffe, Chelelectu and Gedeb. We thought we’d take the opportunity to have a closer look at this inspiring producing country, and into how even a tiny micro-region can produce an incredible diversity of flavour profiles.
In Ethiopia, coffee still grows semi-wild, and in some cases completely wild. Apart from some regions of neighbouring South Sudan, Ethiopia is the only country in which coffee is found growing in this way, due to its status as the genetic birthplace of arabica coffee. This means in many regions, small producers still harvest cherries from wild coffee trees growing in high altitude humid forests, especially around Ethiopia’s famous Great Rift Valley.
There are three categories of forest coffee growing in Ethiopia, Forest Coffee (FC), Semi-Forest Coffee (SFC), and Forest Garden Coffee (FGC), with each having an increasing amount of intervention from coffee producers. Forest coffee makes up a total of approximately 60% of Ethiopia’s yearly output, so this is a hugely important method of production, and part of what makes Ethiopian coffee so unique.
Full Forest Coffee means no intervention, only picking coffee cherries from wild coffee trees, under natural forest cover. This mode of production is very low yielding, but has a very high value in terms of carbon capture and biodiversity. The high level of shade and diverse nutrient supply also leads to very high quality. ~10% of Ethiopia’s production
Semi-Forest Coffee allows a little intervention, the thinning out of native tree species, planting of extra coffee seedlings, but maintaining much of the original vegetation and shade trees. ~20% of Ethiopia’s production
The Forest Garden Coffee system is much higher yielding, and is normally used when growing coffee is the family’s main income. The area is mostly dedicated to growing coffee, although some other crops may be interspersed. There is much more intervention in the forest here, pruning, weeding and stumping coffee trees, and removing shade trees to make way for denser coffee planting. This is the most productive of the three types, and makes up around 30% of Ethiopia’s total coffee production.
Throughout all of these systems, a much higher level of biodiversity is maintained than in modern coffee production in most of the rest of the world. This is partly due to the forest system, and partly down to the genetic diversity of the coffee plants themselves. There are thousands of so far uncategorised ‘heirloom’ varieties growing in Ethiopia; all descended from wild cross pollination between species derived from the original Arabica trees. This biodiversity leads to hardier coffee plants, which don’t need to be artificially fertilised. This means that 95% of coffee production in Ethiopia is organic, although most small farmers and mills can’t afford to pay for certification, so can’t label their coffee as such. The absence of monoculture in the Ethiopian coffee lands also means plants are much less susceptible to the decimating effects of diseases such as leaf rust that have ripped through other producing countries.
The coffees this month are grown mainly using forest systems, popular in the Sidamo Region. The Sidamo region, especially its western edge, is famous for the incredible diversity of flavour profiles it produces within a relatively tight area, from light and tea-like Yirgacheffe, to heavier, intensely aromatic coffees from Kochere only 20 km to the south. The well-known coffee towns of Gedeb and Guji also lie within the Sidamo region. However, the coffees in your box this month come from the far north-east of the region, on the edge of the Harenna forest, one of very few areas where coffee still grows completely wild. The forest is dense and humid, providing thick shade for the plants, and a vibrant ecosystem in which to grow, ideal conditions for producing the highest quality. This area is also of slightly higher altitude than most of western Sidamo, with some growing lands reaching up to 2300 m. This results in coffees with bright and clean acidity, but a heavier mouthfeel, and a more concentrated sweetness, showcased in the syrupy tinned peach character of this month’s washed coffee.
All coffee in Ethiopia is hand-picked, at optimal ripeness. As different cherries ripen at different rates, even within the same tree, pickers often have to revisit a tree up to four times each harvest season. However, this is vital for quality, as under and overripe beans can lead to defects in the cup. After smallholder producers have picked their cherries, they are delivered to small processing stations, normally located close to the area in which the coffee is grown. Processing can take two main routes in Ethiopia, washed and natural.
The natural, or dry process, is the traditional process, going back generations, and accounts for around 80% of Ethiopian production. This requires much less specialist equipment on the part of the processing station, and is normally used for lower grades of coffee, or even for ungraded coffee bound for farmers’ home consumption. However, when accomplished in a controlled and careful manner, dry processed coffees can produce flavour experiences not found in wet processed coffees, deep fruits and florals, normally with heavier mouthfeel and lower acidity. The cherries are first sorted, and then laid out on in thin layers (2-6 cm) on raised drying beds. These are almost always used for high quality naturals, as they aid airflow around the coffee as it dries, enabling more even drying. It is very important that coffees are sorted very carefully early on in the drying process, as all of the cherries quickly turn dark brown, making it impossible to separate under and overripe cherries. The cherries are turned frequently to avoid mold formation or over-fermentation, until they reach a moisture content of below 20%, and the outer cherry layer shrinks and blackens. This process takes between 2 and 4 weeks, depending on weather conditions.
The washed, or wet process, is somewhat newer to Ethiopia, probably introduced around the 1950’s. This is generally associated with higher quality coffees, higher and more defined acidity, and more floral and tea-like character. This is typical of the Ethiopian coffees we often purchase at La Cabra. The cherries this time are fed into a mechanical depulping machine, to remove the outer layer of the cherry, and much of the pulpy inner layer. Often an initial rinsing in water is used to remove further pulp. This still leaves a thin sticky layer of pulp, often known as mucilage, which must be removed by fermentation. The parchment coffee, as it is known at this stage, is submerged in fermentation tanks for 12-36 hours. The length of this fermentation can have a large effect on the final cup character. The fermentation also allows an extra stage of sorting, as lower density unripe or defective seeds will float in the fermentation tank and can be easily removed. The coffee is then ‘washed’ by several runs of fresh water, removing the rest of the pulp. The parchment is then dried on similar raised beds, turned often, until it reaches a moisture content of around 10-12% in around 10-15 days. The washed process has a much higher energy usage, due to the running of the pulping machine, but crucially also a much higher water usage due to the fermentation and washing stages. This results in a heavier environmental impact, but normally higher quality and fewer defects.
The products from both processes then have to be sent from the processing stations to large central coffee delivery centres to be milled. In the case of natural coffees, the hard black outer cherry has to be milled away, and in the case of washed coffee, the white-ish parchment layer. This requires two very different sets of equipment, and is normally done on an industrial scale at huge delivery centres owned by the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX). Here, some of the traceability of coffees can be lost, as the ECX often mix lots, or identify them only with a region and grade. It is for this reason that doing business in Ethiopia as a coffee buyer is often so difficult. The situation is improving, but some companies, such as Moplaco, have been able to open private delivery centres, being careful to keep lots separated and traceable, always back to a specific washing station.
Moplaco were founded in 1972, by Yannis Georgalis. They established themselves in the town of Dire Dawa, to the north east of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Crucially, Dire Dawa is located on the edge of the iconic Ethiopian region of Harrar, and is home to the region’s largest ECX coffee delivery centre. Harrar produces a markedly different expression of Ethiopian coffee, when compared to the regions further south, surrounding the Great Rift Valley. The climate in Harrar is much drier, resulting in very different types of vegetation dominating the landscape here, those that thrive in drier climates, such as evergreen and coniferous species. These species are much shorter in stature, resulting in much less shade for the coffee. The coffee here is also grown in a very different mode, known as Garden Coffee. In this system, coffee trees are normally planted in small numbers, often in conjunction with other crops, close to a farmers home. The trees here are afforded almost no shade, and can often be grown purely for home use. However, in Harrar, this is a popular method to grow coffee for export. Coffee in Harrar is almost always naturally processed, and along with the dry and hot climate, and the lack of shade, this means that the coffee here is often much heavier and richer than we are used to, a profile that has fallen out of the modern specialty coffee expectation. Harrar has also seen a decline in production, as many farmers elect to begin growing the popular narcotic Khat at the expense of coffee. It is for these reasons that the company chose to expand into wider Ethiopian specialty coffee, while keeping their roots in Harrar. This increased in pace when Yannis’ daughter Heleanna took over Moplaco 8 years ago, leading the company’s expansion to other areas of Ethiopia. The company invested in a large state of the art facility in Addis Ababa, to mill coffees from all over Ethiopia, and directly export while maintaining traceability.
There are also processing stations in Yirgacheffe and Chelelectu, where experimental processing is carried out, and agronomy advice is given to the smallholder farmers delivering cherry. Most recently, Moplaco purchased a processing station in the town of Bensa, in the North-East of the famous Sidamo region. From here Moplaco have been providing both agricultural and processing advice to neighbouring mills, while also buying and exporting their highest quality coffees, in a project they have dubbed Neighbours and Crops. We are proud to be involved with Heleanna’s work, an inspirational woman blazing a trail for a new level of speciality coffee in Ethiopia.
This station, Sidamo Logita, has produced the natural coffee for this month’s box, the first year of production after Moplaco purchased the mill last year. Located at 2100 masl, and named for its water source, the Logita River, it is attached to a small hectare plot owned by Moplaco, allowing them to grow, process and export their own coffee, almost unheard of in Ethiopia. We are excited to be a part of this development, especially after having tasted a few small lots from the farm. We have not purchased many naturally processed Ethiopian coffees in the past, we often find the aromatic and acidic signature that we so enjoy in Ethiopian coffees covered by heavier and pulpy flavours, but this small lot really jumped out at us. It still showcases all the bright and aromatic character that we’ve come to expect from Ethiopian coffee, while having a soft strawberry and cherry backbone, like the best naturals. A true example of skilled processing, showcasing both the best qualities of the raw material, and of the secondary flavours imparted by processing. We have also selected a washed coffee from Moplaco’s neighbours and crops program, processed at the Fikadu Haile mill further to the east, deeper into the Harenna forest. This coffee is more typical of the region, heavily aromatic with rich mouthfeel and sweetness, which we’re finding reminiscent of tinned peaches. We feel tasting these coffees alongside each other really showcases the diversity and potential of flavour that we can expect from this region.
We are excited to share these wildly different expressions of the complex and unique terroir of Ethiopia with you this month.
Stay bright and curious