Ethiopia, widely acknowledged as the birthplace of coffee (to the chagrin of Yemen and Sudan, who have also laid claim), produces some of the most exceptional and dramatic coffees found anywhere in the world. From the bright bergamot and floral Yirgacheffe to the ripe fruit notes of Harrar, the unique flavours offered by this spectacular country have, over the last 10 years, become some of the most sought after in speciality coffee.
Only Arabica coffee is cultivated in Ethiopia, but the variety of individual cultivars – many as yet growing wild and undiscovered – is unrivalled anywhere in the world. Furthermore, the sheer volume of coffee produced dwarves the output of Kenya and Tanzania at around 450,000 tonnes annually.
Coffee probably began to be exported from the country as early as the 17th century, though trade didn’t become significant until the 19th century. Today, one can’t overstate the importance of coffee to the country’s economy. An estimated 15 million Ethiopians are employed by the coffee industry, and Ethiopia is hugely reliant of coffee as a major source of revenue: it accounts for close to 70% of all export earnings.
There are three coffee ‘production systems’ used in Ethiopia: Forest Coffees, where wild-grown coffee is harvested by the local population; Garden Coffees, grown in small holder plots (usually measured in terms of trees rather than hectares) along with other crops; and Plantation Coffees, a very small percentage of Ethiopian coffee, grown on large estates. The vast majority of coffee in the country is produced using the Garden Coffee system.
Coffee in Ethiopia was traditionally dry processed, but wet processing is increasingly becoming more common. 50 percent, or even more, of coffee in the country is wet processed now, which highlights the delicate, floral notes for which the country’s coffee is known.
From 1974 to 1991, Ethiopia was ruled by a harsh and restrictive Marxist dictatorship that consolidated large, collective farms that then were required to sell directly to the government at a low price. After the dictatorship fell in 1991, the government began to allow farmers to form co-ops and demand fair prices without the use of middlemen. However, due to the negative connotations given to the cooperatives established under Marxist rule, many farmers distrust cooperative management even today.
In April 2008, the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) was established as a platform for the trade of undifferentiated crops such as wheat, maize, sesame and haricot beans. Meant to “to ensure the development of an efficient modern trading system” that would “protect the rights and benefits of sellers, buyers, intermediaries, and the general public”, the system was idealised as an equalising market force. Coffee was also brought under the ECX’s roof later that same year – in part to enable the government to garner some of the revenue earnings from this substantial crop.
Until December 2008, growers could also sell direct to export markets, but this was subsequently reigned in, and the difficulty of determining precise provenance in Ethiopia – a corner stone of specialty coffee – has been a tremendous frustration to buyers in consuming markets ever since.
On arrival at the ECX, coffee is repackaged and then categorized according to cup profile and quality before being auctioned to the highest bidder. The intervention has, in some ways, been very positive for farmers and consumers, leading to a more consistent and better cup for most coffees and higher prices for growers; however, a drawback to the pooling of coffees based on taste alone is that, crucially, the buyer cannot trace a coffee back to the grower, cooperative or region. Any origin provenance is, thus, effectively lost at the point that the coffee enters the ECX.
This, of course, eliminates most roasters’ and importers’ ability to provide accurate information regarding the precise traceability of coffees purchased through the ECX, which accounts for some 90 percent of all Ethiopia’s coffee. Although rules and guidelines are loosening – 10 percent of coffee grown is now eligible to be purchased through cooperatives – things are moving in the right direction but slowly. All of the Ethiopian coffees that we purchase at Mercanta are selected on the basis of their exceptional cup profile first and foremost. This remains our guiding principle in Ethiopia and in all origins where we source coffees.
Ethiopia is one of only a relatively small number of producing countries that also consumes a large part of its production internally (including Brazil, Colombia, India and the Dominican Republic), and coffee is usually prepared in a complex ceremony using a jebena – a pottery jug with a spherical base, a neck and pouring spout.