| Lynsey Harley

Specialty Coffee - Learn more about Ethiopia

There are several ways coffee is prepared for market in Ethiopia. Large estates are privately owned and operated by hired labor; the coffee is often picked, processed, and milled on the property. On the other end of the spectrum, “garden coffee” is brought by a farmer in cherry form to the closest or most convenient washing station, where it is sold and blended with other farmers’ lots and processed according to the desires of the washing station. Co-op members will bring their cherry to be weighed and received at a co-op washing station, where there is more traceability to the producer level as per membership rosters of the co-operative.

The profile of Ethiopian coffees will vary based on a number of factors, including variety, process, and microregion. As a general rule of thumb, natural processed coffees will have much more pronounced fruit and deep chocolate tones, often with a bit of a winey characteristic and a syrupy body. Washed coffees will be lighter and have more pronounced acidity, though the individual characteristics will vary.

Harrar coffees are almost always processed naturally, or “dry,” and have a distinctly chocolate, nutty profile that reflects the somewhat more arid climate the coffee grows in.

Sidama is a large coffee-growing region in the south, and includes Guji and the famous Yirgacheffe. 

Brief Overview

Growing Regions: Sidama (including Yirgacheffe), Harrar, Limu, Djimma, Lekempti, Wallega, Gimbi

Common Varieties: Heirloom Ethiopian varieties including Kudhome, Gesha, Djimma, and others

Processing: Washed, Natural

Country Specific Grading: Grades 1–9 (Gr 1–2 specialty; Gr 3–9 commercial)

Harvest Period: November–February

The Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) was established by the Ethiopian government in 2008 with the intention of democratizing marketplace access to farmers growing beans, corn, coffee, and wheat, among other commodities. As farmers in Ethiopia typically own very small plots of land and are largely sustenance farmers—growing what crops they need for household use and selling the surplus for cash—it was decided that standardization would be the most egalitarian way to improve economic health and stability in the agricultural sector.

The ECX strove to eliminate the barriers to sale by giving farmers an open, public, and reliable market to which to sell their products for a set and relatively stable price. At its inception, the ECX rules dictated that any coffee not produced by a private estate or a co-operative society was required to be sold through the Exchange, which established guaranteed price and sale for farmers, but by design, it took the “specialty” out of the coffee and turned it into a commodity—escaping all traceability aside from the most basic regional and grade information.

Part of the definition of a “commodity” is that it must be replaceable: For instance, 100 bags of Grade 1 washed Yirgacheffe bought in December must be of equivalent quality to 100 bags of Grade 1 washed Yirgacheffe bought in August, period. Coffees are assigned grades based on their uniformity, cleanliness, and presence or absence of defect without consideration for flavor notes.

After pushback from the specialty-coffee industry and several rounds of intense negotiation, a later iteration established that washing-station information was made available after the coffees were purchased, though certainly tracing them down to the individual producers would prove impossible.

In March 2017, the ECX voted to allow direct sales of coffee from individual washing stations, which will not only allow for increased traceability, but will also allow for repeat purchases and relationship building all along the chain—a change that increases the potential for higher prices to the farmers. It remains to be seen what the impact of greater traceability and more direct sales will have on specialty coffees from Ethiopia, but the industry appears optimistic.

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