Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Sidamo, Guji or Yirgacheffe?

With more than a decade of direct experience, Trade Aid is New Zealand’s leading importer of Ethiopian coffees. Ethiopia is a country which is truly unique in the world of coffee – it is well known as the birthplace of the plant Coffea Arabica from which is obtained arguably the most popular beverage in the world. Coffees has been cultivated here longer than anywhere else and there are more named and unnamed varieties in a single region than there might be in entire producing countries elsewhere.  It is a rugged and mountainous country and coffee is grown in many geographically and climatically diverse areas, on different soils with more or less water, from semi wild to intensely planted and pruned. The result is a veritable rainbow of flavour and possibility.

Since Trade Aid started importing Ethiopian coffee directly in 2005, Harar grade 4 and Yirgacheffe grade 2 from The Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (O.C.F.C.U.) have been the mainstays of our trade. A few years ago we added a washed Sidamo (grade 2) from the Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (S.C.F.C.U.) to the range and a couple of years later an unwashed, natural Sidamo (grade 4) from Oromia. During a visit to Ethiopia in early 2015 to cup and identify our preferred primary producer cooperatives, we tasted some new coffees which we thought could extend the range and broaden the appeal of our Ethiopian coffees, so we also now have the Guji 2 and the Yirgacheffe 3, both from Oromia. 

So now Trade Aid has 6 Ethiopian coffees, 3 washed and 3 dry processed, all with quite distinct flavours and characteristics, but all distinctly Ethiopian. The naming of these coffees is a complex and often confusing subject and in what follows I will attempt to shed some light on how they come to be called what they are and what their different characteristics are, focussing particularly on the southern coffees.

Ethiopia has an extremely regulated coffee grading and naming system and as with many things in this country, the government has the final say about what any particular lot of coffee can be called. A sample of every export lot produced in the country must be submitted to the local government quality control laboratory, where it is graded, roasted, cupped and given its final designation. Historically there has been a very well defined and controlled list of names that could be used for regional coffee. The map below shows the main coffee growing regions of Ethiopia and the names that are assigned to them.  Apart from the Harar, all our Ethiopian coffees come from the south of the country - the area at the bottom centre of the map labelled Sidamo A-E with Yirgacheffe in the centre.

As the map shows, the coffee growing areas in the Sidamo region are quite spread out and distinct from each other geographically, they are also quite distinct ethnically. The reason that all the coffee from these areas is called Sidamo is that before 1995 they used to lie within the province of Sidamo which was named for the Sidama people who inhabited part of the greater territory. In 1995 the old system of provinces was replaced by a system of ethnically based regions and Sidamo province was swallowed up by the newly created Oromia region, named after the dominant ethnic group. About half of the area that traditionally produced Sidamo coffee now lies within the Oromia region while the rest is now in the so called Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region. The coffees produced in these areas have always been marketed as either Sidamo or Yirgacheffe, and until a few years ago were only available (for the export market at least) in washed grades. But things have been changing in recent times and some of the producers feel that their coffee is sufficiently different from their neighbour’s coffee to be called something different. Ethiopia is a very diverse country and has more than 80 different ethnic groups who are fiercely and proudly tribal. In the coffee growing lands of the former Sidamo province, the three main ethnic groups are the Sidama, the Gedeo and the Oromo –which includes the subtribes Guji Oromo and Borena Oromo. These groups have always lived next to each other and have much in common, but there are differences in the coffee they produce, and the Oromo farmers want their coffee to carry their own name – not the name of another tribe. They have been lobbying the government for some time now to allow this change, and now it seems that the government is relenting and beginning to relax the system.  

But still, there is more complication – while coffee may be called one thing if it is washed (grade 1 or 2), if it is dry processed (grades 3, 4 and 5) the same coffee may have to be called something else. We have two coffees currently in our range which are still called Sidamo, confusingly, only one is grown by farmers of the Sidama people. Our washed Sidamo grade 2 comes from the S.C.F.C.U and is grown by a group called Wottona Bultuma in the area on the map which is labelled Sidamo B. This is classic Sidamo coffee, medium bodied with good lively sweet citrus (almost limey) acidity and a faintly floral aroma, it is clean and easy to use, drinking well by itself when lightly roasted or bringing it’s sweet acidity to a blend. Our other Sidamo, the natural grade 4, comes from a group of farmers in the area which is called Sidamo A on the map. These people are Guji Oromo, and have successfully lobbied to have their washed coffee called Guji (it is now labelled Sidamo/Guji on the sack), but their natural coffee still has to be called Sidamo. This Sidamo 4 is a very different coffee from the grade 2, it has a rich and sweet, full and fruity aroma, a silky and wine-like body and you can taste the ripeness of the fruit in the fullness of the flavour. It can add complexity and aroma to a blend, but cups well as a single origin too.

This group, who produce our Sidamo 4, Layo Teraga, also produce a grade 2 coffee, which until this year has been sold as Sidamo 2; this is the coffee that we now sell as Guji 2 and is a very different coffee again. In this part of Ethiopia, the main rains finish a few weeks before the coffee is ripe and so when the first fruit ripens it is still full and juicy, making it easy to pulp and wash. As the season progresses, the fruit gets drier and the pulp thinner, meaning that it is harder to process in the depulper and the mucilage does not come easily off the seed . At some point, usually after about 60% of the harvest has been processed, the farmers will start drying the whole fruit on tables to produce natural coffee. The grade 2 Guji is the full and juicy first flush of the harvest, the Sidamo 4 is the drier, sweeter end of the crop. Like all washed coffee from this region, the Guji 2 is pulped at central washing stations and fermented in large concrete tanks before being washed and finally dried on tables, this allows unripe and damaged ‘floaters’ to be skimmed off in the tanks, producing a clean and even coffee. The Guji 2 is a big and juicy coffee, quite different from the Sidamo 2; it has a bolder body and ripe sweetness with some firm acidity – like a warm ripe blackberry. It is a less aromatic coffee but makes a very good single origin cup or blend component.

Yirgacheffe is the coffee that for a lot of roasters around the world has been the entry point to the world of Ethiopian coffee. The name Yirgacheffe is evocative of the mysterious, delicate and aromatic floral cup that many of us remember; it is – and always has been - an elusive coffee. When I first encountered it, roasting coffee in London in the mid 1990’s, it was often not available, and when it was, demand was so high that it disappeared very quickly. No-one seemed to know much about where it came from, and there were rumours that it was wild, growing in the forests unpruned and picked by villagers who lived nearby – at the time the internet was a rudimentary thing and Wikipedia didn’t exist yet, so no one could say this wasn’t true. It came in the roughest sacks, hand stitched closed and often damaged and patched, but it tasted like flowers... and raisins, almost like a delicate, intense and fragrant tea - it was unlike anything else. We roasted the tiny, dense beans more lightly than any other coffee – just to the end of first crack, and we would not have dreamed of putting it anywhere near an espresso machine. It was the most expensive coffee we sold.

Since then, Ethiopia has opened itself up to the world, and I have visited the town of Yirga Cheffe twice and tasted coffees from all over Ethiopia. It is not wild; it is grown much like all the other coffee in the surrounding regions on small family plots in a green and forested, heavily populated landscape under the shade of the staple food crop of the area, the false banana or Ensett. The Yirgacheffe coffee growing region is a relatively small area around the town of Yirga Cheffe, nestled into the heart of what was the Sidamo province, it has areas of higher altitude than the surrounding country, and in some areas slightly higher rainfall, but for the most part it looks very similar. There is however something that makes it different, and that is the coffee, there are now more Ethiopian coffees available, and some of them have a floral character, some of them have raisiny sweetness and some of them are light and tealike, but a Yirgacheffe coffee can still gather these characteristics together and deliver them in the most satisfying way. It is still elusive, not every lot of Yirgacheffe will taste like this, but when it does, it can be truly stunning. It is a delicate coffee, easily over-roasted; it is light of body and bright of acidity and it has a fine and complex floral character. We buy our Yirgacheffe from two groups called Homa and Negele Gorbitu to the west of the town of Yirga Cheffe , the members are Oromo and the groups are part of the O.C.F.C.U.

In the last few years there has been a marked increase in interest in Natural processed Ethiopians. These coffees have traditionally mostly been sold on the domestic market as they were often seen as inferior and not suitable for export. Homa recently set up a dry mill so that they can process some of the dry cherry that their farmers produce, and it is from here that our Yirgacheffe grade 3 comes. It is an elegant coffee, quite dry in character, light in body, with an almost leathery, tannic, crisp acidity. It doesn’t have the fruitiness of the Sidamo 4, but it’s equally good as a single origin or in a blend.
I hope I have been able to shed a little light on the complex world of coffee from Ethiopia, what I have written here is only a small part of the story, and there is a lot more that could be written. If anyone has any questions or comments about Ethiopian coffee, please don’t hesitate to contact us at Trade Aid and we will do our very best to answer you.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The SCAA – a Meeting of Merchants, Minds and Matters

The exhibit hall is cavernous, and row after row of exhibitor stands fill it from end to end. At one booth, a major green coffee broker meets customers old and – it hopes – new customers in the making. At the next stand along, an espresso machine manufacturer peddles its wares and, right next door, a national coffee board promotes its country’s range of coffees to anyone who cares to drop by. Just across the aisle, a certification body seeks to recruit new licensees.

The world of coffee is gathered here under one roof – the roof of the convention centre which is hosting this year’s SCAA Expo, an event which is held in the USA every April and is the world’s largest coffee conference. From transnational coffee companies to small coffee producer organisations, all are welcome and many attendees from California to Colombia spend their entire time here in the exhibit hall.

Upstairs from the hall, there are also a number of lecture theatres in which speakers are addressing audiences on a wide range of coffee-related themes. Topics at the 2016 SCAA shows the breadth of subject matter; in one room, ‘Opening A New Cafe - Design It Right - Build It Once’ covers a very obvious and practical topic.  Nearby, ‘The Science Behind the New SCAA Flavor Wheel’ looks closely at coffee quality in a way that many will find important and useful to their businesses. Following straight on in the same lecture room, ‘Effective Strategies for Coffee Buyers’ explores challenges on the trading side of the coffee business.

While many of these talks look towards the retail end of the coffee business, the subject matter for these presentations is increasingly focusing on what is happening down on the farm. A good half of all the dozens of talks which make the SCAA program these days focus to a greater or lesser degree on sustainability challenges at producer level. One specific topic, ‘Exploring the Cost of Sustainable Production’ is so meaty that it requires two separate sessions to cover it. It is allowed two sessions because the specialty coffee industry understands that producer sustainability is such a critical matter to discuss. The industry’s very future depends on an ongoing stream of supply of good quality coffee, and it recognises that this supply is being thrown into doubt as a result of a rising tide of threats.

Those in the industry who are closely enough engaged with coffee producers understand that for the small farmers who provide much of the world’s coffee, due to the nature of the market the combination of small farm size, increasing production costs, climbing customer expectations around traceability and quality, volatile market prices, and a changing climate, threatens these farmers’ futures. As the SCAA’s executive director Ric Rhinehart has calculated,  with coffee export prices sitting at their present level a typical member of a coffee-farming family is currently being asked to survive on US50 cents a day – a figure which is less than half the UN’s extreme poverty rate.

But herein lies a challenge. While leaders in the specialty coffee industry find it easy to offer advice to individual companies on how they can improve their staff training, or their packaging, or their marketing pitch, they know that the issue of sustainable production is not one that a single company can tackle alone. How, for example, can one company take on significant extra cost in order to provide better returns to producers if its own customers can’t or won’t allow that business to pass on these costs, by taking their custom elsewhere? Various presenters at the SCAA have addressed this problem with the market model over the years by calling for greater collaboration between buyers, research institutions, governments, NGOs and anyone else who can help to direct resources towards improving farmer incomes within their areas of influence.

On a purely commercial level, such collaboration would need to extend all the way to consumers needing to understand and support higher prices for coffee. Here in New Zealand I have been asked by roasters, why we can’t all just pay the true cost of sustainable production? If only it were that simple. Our trading experience has taught us that we strike a delicate balance between paying higher prices, and losing sales volumes, as we strive to add as much value to producer co-operatives as possible through our position in the market. The level of collaboration required to address this problem would require all of those various actors in the supply chain who are either staffing booths or walking the aisles in the SCAA exhibit hall – the entire trading chain including the producers, the importers, the roasters, the cafe owners, and the end consumers – to gather around a table and together devise a more equitable trading model.

Short of this happening, just as the SCAA is doing, Trade Aid will continue fostering education and dialogue around this subject, in the expectation that this approach will in time help to provide better solutions to sustainable coffee production challenges for the coffee industry. If you are reading this, and wish to better understand some of the complex detail of coffee farm-level economics with a view to exploring new ways that might offer critical additional value to coffee farmers, then I welcome you to get in touch. Trade Aid will be happy to collaborate with you in seeking better outcomes for coffee producers.