Ethiopia produces some of the most exceptional and dramatic coffees found anywhere in the world. From the bright bergamot and floral Yirgacheffe to the inky ripe fruit notes of Harrar, these unique flavours have only recently started to fetch the prices they deserve in the export markets. The wet and dry processes used give these coffees their distinct charcteristics. The peak harvest months are October to December.
Only Arabica coffee is cultivated but the variety of individual cultivars – many as yet undiscovered – and the sheer volume dwarves output in Kenya and Tanzania at around 350,000 tonnes annually. The primary growing areas for specialty grade coffees are Harrar, Limu, Djimma, Yirgacheffe and Sidamo. Much of the country’s production is centred around Djimma though this is largely commodity grade. Ethiopia is hugely reliant of coffee as a major source or revenues and it accounts for close to 70% of all export earnings. An estimated 15 millions Ethiopians are employed in the country’s coffee industry. There are few large farms and 90% of the coffee is grown by small growers.
Ethiopia is one of only a relatively small number of producing countries that also consumes a large part of its production internally. Others are Brazil, Colombia, India and the Dominican Republic.
Until December 2008, growers could also sell direct to export markets but this has recently been reigned in and the difficulty of determining precise provenance – a corner stone of specialty coffee – has been a tremendous frustration to buyers in consuming markets.
In April 2008, the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) established a platform for the trade of undifferentiated crops such as wheat, maize, sesame and haricot beans. Coffee was also brought under this roof later that year – in part to enable the government to realize some of the revenue earnings from this unique crop.
On arrival at the ECX, the coffee is repackaged and then categorized according to cup profile and any origin provenance is effectively lost at this point.
Although this intervention does not result in a poorer quality – indeed, it may well lead to a more consistent and better cup – and may well help to secure higher prices for growers, the pooling of coffees based on taste alone means that, crucially, the buyer cannot trace a coffee back to the grower, cooperative or region. And this is what is upsetting buyers as regionality has become a defining criteria in specialty coffee.
At this time, an estimated 90% of all Ethiopia’s crop is sold through the ECX and only large cooperatives can seek exemption. Importers and roasters continue to lobby the ECX for greater transparency and remain hopeful that traceability can soon be restored and individual growers of exceptional coffees given the recognition they deserve.