Ewan Cameron and Justin Purser travelled with a group of commercial coffee roasters from New Zealand to Ethiopia in February 2015. There they met with Trade Aid coffee trading partners. Ewan describes aspects of the trip below:
The highlands of Ethiopia are the ancient home of the coffee tree; it was from here that coffee was taken, first by Arabs, and later by Europeans across the globe to become one of the world’s most traded commodity crops. Ethiopia is still the biggest coffee producer in Africa and the fifth biggest in the world and its coffee is highly valued for its unique flavour and character. But this character can be very variable; because of the inherent genetic diversity of the coffee, the cultural differences of the farmers and the vastly differing landscapes, the flavour can vary greatly from one place to another, meaning Ethiopia probably has the biggest range of regional variation in the world.
In 2015, Trade Aid imported 25 containers (or 450 tonnes) of six different varieties of Ethiopian coffee for roasting customers. All this coffee was grown by very small scale farmers who belong to either one of two large cooperatives; 23 of the 25 containers came from our biggest partner, the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU) which comprises 311 primary cooperatives (288,200 households) in multiple coffee growing regions. The other two containers came from the Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (SCFCU), whose coffee is all from the Sidamo region. In past years there have been some variations in quality between shipments of Ethiopian coffee and we have been working on how we can routinely import coffee lots which have our preferred qualities.
The roasters who accompanied us came from four New Zealand coffee companies. One of the main purposes of this visit was to define the qualities of the coffee we want to buy from Ethiopia. If possible we wanted to identify a small number of primary cooperatives from which all our coffee would come.
OCFCU was our host in Ethiopia, and they have their main office and processing facility just outside of Addis Ababa. They represent farmers who are members of the biggest and most geographically diverse ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo. We buy washed Yirgacheffe and Guji, and dry processed Sidamo and Harar from the OCFCU. Our biggest volume Ethiopian coffee is from Harar in the east of the country so this is where we headed first.
Harar is an ancient walled city in a vast, dry and mountainous region, the people are mostly Muslim in a predominantly Christian country and there is a very long history of growing and consuming coffee there. Due to the lack of water in the processing season, Harar coffee is sun dried in the cherry without the pulping and washing which is common elsewhere. This factor – combined with the maybe 30 different varieties grown in the region – results in a rich, complex and spicy but highly unpredictable flavour.
We had timed our visit to Ethiopia to coincide with the arrival of the new season’s coffee at the processing mills; this would enable us to taste and compare fresh coffees from different primary societies and choose the groups we wished to source from. OCFCU has recently built a new dry mill in Dire Dawa – the main commercial city in the region – but the cupping laboratory there was still under construction, so we organised a cupping session at the government quality control centre in Dire Dawa. This is where a sample from every single export lot of Harar coffee must come in order to be graded, analysed and certified as suitable for export – so they cup and grade a lot of coffee! We were accompanied by Dagne Chomen the quality manager for the OCFCU who is an expert cupper, has spent several years in Harar as a field agronomist and knows the region and its coffees very well.
Dagne had organised to have coffees from 16 groups in Eastern Hararge where the best coffee in the region comes from roasted for us and prepared for cupping. Of the 16, only six of the groups were fully fair trade and organic certified which narrowed our choice as Trade Aid only buys certified FTO coffee. Fortunately for us, the best coffees were all from within this group of six. We cupped the coffees blind to avoid preconceptions, and after each round of cups, we discussed and compared notes with Dagne and the two graders from the quality control centre.
There is a flavour range in Harar coffee that starts at sweet and fruity (blueberry and apricot), progresses through spicy to finish at deeper, earthier, dark cocoa flavours. The best coffees from the region can possess many or all of these characteristics, and we have often received shipments of this quality, but have been unable to ensure that we got the same thing consistently. The lack of water to sort out the floaters and the extended fermentation that occurs when coffee is dried in the cherry mean that Harar will always be a lively and unpredictable coffee – and this is a large part of what makes it a great coffee. The quality of a good Harar is determined by the farmer, who grows the right tree-stock and prunes and fertilises it well, harvesting only the fully ripe beans and turns the coffee regularly and thoroughly as it dries. A well organised farmer’s cooperative can support and motivate its members to achieve these things by providing information, training and equipment, so this is what we set out to find.
At the end of the cupping, we had identified three groups whose coffee we thought the most suitable for us. There was a remarkable degree of agreement across all the tasters, so the final decisions were pretty simple. Our favourite coffee came from a group called Rega Damu (meaning – The honey which comes from the ground), the second and third were Chafe Jenata (Heaven place) and Tutta Kanisaa (Swarm of bees). These three cooperatives produce coffee which is full bodied and fruity with plenty of spice, it is coffee which is extremely distinctive and quite unique – it couldn’t come from anywhere but Harar. Since our return to New Zealand, all our Harar has come from these three groups, and we have had the most consistent quality since we started buying Harar coffee. As well as improving the quality of the coffee we receive, as the name of the primary cooperative is now printed on each sack, so we and our customers now know exactly which group of farmers the coffee is coming from.