Written by Ewan Cameron.
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 what is probably the most popular beverage in the world. Coffee has been cultivated and consumed 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 land of mountains and plains, valleys and rolling hills 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.
Trade Aid has a long and committed relationship with Ethiopian coffee – It was among the first coffees that we imported for sale to roasters in 2002. Three years later in 2005, we directly imported our first mixed container of FTO Yirgacheffe grade 2 and Harar grade 4. This coffee all came from the Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union (OCFCU), who we have traded with ever since.
Over the years, those two coffees – Yirgacheffe and Harar – have been the backbone of our Ethiopian coffee trade, but our range has grown, and the balance has shifted and we now sell more coffee from the Sidama and Guji regions. In 2023 we were not able to buy either Yirgacheffe or Harar, so in this article, I’m aiming to celebrate those coffees and explain a little about why they are unavailable this year. I will also give a bit of background on the other Ethiopian coffees that we sell.
That first Ethiopian coffee that Trade Aid imported – Yirgacheffe – is the coffee that for so many roasters and coffee lovers around the world was the entry point to the world of Ethiopian coffee. For me, the name Yirgacheffe is evocative of the mysterious, delicate and aromatic, floral cup that I remember as completely changing my idea of what coffee could be. Yirgacheffe is – and always has been – an elusive coffee which, when I first encountered it, roasting coffee at Monmouth Coffee Roasters in London in the mid 1990’s, was a coffee that we only had occasionally, but when we did have it, demand was so high that it disappeared out of the shop very quickly. There was very little information about where it came from, and we were told that it was wild, growing unpruned in the forests of Ethiopia, 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, carefully hand stitched across the top with thick twine, and often dirty, damaged and patched. The coffee itself tasted like flowers… and raisins, almost more like a delicate, intense and fragrant tea – it was quite unlike anything else. We roasted the tiny, dense beans more lightly and more carefully than any other coffee – just to the end of first crack (in a time when almost everything went to second), and in our filter-centric world at Monmouth, we would not have dreamed of putting it anywhere near the espresso machine. It was the only Ethiopian coffee that we knew of and often the most expensive coffee we sold.
Cherry at Negele Gorbitu, Yirgacheffe, 2009.
Since then, Ethiopia has become a lot less mysterious, I have visited the town of Yirga Cheffe and I know that there is no wild coffee being picked there (although there is in other parts of the country). In fact Yirgacheffe coffee is grown in much the same manner as all the other coffee in the surrounding regions of southern Ethiopia – on small family plots in a lush, green and forested, heavily populated landscape under the shade of the staple food crop of the area, enset (false banana). There are now many other washed coffees from southern Ethiopia available, sold not just by their regional names, but by the name of the cooperative, washing station or individual farmer who produced them. Alongside the Yirgacheffe, we have been offering a Sidama-2 for the last fifteen years and a Guji-2 for nine years. Both these coffees have that distinctive and subtle Ethiopian floral element in their flavour, but also bring their own special characteristics to the cup. Yirgacheffe has now become just one coffee among many. It does however, still seem to be hanging on to some of its old mystique – it still commands the highest price of the standard grade coffees of Ethiopia – which unfortunately has meant that when Ethiopian coffee prices jumped in 2022/23 in response to changes in government export policy, Yirgacheffe jumped the most, ultimately meaning that it was going to be very expensive by the time it landed in New Zealand – most likely too expensive for the market to bear, and we had to make the hard decision to forego Yirgacheffe for this year, in the hope that the prices might drop and we might be able to buy it again next year.
The other mainstay of Trade Aids’ Ethiopian coffee trade over the years has been Harar, which comes from the north eastern, predominantly Muslim part of Ethiopia in the region named for the ancient walled city of Harar. The landscape around Harar is the highest coffee growing region in Ethiopia and is arid, rocky, and mountainous. It is also one of the oldest coffee growing regions in the world – coffee has been grown and processed in the deep inaccessible valleys in much the same way as it is now for hundreds of years.
Due to the lack of water, it is not possible to wet process coffee in Harar, so coffee has always been dry (natural) processed, dried in the cherry on the farm on raised mesh beds or even sometimes left on the tree to dry slowly. The coffee was known for its rich winey body and complex, unpredictable flavour often leading with apricot or blueberry, but sometimes including cinnamon, cardamom, and dark cocoa.
It used to be that only washed coffees were considered export grade in Ethiopia – natural coffees were left for the local market (which drinks almost half of what the country produces), but Harar was the exception to this rule and carved a unique place for itself in the world of coffee with a flavour profile that was quite different from anything else.
The environment of Harar has always been close to the limit of what the coffee plant will tolerate, being hotter and drier than most growing regions. However, in recent decades Harar has been steadily becoming drier still, and relying on coffee for your livelihood has become more and more challenging. Farmers in the region have started to look elsewhere for income and as a result coffee is gradually being replaced by a different cash crop – khat – a psychoactive plant whose leaves are chewed for the euphoric effect they produce. Khat has been grown and consumed in Ethiopia for centuries, but its use has grown and spread throughout the horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, creating a large and lucrative market. Khat thrives in the dry conditions of Harar and can be harvested twice in the year while coffee only produces one crop, khat requires less water and less labour, and returns more income per kilo, which ultimately has meant that farmers increasingly choose to cut down their coffee trees and plant khat.
Khat growing in Harar, 2018.
Sadly, this has meant that both the quality and the quantity of coffee coming out of Harar has been dropping slowly for years, and lately it has become rare to see it for sale anywhere. My cupping records for Harar from 2010 use words like ‘apricot and blueberry, cocoa, and raisin’, words that have slowly given way to ‘leather, tobacco, clove and spice’ – something has certainly been changing over the years. The decline seems to have come to a head this year, because in early 2023, when we were looking to contract Harar, we were told that there was not enough coffee of sufficient quality available for us to buy, which has meant that for the first time in 18 years and half a million kilos of coffee, we no longer have Harar on our offer sheet.
Although we may have lost Yirgacheffe and Harar from our list for the moment, Ethiopia remains one of our most important origins, and still supplies some of our highest quality coffee. Over the years we have sold more and more Sidama and Guji, both of which come from the south of the country in the regions adjacent to Yirgacheffe that used to be called Sidamo.
Along with Yirgacheffe and Harar, Sidama is one of the three coffee regions in Ethiopia that have an international trademark. A significant amount of the coffee from this region is sold by the Sidama Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union (SCFCU), which is the second largest cooperative union in Ethiopia made up of 67 primary societies and representing over 80,000 farmers. We buy our Sidama coffee from two of these primary societies – we buy a Sidama-2 washed coffee from Wottona Bultuma, which is a very clean and bright, citrussy coffee with tea-like and slightly floral flavours. It has quite a light body, but great sweetness and clarity of flavour. Our other Sidama coffee, a Sidama-3 natural, comes from Shanta Golba, this is a coffee that has continued to increase in popularity since we started buying it several years ago. It has always been more expensive than other Ethiopian naturals because SCFCU encourages its members to use the same high-quality cherry for natural coffees as they do for washed. Because in Ethiopia natural coffees were always destined for the domestic market and not export, they were traditionally made using the lower grade cherries that were picked at the end of the season, tending to have more under and over-ripe fruit. With the Sidama natural coffees, this is not the case, and the Shanta Golba coffee is a very clean, very fruity, delicate and sweet cup.
Our Guji coffee comes from the Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union, the same as the Yirgacheffe and Harar, but from a region that has only relatively recently been recognised as a distinct coffee growing area. This fertile, lush, forested land of rolling hills is perfect for growing coffee and used to be considered a sub zone of Sidamo, but in recent decades, the unique quality of Guji coffee has enabled it to be differentiated and recognised as having its own identity. The Guji region also has significant mineral wealth, which has meant that historically movement within this region was restricted and thus washing stations and other coffee infrastructure were not developed to the same degree as in surrounding areas. Koba Mulatu, the primary society who we buy our Guji from, was founded in 1997 and operates a washing station where they produce both washed and natural coffees. We buy a Guji-2 washed coffee, which has a heavier-bodied cup than other southern Ethiopian coffees, with juicy, almost berry-like flavours but still possessing that characteristic faint floral, Ethiopian flavour.
We also buy a Guji-4 natural coffee from Koba Mulatu, which is a bit more ‘wild’ and uneven than the Sidama-3. It still has plenty of soft fruit flavour, but this is mixed with chocolate and spice flavours and a stronger ‘natural’ fermented character. The coffee tends to be a bit more irregular to look at and varied in the cup.
When it became apparent that we were unable to buy Harar this year, we made the decision to buy the most similar coffee that we could find as a replacement. The Guji and Sidama naturals don’t really have the same spicy dark cocoa flavour, so we needed to find something that did. We looked at coffees from the west of the country, where a lot of natural coffee is grown and the one that best seemed to fit the bill was a Jimma-3 natural from a primary society called Choche Guda. We have bought Jimma coffee before, but Choche Guda is new to us and the coffee has quite soft acidity with a medium body and dry spicy chocolatey flavours. Like the Guji-4, it can have an uneven appearance, but is quite consistent in the cup.
Coffee seedlings, Wottona Bultuma, Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union 2018.
As I stated at the beginning of this article, there is a huge amount of variety in Ethiopian coffee, and we are fortunate enough to be able to share a small portion of that variety with New Zealand coffee roasters. All of these coffees are produced in relatively similar ways – grown by smallholder farmers on plots that are usually only a few hectares, intercropped with food and other tree crops. They all have quite unique and distinct flavour profiles, reflecting the regional variation in not only the land and climate, but in the coffee plant itself.