Western Ethiopia is considered by most to be the birthplace of coffee, specifically the region of Kaffa from which the name of our favorite hot beverage is derived!
Arguably the highest quality coffees from Ethiopia are washed, and historically have been from the southern regions of the country around Sidamo and Yirgacheffe. These areas also have a highly developed culture of attention to detail in farm husbandry, cherry picking and wet processing, all things that western Ethiopia had lacked until very recently.
In 2009, Washington D.C. based NGO TechnoServe started working with coffee growing communities around the town of Jimma in Western Ethiopia (around six hours drive west of Addis Ababa,) using a model they'd developed to organize smallholder farmers into centralized cooperatives. These cooperatives center around a washing station, drying area and store house, and the coop directors and members receive training on best practices for cultivation, picking and processing. This access to equipment and education gives these farmers a previously unknown ability to produce quality comparable to the best producing regions of Ethiopia. Additionally, the coop members market their coffee jointly and are able to export directly via the local cooperative unions which means greater traceability for buyers and higher sales premiums.
The western coops are modeled very similarly to each other. They utilize mechanical mucilage removers (aqua-pulpers or eco-pulpers) to physically scrape the mucilage off of the parchment rather than the traditional washing process whereby natural fermentation causes the mucilage to disintegrate and loosen from the parchment to the point that it can be removed just by moving the coffee through canals with water. It's currently a hot topic in the industry whether or not fermentation itself contributes to the quality of the coffee. You could probably read this in 2020 and it will still be a point of debate! Effectively, there are so many examples of fantastic mechanically washed coffees that one couldn't say that mechanically washed coffee can't be good. A few of the massive benefits of mechanically washing are:
- The equipment uses far less water (around 1/10th the amount required by fermentation)
- The equipment requires far less infrastructure (no concrete tanks or washing canals required, just a platform to bolt the machine to)
- Maybe most importantly, the processing is far more consistent than fermentation which can vary greatly depending on environmental conditions (temperature, wind, humidity, etc.)
Once the cherries are picked, sorted for ripeness and delivered to the washing station at the end of the day, they're run through the mechanical washer which removes the pulp and the mucilage (both of which go to compost.) The depulped and mechanically washed parchment coffee then goes into a tank of clean water to soak overnight until the next morning when conditions are appropriate to begin drying. The wet parchment first goes to a "skin drying" area which is usually shaded, so the surface moisture of the parchment can be dried away. Wet parchment spends most of the first day on the skin drying tables, and is then transferred to the main drying tables where it spends around two weeks before reaching 11% moisture. During these two weeks, the drying parchment is frequently turned over so it dries uniformly, and often covered with mesh or plastic to protect it from the sun during the hottest times of the day. The raised beds are mesh or rattan so air flows beneath the coffee as well as above. Once the coffee's dried it goes into 50 kg bags which are stored in the store house until the coop has around 150 x 50kg bags of parchment which is just about a truck load. At that point, a truck moves the parchment from the coop warehouse to the union warehouse until a buyer is found.
Atlas began purchasing from these western coops in 2011, and is currently buying from groups in the regions of Kaffa (Chiri, Wodiyo, Diri,) Limu (Nano Buna Sebaka, Tencho, Wolenso) and Ilubabor (Loko Saya.) You can see the exact locations of each of these coops on our Maps Page. For a number of reasons we're very excited to be working with these new groups. An entirely new spectrum of washed Ethiopia character is revealed in these coffees, and as processes and access to resources improve we've seen even greater improvements in quality and regional differentiation each year. If you've stuck to Sidamo or Yirgacheffe coffees, possibly because they've always been a safe bet, I encourage you to give these western Ethiopia coffees a shot. They're still relatively new to market, so you'll have a unique, excellent Ethiopia coffee that your neighbor might not!
Moving on to southern Ethiopia, I was able to spend a few days visiting Yirgacheffe (a.k.a Yirga Cheffe, Yirga Chefe,) just about seven hours drive south of Addis Ababa. Yirgacheffe's known for producing some of the best coffee in the world period, so well known that the Ethiopian government has the name "Yirgacheffe" registered as a trademark to protect the value of the designation. While much of Yirgacheffe's coffee is sold to private exporters via the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX,) most traceable coffees currently are managed by cooperatives and exported directly by the Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmer's Cooperative Union. Atlas has been buying from two coops primarily: Koke (in the heart of Yirgacheffe) and Dama (just outside of the town of Dila.) These Yirgacheffe coops operate similarly to those in the West except that they employ traditional fermentation washing practices rather than mechanically washing. The processing protocols can vary some between the Yirgacheffe coops as well, whereas the western coops tend to follow much more consistent standards.
Plenty of private washing stations exist around Yirgacheffe, though the coffees from these washing stations are homogenized through the ECX. There have been a few programs proposed that would improve the traceability of private lots through the exchange, but to date no new systems have been put into place. Atlas buys dozens of containers of fantastic Sidamo and Yirgacheffe coffees each year that our exporters obtain through the ECX, and the quality of the coffees we receive is excellent more often than not. That said, as traceability grows increasingly important to consumers (i.e. roasters,) we'll continue to look forward to a day when private exporters can sell traceable coffees directly to buyers.
What do we have to look forward to from 2014 shipments from Ethiopia? Atlas will continue to develop our relationships with western coops, most likely focusing on groups in Kaffa and Ilubabor. These areas are full of potential and we've been extremely happy with our 2013 deliveries from Chiri and Loko Saya in particular. In the south, expect to see offerings from Koke and Dama coops again, and keep an eye out for naturals from both coops. We've never purchased natural processed Koke nor Dama in the past, but they produce a decent amount so assuming the quality is as great as the washed coffees we'll be looking to add some to our offerings. While Yirgacheffe is one of Ethiopia's most developed coffee sectors, there are still small groups whose coffees are being blended into obscurity that would love to find buyers interested in long term collaboration. We have a couple of projects in the works, and will keep the updates coming as we progress.
Feel free to write to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about the info above. Of course, coffee is living, evolving and immeasurably complex, so please note that everything here is based on perspective and experience, and may be contrary to others' experiences. We hope you find it a helpful tool alongside your other educational resources.