From the Road: Ethiopia, Part II: The Southern Region!11-03-09
Well, I promised another update. As I mentioned before, part 2 of this trip to Ethiopia was exploring the Southern Region of Ethiopia, and the coffee regions of Sidama and the most famous little coffee town in the world, Yirgacheffe.
It’s a long trip from Addis to the mountains of the Southern Region, but making this trip has always felt like a trip to Mecca for me. The landscape is heartbreakingly beautiful, and as the car climbed from Lake Awasa into the mountains of Sidama, I began to feel giddy and excited. Here is the ancient homeland of coffee, where ancient Ethiopians discovered the marvelous coffee bush and its sweet cherries, where they first dried and roasted the coffee seeds, and where the first dark, intoxicatingly fragrant cups of coffee were first shared among friends and family. Everyone in this country drinks coffee every day, and the fragrance of coffee rides along the breezes, along with the ever-present smell of fresh grass, rain, and flowers. The people of this region were known to the ancients as “the people who live in baskets” after the beautiful basketlike huts which line the roads and farms of these hills.
I was on a mission to get to as many villages and coffee mills as I could and talk to as many farmers and mill managers as possible about the upcoming harvest and the changes in the Ethiopian coffee industry over the past year. I’ve lost track of the order by now, but I wound up visiting Bagersh’s Michile, Idido, Biloya, and Fischa Genet mills; Salomon Worka’s Wendo and Koke mills; Ambessa’s Kochere mill; and a couple of smaller Akrabi-owned mills in Sidama and Yirgacheffe. The harvest is just getting underway in the Southern region, and farmers are bringing their first baskets of coffee to the mills. It’s an exciting time, especially because the trees are loaded with fruit—this season appears to be producing a bumper crop, and farmers are celebrating. Women at the drying tables sing as they sort the coffee under the sun, men chant work songs as they use their wooden rakes to wash the coffee beans of their sticky mucilage. In any agricultural community, harvest time is a celebration, and Yirgacheffe is no different. Here are a couple of videos of washing and drying taking place right now at the Idido mill in Yirgacheffe (shown above), and the Michile mill in Sidama.
I was also able to spend time with farmers, learning about coffee varieties, local coffee prices, and their thoughts about quality in coffee. I was able to thank the farmers in the town of Aricha surrounding the Idido mill for producing some of my favorite coffees of all time. In turn, I learned about the Kurume, Dega, and Wolisho varieties, which without question are a huge part of the magnificent flavor of the Idido Royal Washed and Misty Valley Sundried coffees. Which brings up the million dollar question: will Biloya, Wondo, and Idido—now famous producers of incredible-quality coffees—be able to direct-export coffee this year? Well, the answer is complicated. The good news is, they are all producing great quality coffees already, which will be tendered to the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. And, since the Exchange has established new qualifications for its grades 1 and 2, with extra quality analysis and geographical indication, it is clear that there will be some extraordinary lots coming through the Exchange.
At the same time, there exist the very beginnings of a new way of trade in Ethiopian coffee. Our negotiations at the national level created an opportunity for direct negotiations with farmers, supported by millers like Bagersh and Worka. I know it sounds intuitive, but it is actually a big step for Ethiopia, where true Direct Trade with farmers has never really been done. I was able to sit down with coffee farmer Gebede Bare at the Idido mill, and start the trust-building process that sets the stage for purchasing his coffee directly. It’s a new dawn for farmers like Gebede, who have never even thought of selling their produce directly to a roaster—they were always able to sell their coffee locally to a co-op or mill, and that was that. So, in the end, the challenges of the new system can wind up bringing buyer and farmer still closer, which is something we love. I left my business card with Gebede, and we shook hands, promising to figure this whole thing out. I popped a coffee cherry into my mouth, and tasted the effervescent sweetness of Idido coffee, fresh off the tree. We’ll be tasting this again soon.