Thanks for visiting! In this section, we share our experiences in the places where coffee is grown. Traveling to origin and learning about the environment and culture of coffee growing countries are vital parts of what we do. We value coffee as a medium for cultural exchange, and we hope you enjoy these accounts of what we have experienced and learned.
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.
From the Road: Ethiopia 2009, Part 110-30-09
Hello from Ethiopia!
Well, I’ve been in Ethiopia for about a week now, and haven’t written any reports yet. The reason is, I’ve been super busy! Let me tell you all about it.
I’m here wearing two hats: my first is as Vice President of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Here’s the story: Last year, the country of Ethiopia made some dramatic changes in the way they manage their national coffee sector. Coffee is both culturally and economically important to Ethiopia—coffee’s birthplace is in Ethiopia, and every Ethiopian regards coffee as part of their national heritage. In addition, coffee exports are by far the largest source of income for the country. So, when the Prime Minister decided to engage in a program of market reform in the Ethiopian coffee sector, it was a big deal. Enter Dr. Eleni Gebre-Medhin, an incredibly charismatic and insightful woman who has made market reform in Ethiopia her life’s work, from her studies at Cornell and Stanford to her career at the World Bank. Dr. Eleni, as she is known in Ethiopia, was given the task of adapting her innovative model of an African-created commodity exchange—developed to improve markets all over Africa—to the Ethiopian coffee industry. This was a monumental and controversial task, and her genius and enthusiasm has made her a celebrity in Ethiopia and abroad—she was the subject of The Market Maker, a PBS documentary, and her work has become a touchstone for economic discussion and research worldwide.
Unfortunately, Dr. Eleni’s introduction of the new Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) was marred by controversy in the coffee world. The introduction of the ECX corresponded to the national government’s tightening of regulations in the coffee industry, which had grown lax over the past few years. The market reacted with suspicion and anger, since certain coffee projects (like our favorite Idido Misty Valley) now fell outside the system and would not be possible. This all began to emerge late last year, and as chair of the SCAA’s Symposium, I was able to add an emergency session to the schedule, where Dr. Eleni came in person to explain the changes to an upset coffee industry. It was a bit of a bloodletting, but what emerged was a working group between the ECX and the SCAA to try and adapt the new Ethiopian system to the needs of the Specialty Coffee marketplace. Sound complex? It is. Dr. Eleni, myself, and a small task force have been engaged since then in work to introduce enhanced quality, transparency, and traceability to the innovative Ethiopian coffee system.
Last week, the ECX hosted a conference in Ethiopia to introduce and discuss this work with the Ethiopian coffee sector. About 150 Ethiopian coffee exporters, farmers, traders, and policymakers gathered in Addis for this important conference. I came with a small delegation representing SCAA and our sister associations in Asia and Europe. It was a huge deal here, the conference was constantly covered by national newspapers and television networks! We engaged in a busy four days of discussion and negotiation, and we achieved a lot! I am so proud to have taken part in this work, and I am especially proud that Counter Culture’s innovations in direct trade with coffee farmers had a profound effect on those who work in the coffee industry here, and our direct trade system helped provide some of the groundwork for ECX’s introduction of an innovative “Direct Specialty Trade” auction system where buyers like us will be able to purchase lots directly from farmers and farmer groups in an open, modern marketplace in Addis. Exciting!
The work itself was thoroughly enjoyable, not least because an important coffee conference in Ethiopia would not be complete without coffee ceremonies. Just before the opening remarks, the main parties of the conference shared a coffee ceremony at the front of the auditorium, demonstrating our understanding and respect for the cultural importance of coffee here. The coffee ceremony never stopped for the next four days, and I could pop out of a policy-making session at any time to sit down for a cup of fragrant, sweet Ethiopian coffee. Awesome! In the end, we emerged with a very positive and concrete set of proposals to the Ethiopian government, which will be rolled out over the next few months. If you’re interested in the details, you can read ‘em here!
I spent the rest of my time in Addis learning more about the innovative ECX trading system, which takes coffee trading to a whole new level. It’s truly amazing. I also spent lots of time with the exporting community, including our old friend Abdullah Bagersh, and new friends from across the industry. It was great to talk shop and get the scoop on what is happening with this year’s harvest, which is just getting underway in the countryside.
My final duty with the ECX was an 8-hour drive to the town of Dilla, where the ECX was inaugurating a new regional warehouse and quality laboratory. Dilla is in the south of the country, in the region known as Sidama, and we made the long trip through the dramatic and captivating rift valley by bus. We arrived to a major local event—the unveiling of this new system is a really exciting thing for the coffee community in places like Dilla. The media were in attendance again, as were local government officials, the Minister of Agriculture, and the local elders, the King and Prince of the Gedeo people, the primary ethnicity in this part of Sidama. We were welcomed effusively with dancing and speeches, and Eleni and I were given traditional Gedeo outfits by the elders to make it all official. Excellent! It was a great way to end what I’m sure will go down as a historic meeting in the modern history of the Ethiopian coffee trade. We then embarked on a series of visits and dinners to local traders, who all wanted to celebrate Dr. Eleni’s innovations and the new era of the Ethiopian coffee trade. Many lambs were slaughtered for the occasion, and we attended at least five huge feasts of injira bread, roasted lamb, and coffee ceremony. What an experience.
We all spent the night in beautiful huts in Yirga Alem, and the next day I embarked on the second part of my trip, this time wearing the hat of a coffee buyer, exploring Sidama, Yirga Chefe, and parts beyond. I’ll leave that story for the second part of my report. Until then, Bunafi naga hinabina. (May you never lack coffee or peace.)
I miss you all,
Next: the road to Yirgacheffe!