Publisher’s note: check out our fresh crop Ethiopias.
In December 2018, a small group of us drove the mercifully paved high route from Yirga Alem, in Sidama, to Shakiso, in Guji, arriving in the dark. Early the next morning on our way to the farms we stopped at a café for fatira, a flaky breakfast pancake cut into squares, bowls of honey, and boiling hot macchiatos. The early sun was a disco ball in the scuffed windows. It was the beginning of the end of months of unrest in the south and the Gedeo and Guji zones were allowing transit again. A few months earlier, conflict had erupted across the Oromia region, Ethiopia’s largest by area and population, which surrounds the main southern coffee zones of Sidama and Gedeo, and includes Guji. Three years of continuous protests against the routine suppression of Ethiopia’s farming class and the Oromo people’s subjugation by a minority government had led to the resignation of the Prime Minister; what followed was a contested election for his replacement, and, tragically, violence between southern tribes over resources and political representation. On this morning, harvest was underway in central Guji and the landscape was quiet, notwithstanding the stunning breadcrumbs of recent events: charred 18-wheel trucks abandoned on the roadside, smashed merchant stalls in town, and the occasional glimpse through the gate of a washing station, its fragile drying beds destroyed in many cases by the same farmers who had for years traveled long distances to sell their cherry on the property. “When people are angry, they turn against each other like that,” said one of my companions, who was raised near Shakiso. “It’s crazy, they live together, go to school together, even their kids are married! But when tribes are activated it doesn’t matter.”
For many coffee businesses in Ethiopia in 2018, harvest would continue on the tramlines. Washing stations would open on normal hours, cherry prices would be perhaps lower than what they could have been in the un-hindered competition of local buyers, but outwardly it was as busy as ever. Coffee would be exported, as it must be by law, and bought the world over in U.S. dollars that would be put to work accelerating Ethiopia’s economy, the fastest growing in Africa. The coffee that year would be, unsurprisingly, gorgeous. It would be celebrated by retailers and counted on to bring home sustainability awards for their brands. It would undoubtedly convert skeptics of natural processing and even Specialty Coffee itself, as Ethiopias always do. Some is likely still roasting today, now 19 months past harvest, continuing to sustain blend profiles with its durable acidity or dried fruit flavors, or anchoring organic offerings until the first certified centrals are safely in production.
Complexities in sourcing coffee are not unique to Ethiopia. But it does sometimes feel like the contrast between the challenges we see and hear on the ground and the consistent excellence in the cup year after year is of a special degree. And therefore, how it is that we take for granted Ethiopia’s coffee will always amaze us, and that it does, should tell us something about our commercial relationship to the country. Or better, its commercial relationship to us. Anyone who has driven south of Shashamene on the main north-south route has gone cross-eyed at the condition and chaos of that road—over which all coffee produced in Sidama, Gedeo (Yirgacheffe), and Guji must travel to reach port. Yet each year it happens, the coffee arrives, and we are romanced again.
Sovereignty of Origin
To most coffee drinkers, Ethiopia as a place feels forever on the other side of a tantalizing gap. The coffees themselves, when made well, can be mind-alteringly complex and overwhelmingly fragrant. They taste different from all other countries’ coffees and are never convincingly interchangeable with any other washed or sun–dried arabica on Earth. From Ethiopia’s landscape comes some of the best-known flavor descriptors in the coffee world (blueberry, jasmine, bergamot) that are considered global benchmarks of flavor.
And yet Ethiopia—the origin of coffee itself—tends to frustrate the outside buyer. Say what you like about how the coffees taste, but most coffee professionals struggle constantly to keep up with the domestic bureaucracy or the tribal politics that influence cooperative membership, let alone simply verifying the varieties in their cup. In equal degree, Ethiopia’s sublime natural assets for coffee quality, as well as the capriciousness of its internal markets, are unique in the coffee producing world, and a foil to outside understanding. Add to this that coffee here is not tied to colonial profiteering or navigated via a national cultivar system with clear parentage, each a common basis for buyers to grasp the big picture of individual coffee countries. The opacity of its workings, in its way, is a beautiful nonviolent stance against appropriation.
Many of the troublesome historical rites of passage behind modern coffee production—colonial theft, clearcutting of primary forest, global price crises, fragile monocropping and its leaf rust epidemics, depleted soils, an absence of indigenous consumption or basic value of coffee itself—have hardly touched Ethiopia’s native coffee varieties and its millions of coffee-brewing farmers. The source of Ethiopia’s allure as a truly sovereign and ancient culture of coffee is its imperviousness to so much of the industry that cash-cropped the coffee belt around it.
This special allure is kept alive through marketing traditions. The notion of using the word “heirloom” as a variety signifier (notwithstanding that the vast majority of coffee in Ethiopia is commercially cultivated and consolidated, or that coffee across places like Indonesia, Timor Leste, the Philippines and others could be considered just as respectably ethnic in cultivation) invites us to appreciate coffee’s own nature as a gene pool, instead of the human mastery of its cultivation. On labels around the world, this single word implies what no cultivar’s name really could. This is not pure virtue, though. Ethiopia as a coffee marketplace is forever in flux, whose many languages, federal identity politics, and coffea genetics are impossible to fully track for roasters. So, the marketing of Ethiopia’s exotic-ness has been out of necessity as much as it has been out of respect. Because Ethiopian coffee, unlike the rest of the world, is a matter of heritage. This is undeniably a form of market capital for Ethiopia (albeit largely not an economic one for farmers) which is narrated by buyers and internalized by coffee drinkers, and which keeps demand high.
Legacy, nevertheless, cannot fully insulate any person. To farm coffee in Ethiopia is to struggle against many of the same forces of uncertainty that confront small farms everywhere. If there is relief to the hardships of being the first link in a long global trade network, for Ethiopian coffee farmers it may be the stable export prices, the land rites that allow small farms to safely persist, a vast series of fertile plateaus supportive of the best coffee in the world, and a rapidly-liberalizing export market. Nine cups of jebena–brewed coffee a day doesn’t hurt, either. Ethiopia famously consumes at least as much coffee as it exports; a baffling statistic considering it is the fifth–largest producer on the planet and has a population smaller than Japan.
Ethiopia has the fastest-growing economy in Africa, averaging 10% growth each year for the past decade. It is also one of the youngest, with at least 50% of the population below the age of 25. Royal’s deep history of buying and collaborating with some of the country’s most influential cooperative unions and independent exporters is showing accelerated progress. New channels are opening as well, as the Commodity Exchange now allows more direct exportation than in the past, and entrepreneurialism is starting to pick up in the more populated farming zones. Ethiopia is beginning to feel younger and nimbler as a marketplace. There is much ahead, even just this crop year.
A few hours south from Addis Ababa, it slowly dawns on you that you have arrived in Sidama. The climb from the southern end of the Great Rift Valley, through Shashamene and past Awasa is gradual, and coffee trees slowly increase in frequency, large, lanky, and dusty by the roadside, many so tall they lean on the roofs of houses for support. Coffees here are earlier than in the far south, tasting delicate, and citric. Sidama has one of the most robust cooperative unions in the country, with 53 member cooperatives, many with two or more processing sites—the peachy-floral coffee producing Homacho Waeno alone has four washing stations, as does Fero, one of the few sundried coffee producers in Sidama, and one of the largest.
There is nothing like the first fresh Sidama coffees of the year: herbaceous and juicy, cocktail-like with grilled stone fruit, honey, tarragon, mouthwatering tea-like aftertaste, and zesty textures. It is common for washed fermentation to undergo multiple water refills in the tank, during which the parchment brightens and the last hints of the coffee fruit itself are scrubbed away, leaving a range of enzymatic flavors and sugary sweetness intact.
Gedeo and Gedeb
Konga, Aricha, Dumerso, Kochere—household names to many Ethiopian coffee lovers—are central Gedeo Zone coffees. Gedeo, also known as “Yirgacheffe” after the zone’s most famous district, is a coveted narrow section of plateau dense with savvy farmers, unionized coops, private washing stations, and a thickening swarm of startup buyers jockeying for cherry. This is the best known, most expensive, and most traveled section of coffee production in Ethiopia. It is not uncommon for cherry prices to double halfway through a single harvest. Yirgacheffe as a profile is one of the more stereotyped in coffee, but coffees from one neighborhood to the next can be astonishingly different, perfume-like and then savory, or mango-like, then tasting of potpourri. The traditional sundried processing, originally practiced to ration water, avoid expensive infrastructure, and protect the coffee seed during long transit, in Gedeo enjoys a natural advantage: bone-dry and searingly hot afternoons and crisp cold nights help keep surface moisture off the cherry as well as congeal the sugars overnight for a slow osmosis and a well-protected coffee seed.
The district of Gedeb takes up the south-eastern corner of Gedeo. The town of Gedeb itself is a bustling outpost that links commerce between the Guji and Gedeo Zones, and the expansive processing station network in the Gedeb area includes some of the most famous natural profiles anywhere: the jammy fruit concentration of Worka and Banko Gotiti, the tropical brightness of Chelchele, and the snappy florals of Halo Bariti. Many of these stations buy cherry from across zone borders and would argue their coffee profiles are not exactly “Yirgacheffe”, but something of their own. The communities surrounding Gedeb reach some of the highest growing elevations for coffee in the world and are a truly enchanting part of the long drive into Guji.
It’s here in Gedeo that Royal, with support from select cooperatives, has led the formation of the Single Farmer Lots Program, in order to break off individual farmers’ coffees from the larger cooperative blends sold through the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX). By doing so, Royal can take custody of these precious coffees through a direct sale. The program is a unique micro-channel of almost unprecedented specificity in coffee supply from Ethiopia. Farmers with the drive and means to sell direct are supported by Royal, and, in turn, our most enthusiastic buyers of Ethiopia coffee have access to a portfolio of single-farm lots, un-diluted by the typical cooperative- and exporter-level consolidations. The Single Farmer Lots Program represents a very sweet end to a chaotic recent chapter in Ethiopia’s coffee history, and we think it is a model for what ought to be a generation of start-up relationship farming in Ethiopia’s world-famous southern zones.
Annual farm visits from Royal CEO Max Nicholas-Fulmer and regular communication with farmers through Haile Andualem, Royal’s representative on the ground in Ethiopia, has been an essential component for ensuring that farmers and washing stations are following strict farm management and post-harvest protocols. The results have been increasing cup quality and higher returns for the individual producers that Royal has come to count on for great coffee year after year.
There are few entrances to Guji–a distant and heavily forested swath of land stretching southeast through the lower corner of the massive Oromia region–and none of these routes are short, or for the queasy, in any way. Guji is heavy with primary forest thanks to the longstanding advocacy of the Guji tribe, a part of Ethiopia’s vast and diverse Oromo nation, who have for generations organized to reduce mining and logging outfits where they can to conserve the land’s sacred canopy. Compared to other coffee-heavy regions, large parts of Guji feel like prehistoric backwoods. Coffee farms in western Guji often begin at 2000 meters in elevation and tend to climb from there. To exit the Hambela district to the west, as nearly all the coffee must do to begin the trek north to Addis Ababa, one regularly reaches heights of 2600 meters or higher, and yet the scenery remains as fertile and bustling as anywhere.
The highland farming communities in this part of the country can be at turns Edenic in their natural purity, and startlingly remote. Our Grade 1s from this region are of some of the most explosive we see nationwide: dominated by florals and berry sweetness when washed, like those from Deri Kochoha and Shakiso areas; and exceedingly clean and fruit candy-like when sundried. There is more activity each year in Guji and the future of this region is undeniably strong in coffee, community, and business.
The Arc of Disambiguation
Royal Coffee is one of Ethiopia’s highest value buyers. We are annually in the top five for highest average price paid per ton of coffee exported. And we have been the highest in the world, while also being one of the largest by volume. Which is important only to the extent that it reflects our priorities as an independent trading team. It reflects as much what qualities we aren’t buying, as much as those we do. It represents the amount of quality information our team is willing to be accountable for when it comes to sourcing transparency. It also reflects our stance on the intrinsic value of these coffees and the growth we foresee. Since the mid-80s Royal has had a special relationship with the country and the coffees that help define it, and by extension Royal has been a sourcing guide for many roasters and a template for Ethiopia marketing narratives throughout the roasting world. The push and pull of long-term relationships in Ethiopia is challenging enough with processing and export systems forever in flux, which is why it was critical to bring Haile Andualem onto the team in 2016 for constant ground support and information. Haile’s background includes economic development work with cooperatives, documenting how Fair Trade has affected their lives. His insight is invaluable, and it is clear having him on the ground full time is the way.
“Disambiguation” might best define Royal’s role in Ethiopia trading as we see it now. Ethiopia, whose singular history of coffee has defied many of the world’s common narratives, still does need a market for its coffee. Millions still would benefit from stronger relationships between their processors and roasters. Ethiopia has certainly earned the right to dedicated pricing systems, niche markets, international collaboration, and economic mobility for farmers and processors of all sizes. And of course, the right to maintain its unique value throughout. Through the establishment of the Cooperative Unions and the installment of the ECX in the mid-aughts, to the present period of direct-export liberalization and single farmer empowerment, Royal has focused on maintaining the best lineup possible, with an emphasis on clarity and context. Furthermore, we focus on doing so without misplacing Ethiopia’s important intrinsic value, which must persist as the coffee systems themselves modernize–and they certainly will.
For a more information on the evolution of how coffee is sold in Ethiopia and Royal’s relationship with this beloved origin, please check out this webinar featuring Max Nicholas-Fulmer, Caitlin McCarthy-Garcia and Haile Andualem entitled “What’s Happening in Ethiopia?” You can also check out our fresh crop Ethiopia offerings here.