Chelba is a municipality in Ethiopia’s single most famous district, Yirga Chefe. Yirga Chefe is one of 7 districts in the greater Gedeo Zone, but its early reputation as the locus of the country’s greatest terroir and best processing (Yirga Chefe was the location of the country’s first washing station) quickly grew beyond the district itself. Now, the coffee nomenclature “Yirgacheffe” simply refers to the entire Gedeo Zone regardless of whether coffees originate from Yirga Chefe proper or not.
The Gedeo Zone as a whole is a coveted place. It is a narrow section of highland plateau dense with savvy farmers and fiercely competitive processors whose coffee has for decades been considered a benchmark for beauty and complexity in arabica coffee, which is known for being beguilingly ornate and jasmine-like when fully washed, and seductively punchy and sweet when sundried. It hardly requires an introduction for most roasters.
The Chelba washing station is owned and operated by Tracon Coffee, an independent exporter who manages 6 stations total in Gedeo. 460 individual smallholders contribute to Chelba, each averaging 1.6 hectares of coffee, and most of them also producing enset—a fruit-less relative of the banana tree whose pulp is scraped and packed into cakes, fermented underground, and then toasted as kocho, a staple starch in the area.
At Chelba, natural processed coffees are typically sorted by hand on arrival to the processing site and then taken directly to raised beds to fully dry, a process that takes about 21 days. This particular lot however received a unique twist on the traditional natural: fresh cherry is first vacuum-sealed in plastic bags for 120 hours, in an environment deprived of oxygen and increasingly pressurized by the carbon dioxide emitted in the fermentation of the fresh fruit. Once the vacuum fermentation is complete, the cherry, now pale yellow from loss of pigment, is transferred directly to raised beds to sun-dry for 15-18 days until the moisture is reduced to the level of a typical complete natural.
Oxygen-deprived, or “anaerobic” fermentation environments like the above have gained traction among processing wonks in coffee for the unique flavors and tanginess they can add, as well as creating exaggerated characteristics in the cup compared to what we’re used to. In this case, Tracon has created a distinctly intense and strawberry-dominant natural profile with soft acids and a structure that is both creamy and juicy. It is a digression from the mainstream for sure, and an objectively successful result.