Coffee Talk: Ethiopia

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By Danny Pinnell, SCAA

Each year, the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Annual Exposition, The Event, highlights a Portrait Country. This tradition began because our community decided to pay attention to a specific coffee origin every year, giving us the chance to learn more about different coffee origins. Every year brings a different origin, a different country to put in the spotlight and learn about, talk about, and put our focus on.

This year, our Portrait Country is Ethiopia. Collectively, our community at the show this year will pay special attention to this country – not to detract from any other countries of origin that participate in our conference, but rather to celebrate one of the special coffee origins that exist within our community.

And Ethiopia is especially special. Here are a few reasons why:

First, Ethiopia is the origin of coffee itself.

Ethiopia Forest

On the projection screen in our conference room, Peter Giuliano had a picture of an Ethiopian forest.

“Most people don’t associate Ethiopia with forests,” he said. “People associate Ethiopia with the desert.”

The picture on the screen represented what Southwest Ethiopia looks like. The amazing, Eden-like (Peter’s words) forest. This kind of forest is where coffee evolved and was discovered by human beings.

ethiopian coffee ceremonyThe Ethiopian coffee ceremony (which you can read more about in a previous coffee talk) helped develop the tradition of consuming coffee and brewing into a beverage. The coffee pot with a long, narrow neck is the symbol of coffee in Ethiopia. It is as symbolic of coffee in Ethiopia as the cup with the handle is to us.

Ethiopia is the epicenter of coffee, the homeland of both coffee as a biological plant and as a beverage and tradition.

Second, Ethiopia is probably the most diverse coffee origin in the world in terms of coffee flavor. There are a variety of processes used in Ethiopia: washed, sun-dried, natural, etc. There are a large number of cultivars and botanical varieties, there is a lot of environmental diversity—deserts on the west and the forests on the east—that leads to different flavors in the coffees that are grown in Ethiopia.

Harar, which is a very dry, arid, desert, produces very different tasting coffees than the lush, wet, cool areas in the southwest.

For this meeting, we prepared three different coffees from Ethiopia.

  1. Kemgin by Think Tank Coffee – “White peach, lime, honeydew, ginseng, milk chocolate.”
  2. Konga by Static – “Floral and sweet with notes of honeysuckle, red grapes, and red apple.”
  3. Ethiopia by Proud Mary, a “tabletop sunny” natural with a berry taste, my personal favorite among the three.

Each of these three coffees tasted radically different from the others, but they were all from the same origin: Ethiopia.

Third, almost all the coffee produced in Ethiopia is produced by very, very small-holder farmers. Farmers in Ethiopia often walk miles to bring a small bag of coffee to a washing station to sell it.

That creates some problems – smallness is not necessarily an advantage to a farmer. But, on the bright side, the idea of small farms is very resonant to people who pay special attention to the origin of their food.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetPeople go to the farmers markets to buy avocados from small avocado farms–no coffee origin is more imbued with small farmer-ness than Ethiopia. Unlike a country like Brazil, where most of the farms are quite large, the majority of the farms in Ethiopia are quite small and are largely family operations.

Many of these small Ethiopian coffee farms work closely with other farmers in a co-op. A co-op is formed when farmers group together and they try to control their own production. So they might buy a washing station together. That co-op might join with other co-ops to export their coffee together.

This is really happening in Ethiopia. Anytime you buy a coffee from Ethiopia that’s labeled “fair trade” or “organic,” it is certain that is has come from a co-op. And co-ops are an extremely powerful, progressive force in coffee.

Join in the celebration of Ethiopia as a coffee origin and portrait country for the 27th Annual Event next week in Seattle.