SCAA Brings International Group to the Birthplace of Coffea Arabica

By Cait McGehee, SCAA

There are few things more enchanting for coffee professionals than traveling to origin. The breathtaking landscapes are enough to make our hearts skip a beat, not to mention the value of witnessing the various stages of coffee production firsthand and meeting the people who make it happen. Imagine experiencing all of that in the very birthplace of Coffea arabica—Ethiopia.

Last month, an international group of 20 Roasters Guild (RG) and Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) members left their shops and roasting machines behind for 7 days to learn the story behind Ethiopian coffee. It was an honor for me to travel with such an illustrious group. I met members of the specialty coffee community from the United States as well as Australia, Colombia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Portugal and Saudi Arabia. Aside from geographical differences, we were all on the same mission.

Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX), in conjunction with USAID, crafted an itinerary that took us trekking across primary coffee growing regions such as Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, and Guji. The first stop we made while in Addis was to ECX Headquarters where Mr. Tewodros Assefa, head of communications at the Exchange provided an overview of the Exchange’s past, present and plans for improvement in the future—which include improved traceability.

Photo by Joern Villwock

While at ECX HQ, we were able watch the action on the trading floor. Prices are negotiated between sellers (wearing green) and buyers (wearing yellow). Once a price was agreed upon, they would slap hands above their heads. The ‘high-5’ signified the transaction was complete. Selling prices are broadcasted in real time to coffee producers via digital screens, SMS, and a call-in hotline. With this basic information, coffee farmers have the opportunity to make an informed decision on when to sell their coffee.

Photo by Joern Villwock

We continued to Mullege processing warehouse (dry mill) in Addis. Six long tables each had about 50 women sorting green coffee for defects. It was a humbling sight to witness what goes into bringing us the best coffee. We continued to the lab where our first cupping of Ethiopian coffees was waiting for us. The owner of Mullege PLC invited us to his home for lunch and traditional coffee ceremony. We were greeted with his proclamation, “If you love coffee; we love you.” His warm hospitality was an example of what we were to experience throughout the week.

Our next adventure took us on a long, bumpy trip to Idido Washing Station in Yirgacheffe. We filed out of our bus and heard sweet melodies being sung by women sorting green coffee on a raised bed. This wet mill is part of the Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers Co-op Union (YCFCU). They received coffees from over 1,000 small farmers in the area. Our hosts walked us through the process from the arrival of cherries to drying.

Photo by Steven Lee

The long journey across Ethiopia was worth every jarring bump when we stepped out onto the Suke Quto farm. This certified organic farm was established in 2005, but to me it felt like we were pioneers discovering coffee trees for the first time over 2,000 years ago. Surrounded by tall, gangly coffee trees in a forest setting, we explored and tasted the ripe fruit. The Suke Quto farm values sustainability through agroforestry. Watching (and smelling) the process of composting and how organic fertilizers are made was quite the experience.

The trip would have been incomplete without a tour and explanation of how coffee is received into the ECX. Our hosts demonstrated a truck coming into the warehouse with a load of coffee. We saw the value they place on security and sampling—ensuring the coffee has not been tampered with since leaving its collection point.

My fellow travelers and I were overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge and first-hand experience gained. Ethiopia has a reputation for being a very special coffee. Now that I’ve seen it, tasted it in the field, and watched the steps it takes to export it, I have a better understanding of why it has gained this notoriety. This was a trip of a lifetime and I could not have picked a better group of professionals to experience it with.

caitCait McGehee is the Business Development Coordinator for the Specialty Coffee Association of America.