I never thought I’d go to Africa. Not really.
My wife always wanted to go. I used to joke that I’d miss her. The funnier joke now is that I could do justice to my time in Ethiopia with a blog post. I most certainly cannot.
A word about Ethiopia – and forgive me if this paint gets applied with a broad brush – I got my ass handed to me.
The three stooges have some great moves, what with all the back and forth slapping, eye poking, and ducking. It was like that but there was no back and forth. It was just me standing in for Curly, taking it from all sides.
Whatever you think you know, whatever you’ve heard, and God forbid, whatever you assume would be reasonable to expect in a place like this – it’s wrong. It’s wrong in so many ways I’m embarrassed for myself and anyone in a roaster/café environment who has professed even the smallest level of understanding about coffee in ___________ (insert producing country of your choice).
Imagine moving water with a pail full of holes. The water is the knowledge and the pail is the certainty of what you believed to be true in order to hold and transfer the knowledge. The holes, and your noticing them, are the updated reality of the specific place once you’re on the ground. You can never see the holes until you’ve spent time on the ground. Ideas hatched in the air-conditioned boardrooms of the world, no matter how clever, quickly fall apart without being informed by the matter-of-fact realities that are only discovered when you breath the same air as the coffee trees. One visit is barely enough to confirm how much you don’t know.
This humbling epiphany came to me over a nine-day period in early June of 2012 while I was in Addis Ababa. We were beta-testing ideas around the technical standards currently used by the Ethiopian Coffee Exchange (ECX).
Three years ago, heaven and earth was moved to conceive and implement the ECX. It is, by all accounts, a ravishing success. The sound of the vuvuzela from the small but persistent group of Specialty coffee people up in the bleachers not withstanding. The appropriateness of their righteous indignation and active ankle biting of the ECX depends on where you stand.
The concern from the Specialty folks is that previously, distinctive lots used to pass through an auction system with their provenance maintained. Now coffee lots are submitted to the exchange, graded, and then grouped together with same grade coffees. Dreamy, mouthwatering coffees are arguably getting lost and blended away into indistinct, exportable chunks of nothingness.
Now, how much of the entire country’s exportable volume of coffee do you think qualifies for this highest-level quality that is so in demand by Specialty people around the world over?
A lot right?
I mean the whole industry is laying on the ground, kicking their feet accompanied by rapid shallow breathing any four year old could show you.
If you guessed 2% you’re right.
98% of what is shipped is variations of commercial grade coffee. That is what is generating the real money today.
Ethiopia is a reasonably stable nation as far as things go in East Africa right now – arguably fast tracking ahead of it’s neighbours on many fronts. Exportable coffee is a key ingredient in their ability to generate hard currency and thus pivotal to the country’s ongoing growth and development.
Specialty coffee folks notwithstanding, to everyone else, coffee is a commodity game and therefore a volume game.
Coffee is coffee. It’s all the same more or less, right?
Ethiopia enjoys a distinctive fluency among both coffee professionals and regular coffee drinkers alike for it’s regionally different coffees. Credit to the movie Black Gold? Credit to their pursuit of Starbucks in the interest of trade marking the regional names?
Regardless of how, it’s happened such that the regions of Sidama, Yirgacheffe and Harrar are known abroad and garner a premium price befitting their premium taste. The descriptive qualities of these coffees are shamelessly poetic. For example, some comparatively tame tasting notes from a recent offering sheet to whet your appetite: blossom, lemony, milk chocolate, floral, typical Yirga flavour, score 87-88.
To one accustomed to a diet of a fine Grade 2 Yirgacheffe/Sidama that we buy exclusively, to cup through flight after flight of Jimma and Lekempti Grade 5s and beyond (to my delicate sensibilities, this is some rough stuff) during my time in Addis at the ECX lab – and realizing this is where the exportable volume and hence money making muscle, is coming from… it makes you thankful for the privileged access to the best stuff. It also makes you wonder why anyone would have an issue with the ECX, which is built for speed to handle this, more commercial, business. The main business, the real money generating business.
Now the potential for this 2% of Specialty coffee volume to grow is somewhat unique to Ethiopia. Looking to the future, does one make the choice to accentuate the positive, staying with the status quo, doing what is currently working and where the real money is coming from? Or, does one tap into the almost endless potential of flavour profiles that rest quietly undisturbed like a mother lode of precious metal in this country?
Ethiopia is unique for it’s undiscovered varieties of coffee plants! The cultivated world of Arabica coffee is currently a two trick pony of Typica and Bourbon and a baker’s dozen of some hybridized variations of these. Not so Ethiopia. They have thousands of yet undiscovered coffee varietals.
The Geisha varietal is one such card Ethiopia has already played. It is the current darling – and I do mean darling – of the Specialty world. A distinctive varietal originating in Ethiopia that has been harvested and promoted to ridiculous acclaim when grown in Panama. It has garnered fame and fortune of an unprecedented scale and is a strong example of what could be.
So, where is the next Geisha? It’s not a question of where. It’s in Ethiopia. It’s just a matter of when. Could they (and in turn, Specialty coffee) discover and nurture something like this? Absolutely.
On top of the diamond-like potential of the genetic richness of the coffee trees, there exists various and unique regions – some historically considered capable of only producing low-grade commercial coffee.
Current wisdom would suggest that the coffee from say, Bonga, is so consistently poor compared to an area like Yirgacheffe because that’s just the way it is. It’s from Bonga. Everyone knows that Bonga only produces a mediocre cup and there is just a certain magic, a certain je ne sais quoi that exists with the finest coffees grown in Yirgacheffe by comparison.
Closer inspection (and this applies to any area within the country including places like Jimma, Lekempti and beyond) is that potentially stunning coffees are being ruined or at the very least not fully realized because of poor processing. Bonga, which currently produces some rough stuff, may in fact be sitting on something incredible.
If that is the case, would a country like Ethiopia, that competes against the whole world of other coffee producing countries, do better to change tack and maximally differentiate their coffee and its unique qualities to every extent they could?
Playing a low grade, low price, commodity game is considered a race to the bottom. Certainly among Specialty folks, quality is the only way forward and a defining pillar of their belief system. But c’mon, 2%?
Academically, the quality-focused approach is a watertight argument, but practically? At the very least, it is not as simple as it first sounds or has been so eloquently argued by the founding principals of Specialty – a flag carried and waved by the current generation. “Give me quality or give me death” or something to that effect.
What to do? Looking to the future, there is so much potential that waits, untapped in a place like Ethiopia. There have already been amazing things and glimpses of this unrealized opportunity. That said the way forward is far from clear. Beware solutions that answer all the questions or finish with a fairytale flourish. Any ideas are most certainly only part of a much bigger, more complex story.