Ethiopia is one of the most diverse and interesting coffee growing countries in the world. It produces numerous dramatic, flavourful and high quality coffees. The special wet and dry processing used by Ethiopian growers adds to the distinctive mouthfeel, and is a part of the reason that the country is so respected in the specialty industry.
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Ethiopia specialises in Arabica coffees, but it produces a huge range of different cultivars, and has a massive output, dwarfing the production of places like Tanzania and Kenya. It produces around 350,000 tonnes of Arabica per year, with the main growing regions being Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, Harrar, Djimma and Limu. Of those regions, Djimma produces the greatest volume of coffee, but the coffee grown in that region is mostly of commodity grade. The other regions tend to produce more specialty coffees. These coffees are processed using wet and dry techniques to produce powerful and clearly recognizable flavours that are unique to the Ethiopian area, and a part of the reason that the coffees grown here are in so much demand.
The Coffee Industry in Ethiopia
The coffee industry in Ethiopia is relatively mature today. Until the end of 2008, it was common for growers to sell directly to foreign markets, but this is now considered an unusual occurrence. The practice of direct export is now frowned upon, which is unfortunate for specialty coffee lovers because it makes it difficult for them to determine the precise provenance of the blends that they are buying.
The Ethiopa Commodity Exchange was established in 2008, and it was initially intended to be a platform for trading other crops, where the fact that they are undifferentiated is not an issue. The provenance of maize or haricot beans is not important to most people. The government brought coffee into the remit of the exchange in a bid to increase its revenues. While this benefits those who produce commodity coffees – because it gives them a sure market and predictable demand, it defeats the object of the specialty coffee business.
Unfortunately, when coffee arrives at the ECX, it is repackaged according to cup profile, removing the significance of the origin of the product. This does not harm the objective taste or quality of the product in any way, but it does mean that the buyer cannot trace the coffee back to a specific region, co-operative or grower. For buyers who are interested in supporting specific growers, or who care about regionality for other reasons, this takes away a lot of the character of the coffee.
Currently, about 90 percent of the coffee grown in Ethiopia is sold via the ECX. However, large co-operatives can ask for an exemption and the right to sell directly. Both importers and local roasters are lobbying the Ethiopian government to allow individual growers who produce specialty coffees to benefit from increased transparency. For now, however, lovers of specialty coffees should look for ones that are exported directly, and avoid the ECX for anything other than standard commodity blends.