The famed birthplace of our beloved coffee is still one of the top 5 biggest producers in the world. With government bodies controlling the industry (ECX - Ethiopian Commodity Exchange), there is a certain mystique about the Ethiopian coffee industry. Mystique, corruption, same same. At the moment, specialty, traceable lots of coffee are being exported, but this doesn't come easily. The specialty coffee industry has been battling to get more transparency in the system.
Ethiopia is where all the coffee in the world comes from. Actually, the spread of coffee around the world is owed to two particular coffee species; Arabica and Robusta. The Arabica species is in fact a hybrid of Robusta and another species known as Eugenioides. Ethiopia has thousands of un-named, wild species of coffee growing. The government has made it illegal to name varieties in order to protect their unique coffee industry. They feel that if no-one else can have these un-named species of coffee, Ethiopia’s coffee can maintain its distinctiveness of flavour. They believe that all Ethiopian coffee of the same grade should command the same price, no matter what variety it is and where it comes from. This is the complete opposite mentality to those in the specialty coffee industry, who want to know as much information as possible about the coffees they buy.
To get coffee out of any producing country takes a few steps. The simplest way to describe it is:
Coffee cherries get picked
Cherries then get processed (natural, semi-washed or washed)
Cherries are dried, sorted and graded for export
Cherries are exported/imported
In most countries, all these steps can be done by the same people. To get coffee out of Ethiopia is a different story. The growing and processing happens very normally, by either a smallholder farmer, who may or may not be a part of a co-operative, or a privately owned estate. The coffee is then sent to the ECX for grading. If the coffee comes from a privately owned estate or a privately run co-operative, the ECX will grade the coffee, then send it back to the co-op or estate to allow them to export it through an Ethiopian export company (no non-Ethiopian companies are allowed to export!). If the coffee came from a small farmer who does not belong to a co-op, the ECX will pay the farmer for his/her coffee and will then blend it with coffees of similar grades from other producers. This coffee is then sold as a regional coffee, rather than a traceable coffee.
Specialty coffee buyers who like to buy Ethiopian coffees will often have an ‘agent’ who either works at the ECX or in its warehouses. Traceability is quite easy to follow for all the steps leading up to the ECX. Once a bag enters the ECX, it is hard to acquire that same bag again. These agents will ensure that certain desirable lots of coffee coming into the ECX, leave with the people who wanted it. This can be quite lucrative for these agents.
At the end of the day, the farming in Ethiopia is quite rudimentary and steeped in tradition. The amazing thing is how good their coffees can be, even when processed with old methods. Imagine what can happen if the government starts allowing other nationalities to do research and put investments into their coffee industry. We may need a new coffee scoring system (>100).