buying process

Ethiopia: Coming Back to Cooperative Coffee

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Our Previous Relationships with Cooperatives via TechnoServe

During the initial phase of Technoserve’s (TNS) work with cooperatives in Ethiopia, Kaffa in Oslo imported green coffee directly (pre-CCS) and roasted a few lots from some of the TNS supported washing stations, including Yukro, Hawa Yember and Hunda Oli.

I first got involved with some of the TNS coops during the 2009/10 season. Groups of roasters from around the word were invited, particularly from USA and Scandinavia, as they were seen as discerning buyers in viable markets. TNS was presenting their work at SCAA, SCAE and at roasting community events. These presentations weren’t really within TNS’ self-proclaimed mandate nor model, rather it was done to train and empower local representatives to learn how to market themselves.

KAFFA bought some lots but service was slow, samples hard to get, lots were sold out before one had time to provide feedback, and even if one visited to cup and buy on-site, the unions seemed to favor the ‘bigger’ roasters. When ‘dealing’ with the coops, one quickly learned that they didn’t truly have control over their products. It felt like one had to scramble to get ahold of something rather than being able to pick and choose properly, the way we’d do it in, let’s say, Kenya. Commitments were certainly not honored. It was all quite discouraging.

When I re-visited at the end of the harvest in 2012, the cooperatives were not just under-funded; they’d had little to no money just before the beginning of the harvest to pay for cherries. When I additionally learned that the harvest had been very low, I initially thought the low volume had to do with little yield per tree/farm. In reality, the low volume was due to farmers not being able to afford to deliver cherries to places that couldn't pay them up-front. This in turn meant low volumes at the washing station. Coop washing stations could only purchase as much coffee cherries as their credit line allowed them to. The irony of the TNS coops’ credit drought was that Oromia Union, their partner-in-crime, didn’t lend their coops the resources needed to buy cherries and hence, thrive. Even though customers were lined up to buy, complete dysfunction ruled at the most basic levels.

The quality management of the cherries was also poor and this related to the above economic problems. When you’re struggling to pay in the first place, you end up scrambling to get what few cherries you can afford. This is not the time to be scrutinizing the cherries’ maturity and uniformity.

Just as discouraging was the administrative and fiscal dysfunction. I wanted us to stay away as long as the Oromia Union stayed involved.

Now, five years later, the time feels right on many levels. And I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on our previous experiences, as well as provide some background info that will hopefully be helpful to you. Full disclosure: I am “collecting” this information from memory, so bear with the fact that some of it is anecdotal.

Former TechnoServe staff, Aansha Yassin

Former TechnoServe staff, Aansha Yassin

TechnoServe’s Coffee Initiative

TechnoServe (TNS) is an NGO that was founded in 1968 and has been funded by the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. TNS works with development initiativesin many countries including within Africa and mostly with agro-businesses — coffee amongst others — utilizing local natural resources and human potential to create economic advantages. What I like about the Gates Foundation approach is the clearly expressed belief that making good business (product and management) is both the means and the goal. In other words, participating communities utilize what they already have – local resources and the development of community members’ own knowledge and skills – to create better economic opportunities.

In Ethiopia, the Coffee Initiative was started in 2008 with investment from the Gates Foundation. This allowed TNS to do coffee work on a large scale and in new places like Ethiopia and this particular project had a five-year mandate. One of the beautiful ideas and high ambitions of the program was to empower local people to learn about the specialty coffee field by crafting great coffee: managing it as a business; doing lot separation; assessing quality through cupping; communicating monetary value through quality; and finally, marketing and offering it to a discerning marketplace.

TNS intelligently set out to focus their efforts in the western regions of Ethiopia. This part of the country has always had a rich history in producing coffee. As far as we know, this was the birthplace of coffee. Still at the time that TNS came in, coffee from the west didn’t have fame, nor was it fetching the high prices coffees in the south were getting (such as e.g. washed Sidamo and Yirgacheffe).

The western lowlands are home to Bebeka Estate, which up until recently was the largest government owned estate farm. This estate is now owned by Mr. Al Amodi, who is also the current owner of the Horizon Dry Mill. Also located in this region, are areas such as Djimmah, which was synonymous with low grades of naturals.

Although many areas in the west do have the altitude for producing high quality coffee, the infrastructure wasn’t in place to produce and supply good coffee, whether because of the lack of equipment to produce it (very few wet mills), or getting products to the marketplace (poor roads). Thus, TNS’ strategy was to change the perception of West Ethiopian coffee by both efficiently producing washed coffeefor a specialty coffee market, and by making this coffee logistically accessibleto the market. Though roads were built and upgraded independently of TNS initiatives, these kinds of efforts went hand-in-hand.

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The TechnoServe Way

TNS proposed that the coops install eco-pulpers at all the washing station projects they got involved with. This was a controversial prospect at the time, given the strong tradition up until then of the Ethiopian wet process being about fermenting with mucilage before washing. As we know, eco-pulpers have benefits, including saving water and requiring a lower up-front investment than the traditional wet process set-up with its many large fermentation tanks and washing channels.

Part of the TNS agenda was to help build equitable business projects, even helping with the financing, implementation of transparent bookkeeping, and overall good management by:

  • Facilitating the process of applying for and getting loans to buildthe technical infrastructure: buying eco-pulpers, building washing stations and drying beds;
  • Facilitating the process of applying for credit from banks so the coop could buy cherries. When a farmer arrives with coffee cherries, on any given day, the coop is expected to pay for the delivery on the spot. Thus, a lot of cash is required even before the start-up of the harvest season. Not to mention all the cash required to carry out the season;
  • Helping to create a marketing plan (on behalf of the union): market outreach, market access, quality control and sample distribution
  • Operational management, planning, and fiscal control.

Some of the most successful TNS coops managed to pay back the investment of equipment and infrastructure in less than 2 years, which is considered a great success by any business standard.

The ECX

The ECX

TechnoServe During the time of the Revamping ECX

Little did TNS know that their program would be in stark contrast to ECX’s coming implementation of anonymity in the auction process. The new ECX structure was coincidentally put in place very soon after the TNS cooperatives were inaugurated and ready to hit the market with their attractively traceable coffees. The Coffee Initiative's original intention in Ethiopia was never to work with the Unions. In the first year, 2009, it tried to create a model where coops could work directly with private exporters. However, the Unions/government brought this process to a grinding stop. Eventually, all the coffees had to be taken over and exported by the Unions, and the contracts renegotiated. This was a major blow to the program because no one, including TNS, trusted that the Unions would be efficient, transparent, etc.

Specialty coffee buyers were flocking to TNS’ washing station projects. Although the coffee quality was not top-notch in the very beginning, the model at least provided a transparent trade model and TNS was pushing to make sure the farmers and their communities were rewarded with premium prices above the Fair Trade/Organic models.

When a washing station is owned by a cooperative, the contributing farmers collectively own the coop, but they must nominate a union to handle their milling and marketing for which the coop is charged a service fee. It usually makes sense to get these services from a union that is involved in the region, and hopefully it is also offering competitive terms. Even if the milling fee is regulated by law, unions have a reputation for taking advantage of the coops by charging the maximum fee possible and/or screening and processing lots to their own benefit (e.g. ‘mixing up’ lots, blending and even stealing).

The coop-union relationship is generally one where the union arguably has the ‘upper hand’. Since the union ends up with the parchment coffee in their possession, and being that they become the party that markets the coffee, they are the ones to send samples out to potential buyers.

In other words, even if a union is intended to be an intermediary part in the transparent relationship between a producer and a buyer, the unionis the primary contact and by default becomes the ‘owner’ of the relationship.

All this said, that dynamic briefly changed as soon as the TNS coops and washing stations earned their own fame, consequently bypassing the unions in building relationships directly with their end buyers (roasters).

TNS coops were obliged to deliver to various unions, as made geographic sense. Unfortunately, this only lasted for the first year of operation under TNS supervision. Once the Oromia Unionand its powerful and charismatic leader saw the success and prestige associated with trading directly with affluent coffee buyers around the world, it didn’t take long before all the TNS coops were forced to mill and market their coffee through the Oromia Union.

Oromia Union’s experiencewith lot separation, handling of the respective samples, and the necessary marketing efforts were generally not well developed initially. To overcome this, TNS opened regional offices with cupping facilities, training local staff and offering opportunities for buyers to access coffee without having to depend on the union. These efforts were meant only to be an temporary solution, while Oromia Union was supposed to equip itself with skilled staff, adequate systems and protocols, and building marketing strategies.

In my opinion this became and remained the weakest link with the TNS-developed supply chain. When TNS ended their project term, Oromia was still struggling to get things right.

Limmu is primarily where our coop coffees this year will come from

Limmu is primarily where our coop coffees this year will come from

Returning to Cooperative Coffee

I am very pleased to announce that CCS is going into this season with a more diverse approach to sourcing and buying in Ethiopia. In addition to offering stellar ECX coffees; and micro-lots from private estates; CCS will introduce cooperative coffees to the menu. It is promising indeed thus we are looking forward to presenting a carefully curated list of lots from thoughtfully selected coops in the Limu/Djimmah region of the west!

The reasons for this optimism are these necessary turn of events: 1) Other Unions, for all the above-mentioned reasons, have emerged to service the coops; and 2) Quality, compliance, and commitment seem to hold a higher priority than in the earlier years of my experiences with the cooperatives and the Oromia Union.

We cannot wait offer you to taste the 'fruits' coming from all these emergent changes. Enjoy!

Robert

—founder of KAFFA and Collaborative Coffee Source (CCS)

Corrections: 1) the previous version incorrectly stated that TechnoServe was founded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and has been corrected to reflect the fact that the NGO was founded in 1968 and that the Gates Foundation is  one (albeit a large one) source of funding for TNS.

2) it was never TNS' original intent to work with Unions, as was implied in the earlier version. The post has been corrected to reflect the fact that TNS' aim was to work directly with cooperatives, independently of the Unions/government from the beginning.

Cupping back in 2012

Cupping back in 2012

What Makes a Great Origin Partner?

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Ciro Lugo, Acevedo, Huila

Ciro Lugo, Acevedo, Huila

While in Colombia several weeks ago, David and I explored a new microregion that we have high hopes for working extensively with in the future: Acevedo, a municipality located in the southeast corner of the Huila department. When we originally made our travel plans, the idea was to travel when we could cup through the best of the main harvest, which usually takes place between May to July in South Colombia (‘mitaca’/fly is usually in November). But given the many and devastating effects of El Niño this year, the peak of harvest had not yet occurred. In many cases, farmers experienced little to no harvest at all during the main harvest period and were only starting to see mature cherries by the time we arrived in late August. We were presented with some excellent lots anyway, which are now making their way to our East Coast US warehouse in NJ, and this speaks to the quality of the producers we met throughout the week we spent in Acevedo.

We’ve met great people who have provided us with good to great coffees from various departments in Colombia throughout the years, but for one reason or another, we’ve had difficulty finding partners that are just the right fit for us. Colombia was a bit of an elusive origin for us until we started the wonderful partnership we’ve been developing with the always innovative and exceptional team at La Palma & El Túcan over the last two years. But given the boutique nature of their projects, we wanted to find an supplier/exporter who could provide us access to a larger group of small producers growing exceptional coffee with goal of working on a long-term basis.

New partnerships for us, while not always entered into slowly (though they sometimes are) are always very thoughtfully considered. We are not only looking for the best cups from one harvest; we are looking to invest our time and energy (and business) into teams who share our value of building long-term relationships based on mutually beneficial goals, such as understanding what quality is and all that it requires. Put in a different way: there’s a big difference between working with a supplier that will try to do whatever you ask in order to get your business, and one who has confidence, their own ambitions, and the knowledge they’re providing you with their very best efforts and coffee.
 

The Unsung Work of the Exporter

The work of the coffee grower is the focal point in almost all discussions about origin and coffee production. There are good and very obvious reasons for this. Some of our strongest partnerships are with the people who own/manage coffee plantations and we both love to highlight and want to share their work with as many roasters as we can reach.

In some cases, the most important partnership at an origin is with the exporter. Even in instances where the farm(er) is the basis for a relationship, the coffee simply wouldn’t reach us in the shape we expect if not for the work of a dedicated exporter. Sometimes the farmer and the exporter are one and the same but very often, they are separate. Just as we provide more than logistical services to roasters, exporters provide a vital and wide array of services both to us, as well as to the farmers we buy coffee from.

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At its most basic, the work of the exporters we buy coffee from include quality control, packaging, and the organizing and handling of the export process. In several cases they do and have to be involved with much more, bringing me to the introduction to our new export partner in Acevedo.
 

Fairfield Trading

Alejandro Renjifo, Fairfield’s founder and president, has a background one might not expect from the person that led us along bumpy dirt roads for four hours every day during the week we toured in and around Acevedo meeting with potential (and in some cases now, actual) farmer partners. In his former career as a coffee economist, Alejandro held long stints at both the International Coffee Organization (ICO) and the Federación Nacionale de Cafeteros de Colombia (FNC). One highlight from this past experience is that during his time with the FNC, he was the one to launch its specialty division for North America (!).

This background alone, while impressive, isn’t what inspires our confidence as a coffee importer. What has mostly struck us about the Fairfield team is that they value and have cultivated excellent palates as well as possess a keen sense for how to forge good and personal relations with each and every smallholder with which they work. Spending the first half of each day cupping the farmers’ coffees that we later visited, it was easy to see how much thought and planning had gone into each table and subsequent visit. It wasn’t just that the coffees presented matched the farmers we later visited; it was specifically that the coffees were so obviously targeted toward what the Fairfield team thought we’d be interested in both from a cup perspective, as well as the people who made the coffees likely being good matches for us on interpersonal levels.

Understanding and finding the balance between these two elements requires great skill.

Alejandro (L) with Ciro Lugo and Luis Anibal Calderon

Alejandro (L) with Ciro Lugo and Luis Anibal Calderon

Some of you reading this know that we are proud of the partnerships we’ve forged throughout the years with the farmers we work with in Santa Barbara, Honduras. All the coffees we buy from this microregion are consistently good to excellent and the transformations we see each year not only on the farms, but in the wider communities as a result of the investments our partners are able to make from the premiums we (you) pay, brings us and our partnering farmers endless pride and further drive to work even better.

The reason I bring up Santa Barbara here is because David had noted similarities with the people he met in Acevedo during his first visit in May, in terms of the atmosphere of the community and the people’s ambitions, to our partners in Santa Barbara. The idea that we could be at the beginning of this caliber of partnership in Acevedo is as exciting as it is motivating.

The CCS Acevedo Cup can’t come soon enough.

Melanie

Coffee Profile: Washed Gesha, Gesha Village Estate

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Name: Gesha Village
Nearest Town: Gesha
Location: Southwest Ethiopia
Average Annual Rainfall (mm): 1150
Altitude (masl): 1900-2100m
Number of hectares: 471
Hectares cultivated: 320
Shade: Agro-forestry system with mix of indigenous shade trees
Process: Washed
Drying Method: Sun
Harvest Method: Handpicking
Main Harvest Season: November- January
Varieties: Wild Gesha
Soil: Virgin forest, brown loam soil


About

Washed Gesha goes through a mechanical demucilager, soaked for 24-36 hours and then shade dried to 30 percent moisture content.It is then transferred to a raised African bed for further drying before it is bagged and stored for export.


Cupping Notes

Lot 14(WHQ-G1-14):With hints of peach and cranberry, Lot 14 scored 87 points for its tropical profile.Smooth with light florals notes, this Gesha lot is easy on the palate.

Lot 21(WHQ-G1-121):With a burst of aromatic fruits, Lot 21 scored a high of 87.5 points during CCS cuppings in both North American and Europe with everyone noting the cups sweetness even as it cooled.Reminiscent of baked pears, this Gesha lot is elegant and complete.

Lot 32(WHQ-G1-32):A welcome to late Summer/ early Autumn, Lot 32 scored in at 87 points and is full of deep red berries and apricots.The mouthfeel of this washed Gesha is full and lingers pleasantly after each sip.

Lot 123(WHQ-G1-123):This lot scored a high of 87 points for its transparent qualities.With very subdued acidity levels, the introduction of Lot 123 from Gesha Village offers a melange of cooked berries.Blackberries and lingonberries are very prominent and has a clean finish. 
 

The Backstory

The Gesha Village journey began back in 2007 when Adam Overton and Rachel Samuel were making a documentary about Ethiopian coffee for the Ethiopian government. It was during this project that they were first introduced to Dr. Girma, their guide through the Gera Coffee Forest near Jimma. Dr. Girma is a coffee researcher and is a wealth of information about coffee agronomy, and farm management. During the process of creating this documentary, Rachel was reintroduced to her birth country and Adam became fascinated by the rich coffee history of the birthplace of coffee.

By the end of this coffee expedition, the couple felt compelled to start their own coffee farm. They saw too much unexplored potential and opportunity in Ethiopia’s wild coffee forests to ignore. Even though the country’s coffee trade was established long ago, Ethiopia’s coffee sector as a whole is far behind newer coffee origins in terms of agricultural and processing innovations as well as terroir distinctions, which these days are two of the most important distinctions between specialty and commercial coffee. Adam and Rachel are fully utilizing this gap in the Ethiopian specialty market in establishing Gesha Village Estate.

From 2007-2010, the couple scoured the country in search for the perfect place to set up their project. One of the initial criteria was that the farm should be within close proximity to the capital city, Addis Ababa, due to practical transport considerations. More importantly, however, were other considerations:

  • Altitude: between 1800-2100 meters above sea level
  • A relatively large piece of land (over 100 hectares)
  • Old growth/primary forest
  • Established shade trees
  • Road access
  • Access to labour
  • No displacement of inhabitants
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As they surveyed place after place, they drew further and further away from Addis. Finally, they found Gesha town, very close to Ethiopia’s border with Sudan, in the far western region of the country. During their reconnaissance, they found wild coffee growing within pristine forest. This coffee paradise, combined with meeting some inhabitants from the Meanit community who indigenous to the area, also drew the couple in. This was a place and people where something completely cutting-edge could happen. In autumn of 2011 the lease for the 471 hectares that now make up Gesha Village Estate was signed and soon after, Akalu, Gesha Village’s (GV) Farm Manager was hired. He, together with the newly established GV team, began doing a forest exploration where they picked wild seeds from the nearby Gori Gesha forest.

After a year in the nursery, these seeds were planted on 30 hectares and at the same time, the team began acquainting themselves with the Meanit neighbours that lived around them. This initial 30 hectares made up GV’s first “test plot” – the team wanted to ensure the cup quality was good before more coffee was planted. The first 1kg sample was sent to Adam and Rachel’s friend Willem Boot in the spring of 2012 even before they themselves had a chance to cup. Willem in turn organized a Cupping Caravan in Ethiopia where cuppers were blown away by the coffee. At this point, the GV team knew that they were onto something special.

Before getting too ahead of themselves, the team decided to visit their neighbours’ coffee farms in order to both study the morphology of more established trees, which also came from forest seeds, and also to cup their neighbours’ coffees to further understand what they were working with at GV. As exciting as cultivating forest coffee was, the team understood that planting one of any variety was risky and on the advice of Akalu and Dr. Girma, decided to plant a good portion of GV with tried and tested Ethiopian heirloom varieties released from the Jimma Argicultural Research Center (JARC). These released varieties come from various seed collection expeditions that JARC has conducted.

Wild varieties collected during expeditions are studied and researchers are looking for the following characteristics in determining which are “superior plants”: a) showing disease resistance; b) excellent cup quality; and c) good yield. Plants showing these characteristics are chosen for release and GV chose to plant a variety that originated in the highland coffee forests of Illubabor. This one showed both disease resistance and excellent cup quality.

We can say that over the course of cupping the different varieties produced on GV, these research varieties have some of the most exciting cup profiles that Gesha Village have produced. With varieties playing such an important role in quality and cup profile, it makes perfect sense that the GV team found research partners to carry out a methodical genetic study on the Gesha forest varieties. Part of that study concerns the possible connection between Panamanian geisha and coffee from the Gori Gesha Forest. You can access the study’s findings here.


The Community

Before the project started in earnest, the GV team gathered the elders and wise men from the local Meanit community in order to explain the project as well as hear out the community’s thoughts and concerns about it. Though successful as an introduction, the team understood from the beginning that a real partnership would take time and effort and one of the early challenges GV faced was finding labourers. There was a stigma against working for someone else as most people already had their own garden farms.

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Over time, women began working with the farm and since they earned their own income for the first time, this early labour force attracted more and more people, eventually both women and men. Today, GV can attract up to 800 workers per day coming from 17,000 families. These workers come from 5-6 different kebeles (localities) spanning from Gesha Mountain to Gori Gesha Forest.

Now that a good relationship has been established between Gesha Village Estate and their surrounding communities, three local representatives have been appointed to liaise between the farm and its neighbouring communities.


Social Projects

Nearby to Gesha Village are three government run schools and one clinic. These are all within a short walking distance from the estate and this is significant as in rural Ethiopia, many students must walk up to three hours in order to get to school.

Gesha Village provides school supplies to students and is currently working with the clinic in order to figure out the best way to support its operation.

One other community project that the GV team is focusing its efforts on is distributing fuel efficient and cleaner burning stoves to their neighbours. Most households currently use outdated stoves that require lots of wood/fuel and burn a lot of waste particles into the atmosphere.

For the past 3 years GV has given away 25,000 coffee seedlings per year to neighbouring farmers. The team also provide agronomy training when the farmers pick up their seedlings. GV hopes to grow coffee production in the surrounding area so that local farmers can grow benefit from the innovations employed at GV.


Agricultural Projects

On the botanical side of the spectrum, the GV team planted a research plot in early 2016 that is made up various of indigenous coffee varieties. This will allow the team, including Dr. Girma, to better study varieties. The team is keen to continue partnering public/educational partners to carry out future research that will add to the knowledge they’ve already accumulated from the genetic study they worked on in 2014 with Dr. Sarada Krishnan from Denver Botanic Gardens (mentioned earlier).

In addition to coffee, GV is currently testing apple and honey cultivation. The motivation behind these two projects is mostly one of curiosity, but who knows where things will lead?

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Production Projects

The GV processing facility is upgrading to a custom-made Penagos pulper, which will be installed in 2017. This pulper sorts under and overripe cherries through water pressure and will help out the manual pickers, who sometimes find it difficult to pick the different plots which are planted with different varieties and hence have different morphology.

Finally, the team is researching how to build a warehouse on-site. They have found a potential supplier but given the poor road conditions between Addis and Gesha, the logistics for getting the materials to the farm first needs to be solved.


Partnership with CCS

Team CCS is proud to have the distinct honour of being the only coffee importer in Europe and the US to be working with Gesha Village Estate. While Adam & Rachel and their team do run direct sales with roasting partners, both CCS & Gesha Village saw an opportunity to work together to further distribute Gesha Village coffees to great homes around the world.

Both projects share similar values in promoting excellent coffee while building a transparent and a partnership-based buying community, so it made sense to join forces in the effort to spread the coffee and word about the phenomenal work of Gesha Village Estate.

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Coffee Profile: Natural Gesha, Gesha Village Estate

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Name: Gesha Village
Province: Gesha
Location: Southwest Ethiopia
Average Annual Rainfall (mm): 1150
Altitude (masl): 1900-2100m
Number of hectares: 471
Hectares cultivated: 320
Shade: Agro-forestry system with mix of indigenous shade trees
Process: Natural
Drying Method: Sun
Harvest Method: Handpicking
Main Harvest Season: November- January
Varieties: Wild Gesha
Soil: Virgin forest, brown loam soil


About

Naturals from The Gesha Village go through a rigorous selection process.Run through a wash, floaters are removed and all quality cherries are transferred to raised African beds where they are dried in thin layers using a parabolic plastic cover.


Cupping Notes

Lot 1.4(NHQ-G1-1.4): Tropical with clear aromatics of Guava, this natural lot from Gesha Village is bright and flavorful and scored a high of 87.5.Full of cantaloupe, the finish is refreshing.

Lot 1314(NHQ-G1-1314):A very floral natural Gesha, Lot 1314 combines the acidity of apples with hints of mango.Long yet sweet, this lots allows you to savor the complexity of Gesha in a naturally complex state.Scoring 87 points during cupping, it lives up to its name.

Lot 1617(NHQ-G1-1617):The highest score of our Gesha naturals(88 points), Lot 1617 is a wonderful experience combining orange blossoms and rose petals.With a sparkling acidity level, this lot is bright with a slight hint of rosemary.

Lot 7910(NHQ-G1-7910): With a score of 87, this natural Gesha is vibrant and full of bright red berries.Raspberry is very prominent with notes of red apples adding a hint of sweetness. 
 

The Backstory

The Gesha Village journey began back in 2007 when Adam Overton and Rachel Samuel were making a documentary about Ethiopian coffee for the Ethiopian government. It was during this project that they were first introduced to Dr. Girma, their guide through the Gera Coffee Forest near Jimma. Dr. Girma is a coffee researcher and is a wealth of information about coffee agronomy, and farm management. During the process of creating this documentary, Rachel was reintroduced to her birth country and Adam became fascinated by the rich coffee history of the birthplace of coffee.

By the end of this coffee expedition, the couple felt compelled to start their own coffee farm. They saw too much unexplored potential and opportunity in Ethiopia’s wild coffee forests to ignore. Even though the country’s coffee trade was established long ago, Ethiopia’s coffee sector as a whole is far behind newer coffee origins in terms of agricultural and processing innovations as well as terroir distinctions, which these days are two of the most important distinctions between specialty and commercial coffee. Adam and Rachel are fully utilizing this gap in the Ethiopian specialty market in establishing Gesha Village Estate.

From 2007-2010, the couple scoured the country in search for the perfect place to set up their project. One of the initial criteria was that the farm should be within close proximity to the capital city, Addis Ababa, due to practical transport considerations. More importantly, however, were other considerations:

  • Altitude: between 1800-2100 meters above sea level
  • A relatively large piece of land (over 100 hectares)
  • Old growth/primary forest
  • Established shade trees
  • Road access
  • Access to labour
  • No displacement of inhabitants
23287555755_9bdbd51a95_z.jpg

As they surveyed place after place, they drew further and further away from Addis. Finally, they found Gesha town, very close to Ethiopia’s border with Sudan, in the far western region of the country. During their reconnaissance, they found wild coffee growing within pristine forest. This coffee paradise, combined with meeting some inhabitants from the Meanit community who indigenous to the area, also drew the couple in. This was a place and people where something completely cutting-edge could happen. In autumn of 2011 the lease for the 471 hectares that now make up Gesha Village Estate was signed and soon after, Akalu, Gesha Village’s (GV) Farm Manager was hired. He, together with the newly established GV team, began doing a forest exploration where they picked wild seeds from the nearby Gori Gesha forest.

After a year in the nursery, these seeds were planted on 30 hectares and at the same time, the team began acquainting themselves with the Meanit neighbours that lived around them. This initial 30 hectares made up GV’s first “test plot” – the team wanted to ensure the cup quality was good before more coffee was planted. The first 1kg sample was sent to Adam and Rachel’s friend Willem Boot in the spring of 2012 even before they themselves had a chance to cup. Willem in turn organized a Cupping Caravan in Ethiopia where cuppers were blown away by the coffee. At this point, the GV team knew that they were onto something special.

23204926041_ca4a667dc2_z-1.jpg

Before getting too ahead of themselves, the team decided to visit their neighbours’ coffee farms in order to both study the morphology of more established trees, which also came from forest seeds, and also to cup their neighbours’ coffees to further understand what they were working with at GV. As exciting as cultivating forest coffee was, the team understood that planting one of any variety was risky and on the advice of Akalu and Dr. Girma, decided to plant a good portion of GV with tried and tested Ethiopian heirloom varieties released from the Jimma Argicultural Research Center (JARC). These released varieties come from various seed collection expeditions that JARC has conducted.

Wild varieties collected during expeditions are studied and researchers are looking for the following characteristics in determining which are “superior plants”: a) showing disease resistance; b) excellent cup quality; and c) good yield. Plants showing these characteristics are chosen for release and GV chose to plant a variety that originated in the highland coffee forests of Illubabor. This one showed both disease resistance and excellent cup quality.

We can say that over the course of cupping the different varieties produced on GV, these research varieties have some of the most exciting cup profiles that Gesha Village have produced. With varieties playing such an important role in quality and cup profile, it makes perfect sense that the GV team found research partners to carry out a methodical genetic study on the Gesha forest varieties. Part of that study concerns the possible connection between Panamanian geisha and coffee from the Gori Gesha Forest. You can access the study’s findings here.


The Community

Before the project started in earnest, the GV team gathered the elders and wise men from the local Meanit community in order to explain the project as well as hear out the community’s thoughts and concerns about it. Though successful as an introduction, the team understood from the beginning that a real partnership would take time and effort and one of the early challenges GV faced was finding labourers. There was a stigma against working for someone else as most people already had their own garden farms.

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Over time, women began working with the farm and since they earned their own income for the first time, this early labour force attracted more and more people, eventually both women and men. Today, GV can attract up to 800 workers per day coming from 17,000 families. These workers come from 5-6 different kebeles (localities) spanning from Gesha Mountain to Gori Gesha Forest.

Now that a good relationship has been established between Gesha Village Estate and their surrounding communities, three local representatives have been appointed to liaise between the farm and its neighbouring communities.
 

Social Projects

Nearby to Gesha Village are three government run schools and one clinic. These are all within a short walking distance from the estate and this is significant as in rural Ethiopia, many students must walk up to three hours in order to get to school.

Gesha Village provides school supplies to students and is currently working with the clinic in order to figure out the best way to support its operation.

One other community project that the GV team is focusing its efforts on is distributing fuel efficient and cleaner burning stoves to their neighbours. Most households currently use outdated stoves that require lots of wood/fuel and burn a lot of waste particles into the atmosphere.

For the past 3 years GV has given away 25,000 coffee seedlings per year to neighbouring farmers. The team also provide agronomy training when the farmers pick up their seedlings. GV hopes to grow coffee production in the surrounding area so that local farmers can grow benefit from the innovations employed at GV.


Agricultural Projects

On the botanical side of the spectrum, the GV team planted a research plot in early 2016 that is made up various of indigenous coffee varieties. This will allow the team, including Dr. Girma, to better study varieties. The team is keen to continue partnering public/educational partners to carry out future research that will add to the knowledge they’ve already accumulated from the genetic study they worked on in 2014 with Dr. Sarada Krishnan from Denver Botanic Gardens (mentioned earlier).

In addition to coffee, GV is currently testing apple and honey cultivation. The motivation behind these two projects is mostly one of curiosity, but who knows where things will lead?

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Production Projects

The GV processing facility is upgrading to a custom-made Penagos pulper, which will be installed in 2017. This pulper sorts under and overripe cherries through water pressure and will help out the manual pickers, who sometimes find it difficult to pick the different plots which are planted with different varieties and hence have different morphology.

Finally, the team is researching how to build a warehouse on-site. They have found a potential supplier but given the poor road conditions between Addis and Gesha, the logistics for getting the materials to the farm first needs to be solved.


Partnership with CCS

Team CCS is proud to have the distinct honour of being the only coffee importer in Europe and the US to be working with Gesha Village Estate. While Adam & Rachel and their team do run direct sales with roasting partners, both CCS & Gesha Village saw an opportunity to work together to further distribute Gesha Village coffees to great homes around the world.

Both projects share similar values in promoting excellent coffee while building a transparent and a partnership-based buying community, so it made sense to join forces in the effort to spread the coffee and word about the phenomenal work of Gesha Village Estate.

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Santa Barbara, Honduras 2016 update

Yojoa Lake & Santa Barbara Mountain

Yojoa Lake & Santa Barbara Mountain

Since the beginning of our work in Santa Barbara, Honduras, which even started before CCS existed, through our sister-company KAFFA Oslo (a roaster), the relationships we’ve developed within this region have been some of the strongest and most exciting of all the relationships we have in all the coffee origins we work with.

What started out as purchasing coffee from a mere handful of farmers has expanded to our working with almost 40 producers across 4 municipalities. And the growth is only increasing, which is good since a high demand for these coffees have developed over the years. Still, there is more demand than there is supply and we still need to be scrutinizing and picky to get the really good stuff. The great news is that more and more farmers are becoming ambitious and know what the market is demanding.

Santa Barbara is an area that has, over the years, become recognized namely by some of the very same producers we have developed close ties with. And more broadly, Honduras has made a strong name for itself in the coffee world. For example, in this year’s Cup of Excellence (2016), Honduras was put on the map as an origin that has a variety of varieties that now include geisha. Some of these coffees are scoring the high 80s and are even reaching 90s, thus fetching historically high auction prices (worldwide) at +$120/lb.

View from El Guayabo, the plot that produced one of the best coffees from Santa Barbara this season

View from El Guayabo, the plot that produced one of the best coffees from Santa Barbara this season

There are three major developments that we are excited about sharing with respect to our work in Santa Barbara (S.B.) this year:

1) A new price agreement

We have raised the bar and so necessarily, the price. The fact that the market is still low should not matter to the long-standing and loyal producers of the greatest coffees around.

Our goal always from the beginning is to only buy 86+ point coffee. Practically, some of the lots we have purchased from SB have been at 85 points. In agreeing to work with someone long-term, there needs to be support even and perhaps especially during the times that all factors are not at their optimal.

Today, we happily report that there are more 86-point coffees than ever and consequently, we are raising prices for the considerable efforts made. So we are both paying more than ever. On the other hand, if the coffees are less than 86, we are also paying less.

The price and score breakdown

The price and score breakdown

The prices this year range from $3.00/lb to $4.50/lb FOB and in today’s market, these prices are very high. Our farmer partners not only expressed gratitude for our continued relationship and support but they are re-investing in land, facilities, their families and their children’s education. Some of the farmers we’ve worked with longest are truly prospering.

CCS' strongest Santa Barbara allies: the Moreno family

CCS' strongest Santa Barbara allies: the Moreno family

2) Deforestation is not accepted!

The demand for coffee has pressured/tempted an increasing number of farmers to cut adjacent natural forest in order to plant more coffee. The consequences of these practices are devastating and we have expressed a strict opposition to this. To be clear, CCS will not buy coffee from newly deforested areas and we have had meeting with the mayor of one of the municipalities in order to get even support for this message.

Some negative effects from deforestation

Some negative effects from deforestation

Another sad image about deforestation and its effects

Another sad image about deforestation and its effects

A gentlemen's agreement: no forest killing! The Morenos are in agreement and will help communicate this important message around the community

A gentlemen's agreement: no forest killing! The Morenos are in agreement and will help communicate this important message around the community

3) Processing: drying & shade

As we’ve come to learn, one of the key factors in making good quality coffee is processing. It is also clear that the process itself, and the drying stage in particular, is making for a more or less long-lived cup quality. This is becoming increasingly important in S.B. as the international recognition for the area rises and the prices go up.

Roasters need for green coffee to keep up their quality months after arrival. A fading coffee feels demoralizing to all of us and is oftentimes not an understood or experienced phenomenon by the farmer. Some are educating themselves about this and taking the need for solutions seriously.

As a general rule our partners have been implementing drying slower and under shade in order to protect parchment from direct sunlight in the first steps of the drying process. This has proven favorable.

Although this is currently one of the investments we are seeing in the field, just four years it was rare to see farmers drying their own coffee in the first place. These days, some are very proud of their being masters of the processing craft.

- Robert

Mario Moreno w/ his new drying beds now with shade

Mario Moreno w/ his new drying beds now with shade

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Direct Trade and the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange: What’s the Problem?

98% of the coffee exported out of Ethiopia goes through the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange (ECX), so to say it’s important is a massive understatement. But it’s also a struggle to understand, makes transparency seem as out of reach as world peace, and causes a lot of misrepresentation about what Ethiopian coffee is and how the export process works. In fact, it’s almost incomprehensible as to why the ECX is so, well, incomprehensible. Anyone who imports Ethiopian coffee can attest to the resulting challenges, frustrations, and constant changes they experience when buying from this coveted origin.

So two stakeholders in the Ethiopian coffee trade have sat down for a Q&A on what the ECX is, why it makes it difficult to buy directly from source, and how the process may improve in the future. Read on to to discover what this confusing system is all about.

Coffee being processed in Gedeb, Ethiopia

Coffee being processed in Gedeb, Ethiopia

The Q&A Participants

Heleanna Georgalis of Moplaco P.L.C. is an exporter of Ethiopian coffee. Her family has been working in the coffee trade in Ethiopia for three generations, and Moplaco was established by her father, Yanni, in 1971.

Melanie Leeson is a coffee buyer/importer for the Collaborative Coffee Source, whose founders have been establishing close partnerships with coffee producers and exporters since 2005 through their sister company, Kaffa Roastery, in Oslo, Norway. Since 2012, CCS has independently continued to strengthen these early partnerships and is continuously and thoughtfully adding new partnerships – producers, exporters, and roasters alike – to its supplier roster and customer base, which together span over five continents.


The ECX: A Q&A

Melanie Leeson: Heleanna, explain to me the different ways someone can buy coffee from Ethiopia. Is it possible to have direct trade Ethiopian coffee?

Heleanna Georgalis: Well, yes. You can buy in three ways:

1. Directly from Unions which form an umbrella on top of a number of cooperatives. Coffees bought this way can come in bulk (e.g. a Sidamo Gr-2) with no specificity behind it, or can come “directly” from the specific cooperatives you have chosen to buy from. This coffee can be fully traceable and recognisable.

2. Directly from a commercial farm that has a minimum of 35 hectares of land. These farms are also recognisable. They offer traceable coffee from their own land, along with coffee most likely collected from the farmers around them.

3. From an exporter who can ONLY buy their coffee from the auction. These coffees are not traceable and are only given general names from wider geographic areas. For example, a Sidamo A would include areas such as Bensa, Guji, and Harorensa.

Wild coffee trees in Kaffa forest

Wild coffee trees in Kaffa forest

Melanie Leeson: Are there any downsides to buying from cooperatives via unions? Why doesn’t everyone who wants traceable coffee just buy from the unions?

Heleanna Georgalis: Although I’m not a buyer myself, I believe people may, in many cases, prefer to buy from an exporter, as they’ve already built a relationship of trust over time.

Buying from a cooperative and union, although they may offer the advantages of traceability and the access to see where and how the coffee has been produced, requires an enormous investment of time. This may form an impediment. And even once a relationship has been established with the cooperative, timely communication and reliability with the union-exporter may become hurdles. In addition, the farmers of the cooperative may not be the full beneficiaries of all these efforts.

However, this option still remains the best option for establishing a desired “direct trade”, as it allows you to deal as close to the origin as possible.

Processing Ethiopian Yirgacheffe

Processing Ethiopian Yirgacheffe

Melanie Leeson: Buyers see a lot of names of Ethiopian coffees in the market. Can you explain how all these names come about, given the fact that 98% of the total produced volume in Ethiopia is still bought from the ECX?

Heleanna Georgalis: There are about four different types of names an exporter, whether a union, farm, or private exporter, can use:

1. A general wider area, such as Sidamo.

2. A specific area, such as Guji, that can be accessed through the ECX because it’s graded as an 80+ coffee. In this case, “Guji coffee” becomes traceable to the wider Guji area. So this kind of traceability is possible for some localities traded through the ECX, but certainly not for all.

3. A specific location, such as Haricha. However, this is only possible if the exporter is a cooperative/union from the area that can directly trade the coffee as “Haricha”. Or if they’re a commercial farm that’s established in that area.

4. A brand that’s a registered name an exporter has given to their coffee.

Ethiopian Yirgacheffe

Ethiopian Yirgacheffe

Melanie Leeson: Is it possible for an exporter to buy coffee from cooperatives and farms and then market these coffees using their names and locations?

Heleanna Georgalis: “Absolutely not” would be the definite and short answer to this. So when an exporter claims that a coffee comes from Haricha in Yirgachefe, you have to wonder how they know, given the lack of traceability inherent in the auction.

Equally, when an exporter says that their coffee comes directly from one particular washing station, you have to wonder – again – how they could possibly know this, since the coffees from a wider area are just blended together and then given a grade and a classification.

Where is your coffee really from?

Where is your coffee really from?

Melanie Leeson: What was the rationale behind the creation of the ECX? Why the move to remove traceability in the coffee buying process?

Heleanna Georgalis: Let’s say “a lack of adequate information and understanding of the workings of coffee”.

ECX was formed out of the belief that Ethiopia would be able to eliminate or reduce poverty if commodities could have a platform to be traded on, rather than an informal system of supply mainly controlled by or benefiting the “middleman”.

However, coffee already had an established system and platform of trade that had existed since the 1970s. It was well designed to represent and trade coffee in a traceable and sustainable way. Like every system it had its drawbacks, but these were easy to correct.

The move to remove traceability emerged from a belief that if the exporter and the supplier of coffee could identify each other, then collusions could form that would distort the market and make it difficult and unfair for all the players to participate. So the most valuable information of the coffee was removed, but the collusions and special relationships that plagued the previous system have gone underground but have not been hindered.

Moplaco’s Yirgacheffe warehouse

Moplaco’s Yirgacheffe warehouse

Melanie Leeson: I read earlier this year that ECX was rolling out a geotagging system this season. Each bag now comes with a scannable code that will provide the buyer with its precise geographic information. Is this program operational? How is it working out?

Heleanna Georgalis: This system, although cumbersome to implement, and cumbersome for the logistics of any exporter’s warehouse, gave me the hope that the information we need would be restored to us. It would enable us to sell high quality coffee traceably.

At the moment, the system has not yet been fully established. Although efforts have been made to deliver tagged coffee bags to us, they cannot actually be read or traced. I sincerely hope that, as of next year, we will have a clearer view on how the system will actually operate.

Coffee picking in Gesha Village, Ethiopia

Coffee picking in Gesha Village, Ethiopia

Melanie Leeson : What do you think about buyers’ demands for traceability?

Heleanna Georgalis: Reasonable, I would say. How can a product be “special” if it is bulked and blended with other products? How can you understand and appreciate the specificities of each coffee and location unless this information is available?

However, like many demands, this can also become a hurdle to both exporters and buyers in sourcing the best coffees they can. If Ethiopia exports 98% of all its coffees through the auction, it would be unreasonable to believe that this amount would not be sufficient to cover their need for a great coffee.

At the end of the day, traceability does not guarantee quality, although I would say that quality needs to be traceable up to a certain point. I do find some of the demands unreasonable, but then who am I to judge what people have to do to sell their coffee?

Cupping coffees picked and processed at Gesha Village, Ethiopia

Cupping coffees picked and processed at Gesha Village, Ethiopia

Melanie Leeson: One final follow-up question on the geotagging system. As I understand it, the exporter buying a coffee from the auction cannot see or taste the coffee before it is purchased; it’s purchased simply based on the grade the ECX cuppers have given it.

Let’s say the geotagging system is perfectly operational – still, what’s the point of being able to trace the coffee if you have no way of buying it again? If you’re purchasing coffees from the auction with only the wide geographic region and grade as your basis for purchase, then what is traceability for? Other than simply to know where the coffee comes from.

Heleanna Georgalis: This is a very valid point for a person who needs consistency over time. In fact, it represents the exact point that our established new system needs to work on. However, an importer should also remember that, given the current state of infrastructure in Ethiopia, a good Guji Gr-1 wouldn’t taste fundamentally different from another good Guji Gr-1, to give an example.

In Ethiopia, processing is where fundamental changes can happen in the quality of the coffee, but it hasn’t evolved much yet. So both traceability and the ability to re-buy coffee year-to-year is something that isn’t really possible in Ethiopia yet – but the ability to re-buy wouldn’t make much of a difference anyway until processing is revolutionized.

Ethiopia Guji beans

Ethiopia Guji beans

Melanie Leeson: So, so, so many more questions… We could write a book about how coffee works in Ethiopia. Thank you for shedding some light on these points. I look forward to learning more and seeing how the link between traceability and quality develops over time here.

Original article on Perfect Daily Grind

Ethiopian Coffee: The Timeline

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I want to explain a process that you all have questions about and is super important to your offerings: the timeline of getting Ethiopian coffee from the tree to your roastery.

The prevailing expectation is that since harvest begins in October and ends from December-January, cupping/selections happen in February and March is shipment month. This schedule is based on buyers' experience of the former auction system. It does not reflect the way the current auction system works for mixed containers.

In the old system, coffee was sent to a centralized warehouse and then purchased in Addis. This meant that a coffee purchased in the morning was delivered to the buyer's facility the same day.

When the new ECX system was implemented, the decision was made to place warehouses in 7 locations across the country that make up the geographic regions that coffees are now sold as (e.g. Yirgacheffe, Sidama, Limmu, etc.). So now, when a lot is purchased, it has to travel from the countryside to Addis after the regulated inspections are made and paperwork is in order. This process takes, on average, 10 days.

By the time the coffee arrives in Addis, it has not yet been evaluated by the buyer. In fact, one can only make a quality claim while the coffee is still at its original warehouse. Basically the process makes it impossible to make quality claims because: 1. you have to pay a non-refundable fee of $150 to have your coffee inspected, 2. you have to have a staff member be there to do the inspection, 3. you have to pay your driver's expenses while any claim is made and the resulting appeal is followed up. And of course, the coffee isn't going anywhere and can't be offered to any customers while this process is unfolding.

Let's assume a lot has been purchased on February 1 (e.g. Kochere gr. 1) and it proceeds to Addis without incident:

February 1: Kochere gr. 1 is purchased (it's a full container lot, so 300 bags) February 8: Inspections and paperwork are completed February 10: Kochere arrives at warehouse in Addis February 11: Kochere is first cupped and evaluated by the buyer February 12: sample is sent out to a potential client (e.g. CCS) February 17: sample arrives at CCS' lab for evaluation February 18: sample is roasted February 20: sample is cupped and let's assume, approved February 21: lot goes into the queue for mechanical and hand sorting at the exporter's facility February 28: it's ready for export March 1: earliest possible departure date from exporter to CLU for final inspection before export March 4: container is approved for export by CLU March 5: departure from Addis to Djibouti March 10: container arrives to Djibouti port March 15: container departs from port April 15: container arrives at Antwerp/New Jersey port April 22: container is stripped at Pacorini/Continental warehouse April 24: earliest possible loading to you the roaster

The above timeline is based on the following assumptions: 1. absolutely every step occurs without incident 2. only one lot is within the container

In reality, we purchase containers that are made up of at least 2 different lots (usually it's more like ±5) so that we're able to offer a good variety to our roasters. So each of these lots have to go through the above process and then approved by us for purchase. Getting 5 lots coming from different warehouses with the exact cup characteristics that we like and then getting them machine and hand sorted for export makes March export, well, pretty challenging, to put things lightly. And all the above also assumes that the export facility is functioning at top efficiency and capacity.

Last week the electricity went out on Wednesday at Moplaco and wasn't functioning again until Friday afternoon. Not only was production halted, but a staff member had to take the time to follow up vigilantly with the utilities company to ensure that someone was actually addressing this situation. Heleanna estimates that an entire container's production was halted due to these three days of the electricity cut.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of celebrating Ethiopian Easter with Heleanna, her friends and family. One of the people I met on Sunday works for an Italian development agency and another works as an IT consultant for the World Bank. Both of them work with a variety of commodities and have years of experience working not only in Ethiopia but around the world on development projects.

I explained some of the challenges that I've noticed about the export process for coffee and asked for their perspective as to why it's so labyrinthine and challenging. They had some common answers: - small business doesn't matter to policymakers, so there is very little will to make the export process more efficient and transparent, even while government officials totally acknowledge the challenges that exporters face. This is also taking into account that coffee export makes up 31% of export revenues for the country - the current auction system is a mess and failure but there are so many parties with vested interests and so many people employed by the current system that a dissembling of the structure is simply not going to happen. The question now is how and whether the structure will be improved - there's no cultural value for transparency and accountability in bureaucratic processes

It's not all dismal. The Ethiopia of today is completely different from the Ethiopia of five years ago. Addis is a vibrant and developing city with a metro line, a fantastic food scene, commercial centres and hotels cropping up everywhere, and a thriving arts and music scene. As the World Bank consultant put it: Ethiopia is where Central America was 10 years ago. As I mentioned in an earlier newsletter, receiving coffee from our Central American partners is much more smooth and efficient than it is getting coffee from East Africa. This consultant believes that Ethiopian policies and business culture are heading in a similar positive direction.

- Melanie

How is Pricing Determined Anyway?

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We all know and agree that coffee prices are too low and this is certainly the case in Ethiopia where the average farmer (owning an average of 0.1 ha, or 200 trees) earns USD $260 per year from coffee. Even in Yirgacheffe, where coffee prices are about three times higher, the income is too little to properly support a family’s needs on.

Yet we also notice that prices for Ethiopian coffee are increasing year-to-year and not just for the top qualities. So what are these increases based on?

In the case of Q1 coffees, the price increases (in my opinion) are fair. When we compare the price we’re paying for Kochere gr. 1, taking into account its cup quality in comparison to what we’re paying for for top qualities elsewhere, the price is similar. But we’re not just seeing increased prices for Q1s, we’re seeing exponentially increasing prices for the lower qualities too. Last week Yirgacheffe AQ1 was sold at ETB 2000 per 70KG of parchment while A3 fetched 1950 ETB. What is this A3 pricing based on?

In comparison to most of the other countries we’re working, this is the reality about most Ethiopian coffee:

  • Much of it is not traceable and what is claimed to be traceable is often questionably so (even at top quality levels). In contrast, in Central and South America, farm-direct relationships are the norm for specialty coffee.
  • There is very little investment in evidence-based agricultural practice. Say what you want about the FNC; their investments in research and continuous developments in best agricultural practices are indisputable.
  • Processing and quality control is mostly at a lower standard.

Last week I talked about the importance of intercultural understanding in coffee buying. Within the course of the past week, I had the chance to meet with professionals from other industries here: a tourism operator, grocery store owner, embassy representative, an architect, and a woman who runs a workshop and sells the textiles it produces. Some of these women are Ethiopian and others come from abroad. The common concern everyone expressed is that business in Ethiopia is becoming harder and harder. In the past 3-5 years, conditions have noticeably deteriorated. In the case of the grocery store owner, she is dealing with customs that doesn’t understand the products (e.g. camembert cheese which they think is spoiled, rather than knowing that its smell is supposed to be the way it is) she’s importing and whose ‘solution’ is to burn the food it refuses to clear. Burning food: in a country where people are without food!

For next week’s newsletter, I’m working on finding out what has become of ECX’s geo-tagging system, which it implemented at the beginning of the season.

- Melanie

CCS' Love Affair with Ethiopia

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While it's necessary and perfectly normal for us to visit our partners at origin once or twice a season, we're in Ethiopia for the third time this season. This time I'm spending six weeks with our main exporter, Heleanna Georgalis of Moplaco Trading Co. The purpose of this stay is to both help Moplaco complete some of its ongoing projects (e.g. helping to complete an informative and user-friendly website about its many functions and activities) and also for CCS to gain better insight into this amazing and incredibly complex coffee origin.

At this very moment, CCS' first USA-bound container of Moplaco coffees (see above photos) is passing inspection at CLU (Coffee Liquoring Unit) which is overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture. Every single bag is sampled from three places and then these samples are mixed and cupped before the shipment can be cleared for export. This inspection process is just one in many that coffee undergoes throughout the season before it can be shipped to our warehouse and then to you.

One of the things that is always on my mind when addressing the complexities of any origin (because they all are in some way or another), is trying to work out what people really mean when they say things and whether I'm understanding them from their point-of-view. This topic of intercultural complexity is something that coffee buyers have to consider but few have written about. Maybe it's because for some this process is reflexive. At CCS, however, intercultural communication is something we are exploring more and choosing to discuss because it is such a fundamental aspect of doing specialty coffee, which hinges on strong and trustworthy relationships between all the people throughout the supply chain.

We've found that having closer cultural similarities with our Latin American partners and their partnering government institutions has meant there is a base level of understanding about how to conduct business. This means that on average, receiving the coffees we choose from these origins are fairly straightforward. This is not generally the case with our East African suppliers and in particular, the frequently changing legislation they have to go through in order to export our coffees.

So, while it is unlikely that I will learn all the relevant ins and outs of Ethiopian business culture and communication during this prolonged stay, the goal is for us to learn and convey the current state of specialty coffee in Ethiopia and hopefully answer some questions you have about this fascinating origin.

- Melanie

The Inevitable Chaos that is Burundi Coffee Buying

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I'm supposed to be writing an article about my recent experiences travelling in Colombia. It was my first time travelling there (as well as in Brazil, where I later went) and having only experienced being in some of East Africa as a coffee buyer, these trips illuminated so much for me. There are many exciting developments taking place within the specialty coffee communities in both countries and learning some of the historical backgrounds behind the current innovations I was introduced to provided some much needed nuance to my perspective on the world of specialty coffee and the major roles Colombia and Brazil both play.

As is so often the case, events taking place here and now end up occupying the forefront of a place's work flow to the expense of other equally important and pressing matters. In the case of importing coffee, and taking into account the various harvest seasons CCS' schedule revolves around, Burundi should already be out of the major part of the current workflow because the coffee should have landed in our warehouse during the summertime and roasters should be well into their inventories of the current harvest. Although there are always delay-inducing minutiae that creep into every shipment from every origin, Burundi is one of those origins where things are predictably unpredictable and where one can reliably expect to have their patience tested day-after-day (I wish that were an exaggeration) during the export process.

When one chooses to import Burundian coffees, they're signing up to ride a logistical, and at least for me, emotional rollercoaster. This year the country is experiencing the culmination of a political storm that has been brewing since 2005 when the latest in a series of civil wars the country has endured, ended. Turmoil is depressingly cyclical in this country and this year it came via the heavily disputed presidential election. When working with a country that is so complicated and has so much going against it, it can be difficult not to become numb to the constant flow of shocking news that comes from partners living and breathing all that chaos.

As an importer whose main goal is to provide roasters with the very best on offer from the beautiful array of stellar coffees out there, working with Burundi has sometimes felt like an inconceivable origin to take on. To be clear, the biggest reason Collaborative Coffee Source started working in Burundi is because we came across coffees that couldn't be ignored. But throughout our short history of working there, plenty of situations have arisen where deciding to continue working in Burundi has been a source of reappraisal within the team.

All of the above is a prelude to the current situation we are faced with in trying to move our first container from Burundi to Antwerp this year. Hopefully the following will help our roasting friends understand how truly complex importing coffee can be and how the act of purchasing coffee can clearly be life altering for producers. For simplicity's sake, I'll narrate the story of this container by way of a timeline.

July 2015: Final cuppings and screenings of microlots making up the proposed container are completed and negotiations on contracts commence.

The presidential election is completed and protests, which have been occurring since late-winter, escalate into riots after the results are announced. Both of CCS' partnering exporters flee the country with their families, along with tens of thousands of other Burundians.

August 2015: Milling, packaging and preparations of export documents begin and are expected to be completed by month's end.

Our exporters travel in and out of the country to oversee the process.

September 2015: Export document preparation continues amidst continued political turmoil and violence. The shipment is delayed weekly as ARFIC's (Burundi's national coffee board) office shuts down and the directors in charge of signing and stamping export documents scatter throughout the country and our exporting partners are charged with locating them. One of the two exporters reports travelling to nine different people, in order to obtain 29 signatures and stamps for our microlots.

October 2015: As of October 20th (today), we find ourselves awaiting ONE last signature for one of the 13 microlots we're shipping in this container. We need to get the container out of the dry mill and out to Dar es Salaam port for departure to Antwerp. We were assured at the end of last week that all the necessary paperwork was completed and in order...this proved to be illusory, as we experience time and again...

The conflict in Bujumbura (Burundi's capital) continues and moves too close for comfort as one of the exporter's has his home assailed by bullets. He chooses not to publicize this, perhaps because it does not change the fact that his family and their cherry producing partners simply need to see shipments move ahead and don't see the point in inviting sympathy as it doesn't change reality in any way. These are my speculations, anyway.

In the meantime, Tanzania has a presidential election coming up on Sunday and yesterday the Dar es Salaam port authority issued us warnings about potential strife that may affect the reception of our container. We debated internally, with our exporters, with our logistics partner, about the pros and cons of moving now or waiting. We ended up choosing to move ahead with shipment today, only to learn that the paperwork was in fact, not in order.

Hence my writing of this post now. Upon commiserating about all of this with a colleague and struggling with all the practical and emotional complexity this situation poses, we come to the conclusion that this story needs to be shared in the hopes that in the sharing, more people might develop the appreciation for all the efforts and struggle that goes into producing the beautiful coffee that this container holds. Over the past weeks, our team has been continually stunned by the quality we're tasting from these microlots. It's led to an increasingly popular refrain around here that Burundi is becoming "the new Kenya".

Sincerely hope you all agree when the gems making up this shipment finally land in your roasteries.

-Melanie

The CCS approach to doing Ethiopia

It being the birthplace of coffee, combined with notoriously changing the perceptions of coffee drinkers about what coffee can taste like, Ethiopian coffees court especially high expectations and attention year after year. Perhaps more than any other origin, coffee roasters look to Ethiopia to provide both stand-alone knockouts, as well as that little something to round out an espresso blend. Time and time again, the “Queen of Coffee Origins” delivers, despite a frankly labyrinthine and constantly evolving coffee auction and export system. Year after year, coffee buyers eagerly make their way through Addis Ababa and into the countryside, in search of the next fabled cup.

Ethiopian coffee is still made up of many wild growing coffee plants – most of them have not yet been classified, so the genetic diversity is innumerable and is still very much being studied and explored. While varieties do change from region to region within Ethiopia, you will often see “landraces” or “heirloom” listed as the varieties, even though this does not denote a homogenous genetic pool covering all of Ethiopia.

Being wild, these varieties have evolved naturally and so are well adapted to their surroundings. All this means that chemical inputs (fertilizers), pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are rarely needed/in use in Ethiopia; the majority of coffee produced is organic in the truest sense of the word.

Our washed coffees are carefully selected, rigorously sorted (by both machine and hand) and curated together with Heleanna Georgalis of Moplaco Trading Co. Heleanna and her team purchase coffees from the Ethiopia Commodities Exchange (ECX) and once the coffees arrive at their facility in Addis, they are meticulously sorted so that the full potential of each lot is clearly distinguishable. The current iteration of the ECX is structured in such a way that transparency (i.e. knowing the specific people involved with harvesting, and the place the coffee was grown and processed) is not available. Licensed exporters like Heleanna purchase coffees based on three criteria: broad geographic areas (e.g. Yirgacheffe, Sidamo), quality grade as determined by the ECX (e.g. Q1, Q2), and the lot’s date of submission to the auction. Bidders are not allowed to see or taste the coffee prior to bidding. These realities are why the work of Heleanna’s processing and export team is so fundamental to the quality of the coffee our roasters receive; it’s why we consider Moplaco to be a “producer”.

Moplaco's natural coffees are produced at its commercial farm, which also works together with neighbouring smallholders. The region these coffees are grown is near Gedeb at about 1880 meters above sea level, with red soil. It is on the borders of Yirgacheffe and Guji, which are separated by about 10km of distance. The number of farmers that supply the cherries is around 200, but this number can change depending on the price. Farmers are paid twice: once when the cherries are initially delivered to the washing station and secondly through a percentage dedicated to community projects, such as schools. For example, a school in Yirgacheffe was built from this percentage in the past and is now being financed by current proceeds. Another school near the farm is also being supported in this way.

The natural coffee process starts just as washed coffees do: red, ripe cherries are collected and then sorted within four hours after they have been picked from the trees. These cherries are spread on raised African beds, where exposure to air helps dry the beans. The fact that the seeds do not touch the the ground and other foreign materials eliminates, as a first step, the risk of contamination, and subsequent defects that end up contributing to "earthy", and “soily” tastes.

In the second phase of processing, full red beans are carefully selected and any broken, green, immature beans are eliminated from the beds. This drying and selection process goes continuously from 12 to 15 days.

As the cherry dries onto the seed, a fermentation process takes place, which allows sugars to dry onto the seeds, leading to the development of a more complex, fuller bodied coffee, wherein more aromatic compounds can develop through the roasting process.

Coffee stays in parchment for as long as possible. Ideally between 4-6 months, so that the many acetic acids that develop inside the parchment during the drying, once settled down, will not taste like vinegar. If coffee is hulled after 4-6 months, it will have more pronounced tastes, both in sweetness and flavour. 4-6 months is an ideal period to have the coffee’s acids and sugars settle, in order to develop a more sweet and aromatic profile.

The fact that the coffee is from Yirgacheffe adds to its prestige, as the coffee is genetically supreme. What a careful sundried process does is maintain this supreme character and allow it to develop properly.

Important Terms & People within Ethiopian Coffee Production and Export

Garden coffee: coffee grown and harvested on smallholder property.

Semi-forest coffee: coffee that grows under a forest canopy. The land below the canopy belongs to a farmer who produces coffee in addition to other crops.

Forest coffee: coffee grown in forests protected by the Ethiopian government. People are given permission to harvest cherries. No people-induced cultivation is allowed.

Plantation coffee: coffee grown on privately owned commercial farms.

Smallholder: coffee farmers owning smaller plots of land.

Collector: a person that bought coffee cherries and in turn sold to suppliers (i.e. washing stations). In the current version of the ECX, there are no longer collectors.

Supplier: washing stations that are owned by a private person, or a cooperative. They deliver processed coffee to the ECX.

Exporter: can be a private person/company, a commercial farm, a union (usually supplied by cooperatives), or a government plantation. Commercial farms can only export their own production.
 

The ECX system: previous & new

The ECX auction system was established in 2008 and is a private company made up of private parties and the Ethiopian government. It was set up, ostensibly, to protect the rights of all parties involved, from sellers, to buyers, to intermediaries.

During its early iteration, smallholders sold their cherries to a collector, who bought cherries from throughout their area and in turn sold to suppliers/washing stations. Collectors had to obtain licenses in order to buy from their specific areas (e.g. Kochere), to which they had to strictly adhere.

Once processed by a washing station, coffee was delivered to the auction in Addis and were cupped and graded by the Coffee Liquoring Unity (CLU). Auctions occurred daily and exporters had the opportunity to see the samples, which together with the coffee’s region, is what they based their purchasing decisions on. In this early system, the name of the region (e.g. Yirgacheffe) as well as its specific locality (e.g. Kochere) and sub-locality (e.g Chelelektu) were transparent. Also available was the name of the supplier/washing station. Notably, exporters did not have the opportunity to cup these samples; only look at the sample and see its lot info. This is in contrast with other auction systems, such as Kenya’s (for example), where exporters routinely cup coffees they’re interested in.

Once the auction ended, the trucks containing the lots were sent to the exporter’s warehouse within the same day. This allowed for good quality control—trucks delivering coffee that did not match the sample could be sent back—and it allowed for price discovery via the knowledge about specific geographic origin and the exporter’s knowledge of demand for the various regions. One downside and perhaps a subsequent reason that the ECX was changed is that certain suppliers and exporters would enter into prior agreements so that the supplier could end up withdrawing from a sale if the highest bidder was not the same person it entered into a pre-arrangement with.

In the newer version of the auction, which was implemented quite soon after the first version of the ECX, collectors were eliminated and centralized marketplaces were implemented. So now, rather than suppliers buying from collectors or specific smallholders, they buy from centralized markets: cherry prices are based on the “market price”. One big effect of this change is that suppliers can no longer negotiate prices based on whose cherries they like better: they have to buy lots based on what’s available at the market.

Once the coffee (in parchment for washed; hulled for natural) arrives at the specific auction allocated for that particular region (e.g. Dilla auction for Yirgacheffe region), it is cupped and graded by the ECX lab within the facility, each truck that contains specific lots from specific washing stations is given a number so that its identifying information is only known by the Ministry of Agriculture, and exporters purchase based on the region and ECX grade. For washed Yirgacheffe coffees, there is an additional identifier: type A are coffees that have the “Yirgacheffe flavour” and type B are coffees that do not have the “Yirgacheffe flavour”. Washed and natural coffees have slightly different classifications.

Heleanna Georgalis of Moplaco 

Heleanna Georgalis of Moplaco 

About Moplaco 

Yanni Georgalis established Moplaco in 1972 and was a third generation coffee exporter. Yanni was highly respected not only within Ethiopia but was well known and beloved by buyers of Ethiopian coffee around the world. He rightfully maintained a reputation for not only selling the highest quality coffee, but also for his integrity in all aspects of the business. Heleanna, Yanni’s daughter, then comes from a long and established lineage of highly respected Ethiopian coffee exporters.

Heleanna is a courageous woman and has done an admirable job of continuing the legacy of her father’s at Moplaco while also carving out her own version of it in the years since her father’s passing. Under her leadership, Moplaco is constantly evolving to produce ever-increasing quality coffee in spite of the complexity and challenges continually present within Ethiopia’s coffee production and auction systems. Born in East Harar Heleanna, as a young girl, was forced to flea her home in the face of civil war and so grew up and was educated in and around Europe, where she eventually established a successful career in finance. She neither imagined nor planned to find herself back in Ethiopia and working in the footsteps of her father within the world of specialty coffee.

After the sudden passing of her father in 2008, Heleanna was faced with a difficult crossroads: continue the legacy her father had meticulously built with almost no knowledge about the coffee business, or continue on the path she had created for herself within the world of finance. We are very glad and lucky she chose coffee. True to her personality and way of approaching new challenges, Heleanna completely immersed herself in learning about roasting, cupping, agronomy (including the latest research and practices in natural processing) and the niche markets of specialty coffee all around the world. Though she admits that these challenges were extremely daunting at times—and sometimes continues to be—Heleanna continues to trailblaze her way through specialty coffee and is consistently updating herself on the latest trends and experiments in agricultural and processing techniques, travelling around the world to meet with and discuss these developments with the best and brightest producers and coffee researchers.


Moplaco Brands

With all the experience and knowledge he had amassed on the multitude of distinct cup profiles found in Ethiopian coffees—as influenced by species, geographic location, processing practices—Yanni developed a line of Moplaco green coffee brands that are based on some of the most distinct, well-known and loved cup profiles coming from Ethiopia. Given the ECX’s built-in lack of traceability, these brands are especially relevant today and we’re proud to present them now in 2015.

Matahara: Is a coffee from the West of Ethiopia. It has a flavour profile that is spicy, very sweet, full body and has a medium pointed acidity. Matahara means “new brain” in the language of Oromifa, and it was chosen to indicate the new idea Yanni had at the time he created it.

Abysinian Mocca: Many people identify Ethiopian coffee as coffee with the “mocca” flavour. This can mean different things to different people, but for Moplaco, the mocca profile has a dark chocolate flavour, is very clean with full body, and a good acidity.

Abysinia is the ancient name of Ethiopia. To Moplaco, this coffee represents the epitome of Ethiopian coffee.

Illily: This coffee comes from the Lower West lands of Ethiopia, under deep forests and wild nature. The coffee’s cultivation goes from the lower lands around 1600 meters above sea level, to the highlands at 1800 metres. “Illily” means flowery in the Oromifa language, which is well represented in the cup. This coffee also has a notable citric characteristic that is well balanced with its floral attributes.

-Melanie

Colombia: A Clash of Mindsets

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Remember the days when the main quality distinction among Colombian Coffee qualities was Excelso (‘export quality’) and Supremo (‘export quality’, bigger screen)? Those were the days…

Looking back just a few years in time, it is evident that the development of ‘Specialty Coffee’ as a term and as a mindset has changed how we perceive coffee, how we describe it (with flavor attributes), how we communicate about it (as product from a concrete place and person) and how it is traded (transparently).

One may take these things for granted today. As we all should.

Soon Colombia will celebrate its 10th year as member of the growing and still exclusive group of coffee producing countries that have been scrutinized and recognized by the Cup of Excellence (CoE) program. The program’s mission is to bring farmers to the forefront, by acknowledging both their existence and individually crafted products.

Up until ten years ago ‘Colombian Coffee’ had been presented to the world by a very different marketing concept. As early as in 1958, the Colombian Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros (FNC) created Juan Valdez, a marketing mascot playing the role as a personification of the Colombian Coffee Farmer. ‘He’ is not only a fictive figure, but has represented FNC’s marketing concept which, quite tellingly, has been a presentation of the entire community of Colombian coffee farmers, meant to build a collective pride as a nation of coffee famers. And it has worked well for a long time.

Juan Valdez, an FNC icon

Colombian coffee had been marketed as a brand and as a blend, made collectively by the country’s half million coffee farmers, and managed to build a worldwide reputation for its quality. It had fame and recognition and became a staple on every roaster’s menu. CoE’s concept of bringing farmers individually and personally into the light and onto the stage, which at the time was a new idea, didn’t fit perfectly well with how Colombian coffee had been marketed by the FNC in the past.

With the CoE competition in 2005, this was literally the first - and ultimate - test of what Colombian Coffee really was about. Since the average production at a coffee farm in Colombia is much less than the CoE program’s minimum submission requirement of 12 bags, farmers were allowed to form groups with coffee from up to three farms constituting a CoE competition-lot. Despite this stipulation, samples representing over 800 lots were submitted to FNC’s center in Manizales that first year, where the national CoE jury first pre-screened the samples based on technical quality and then began the comprehensive cupping/further screening and re-cupping processes of the remaining 150+ samples. Of these, the international jury were presented with 60+ of the best samples and given the task of cupping and scoring them all over again. The CoE international jury’s mandate is to screen the national jury’s selection further in order to find the very best lots (at the time those who scored an average of 84pts or more), and then ranking these top coffees, as well as describing each coffee’s attributes.

Many of the well-known personalities, new and old in the coffee trade, were on that jury, including the gracious Grand Lady of Specialty Coffee, Erna Knudsen. As a matter of fact, it was she who coined the term Specialty Coffee almost thirty years prior to this event.

CoE Colombia 2005: Specialty Coffee Pioneers Erna Knudsen cupping with Bob Fulmer

During the course of two weeks, all the samples from the submitted lots were cupped five times, but even with all that, on the final table, when ranking the top 10 coffees on the final day of the competition, samples were rejected for phenolic off-flavors, a defect that is usually related to issues with the processing of the coffee cherries. Hey, Juan Valdez, what was going on?!

In the end, the remaining top coffees were fantastic and all the farmers’ names were revealed. The winners received their standing ovations and sold their coffees at the auction at record prices. Regions and microclimates were discovered. A new era began.

Still, this was also a time for reflection on how to approach the seemingly endemic processing issue that had thrown so many coffees out of the competition.

Meanwhile, another kind of problem had been threatening the Colombian coffee tree population for a long while. Coffee Leaf Rust, La Roya, is such a long-standing phenomenon that Colombians commonly use it as a slang term for something that ‘takes with it whatever comes in its way’: La Roya se lo llevó. Coffee farmers have had to struggle with climate and climate changes that have created environments where fungi that can kill coffee trees leaves are able to flourish. The traditional ‘Colombia Varietal’, a Catimor hybrid, was designed to be Leaf Rust resistant, whereas the Caturra varietal became known to be more susceptible to it, yet many farmers have been able to work out Roya-threats proactively.

FNC map of varietals in Huila, 2010. Pre-Castillo Era: Still predominantly Caturra (green) and Colombia (yellow, a Catimor-hybrid), pockets with Typica predominantly in the north.

Coffee is a cash crop; it is handled as any other cash crop, like soy, maize, beans, bananas, etc. Coffee farming in Colombia is usually a rather non-technical enterprise, often times with little planning, thus no calculations for concrete outcomes. With little control over harvest outcome, revenue, and cost control, one becomes vulnerable to unexpected problems and market price volatilities. Coffee farming is often times a losing proposition.

Being on top of the game requires more than just will. Taking care of a farm, particularly with the ever-present risk of a Roya-attack, is labor intensive and costly. Cleaning weeds, pruning trees, fertilizing, and in order to maintain sound trees is key, particularly when there is an environmental threat lurking. A healthy tree is generally less susceptible to diseases like Roya. If proactive spraying is necessary, usually done with copper, this is an extra cost to already expensive regular operations.

One may take the chance and do nothing about disease prevention, but if the farmer wants to be proactive and doesn’t have money saved from previous harvest sales to buy the required products and pay for the labor to apply it, he can easily find himself within the hands of those money lenders, or those who sell disease prevention products on a credit basis. These suppliers can be private, sometimes a cooperative, but usually the supplier is the FNC itself. The same FNC that guarantees buying coffee at the market price, but at market price only…

One of the results of all of this is that the concept of investing in a coffee farm and keeping healthy coffee trees isn’t necessarily a viable path from an economic perspective - considering the level at which coffee is usually paid for. So when fertilizers and fungicides are needed, a vicious cycle of borrowing money before the upcoming harvest can easily develop. When you don't own the revenue for your own coffee harvest until all debt has been paid off (sometimes at exploitative high interest rates) it becomes tempting to not spend extra money on the farm.

For Colombia, as a coffee producing country, this kind of vicious cycle has been even bigger. When millions of trees lost their leaves, partly due to insufficiently attentive farming practices or plain negligence, many farms lost entire harvests, meaning Colombia as a nation lost a lot of revenue. The FNC went on the hunt for solutions!

This is when the Castillo varietal, a modern version of the Colombia (Catimor) varietal, was developed and pushed for by the FNC. Castillo was cleverly designed as 11 different types, meant to be ‘site specific’ to particular geography, environmental and climatic conditions around the country. But the FNC not only encouraged farmers to exchange the Roya-susceptible Caturras into Castillo; Castillo was made a requisite variety, meaning it became eligible for subsidies and credits from the government.

Castillo has its benefits. It can be planted more densely (higher yield per hectare), the trees are shorter (easier to access for cherry pickers), and it produces more even cherry ripening than other varietals (making the harvest season shorter). Though whether Castillo continues to be resistant to Roya, or other fungi, in the future is as yet to be seen. Coffee farming may not prove to be that simple.

The good news for Colombia is that tanking production levels and a record low of 7 million bags is now turning around. Production levels are back at 11 million bags; approximately where they were ten years ago.

In the meantime, the country has transformed itself into a ‘Castillo-origin’ making the other varietals (Caturra, Bourbon, Typica, Tabi, etc.) more difficult to find. Begging the question: How smart is this, when a growing market is asking for diversity and specialty quality?

And this is all political. Of course it is!

The (g)olden days: Colomiban farmers delivering coffee at FNC collection piont

As a nation, for which the GDP is dependent on coffee, the market price level matters.

On the other hand, Colombia’s coffee production level (volume) affects the world market and international coffee price. In any economy where a product is – to such an extent – culturally engrained, is so much part of national identity, with so many livelihoods dependent on it, it will be – and should be – a political matter. But as is any political matter in any modern society, it is – and should be – up for debate; the policymakers in power accepting of questions. As independent as the FNC is supposed to be, there is no question that it is seen as, as well as functions as, an extension of the governing institutions of the country. I get this perception. Policies need to adapt to changes occurring over time, whether they are internal or, as is very much the case with coffee, international. Today, the parties on both ends of the chain, the producers and the buyers, are interacting and communicating more transparently than ever before.*

Colombia is not merely a coffee supplier; the ‘market’ is not merely asking for supply.

For one, the ‘market’ is divided into at least three coffee segments:

- Commodity coffee (sold at NYC with a differential);

- Certified coffee (sold with a premium);

- Specialty Coffee (sold at a negotiated price based on quality assessments, including cup attributes).

With this backdrop and based on recent visits, my next article will look into what is happening in the field of Specialty Coffee in Colombia right now.

Locally Grown, Home Roasted, Hand Brewed by Omar Viveros, Colombian Specialty Coffee producer, Pitalito 2014

As an important aside, the Cup of Excellence program celebrates its 100th competition this fall. Susie Spindler, the program’s director for many years has chosen to step down, thus we should take a moment to reflect on her formidable and significant contribution; building CoE’s credibility by holding firmly to it’s protocol, which has helped to define Specialty Coffee as we know it today. CoE, under Susie’s tenure, has helped create an understanding of the individual origins it has been present in since the program’s inception in Brazil, 1999.

Looking back at a hundreds of years of coffee history, this understanding has developed a long way in a very short time. Thank You Susie!

- Robert W

*In the case of Specialty Coffee we are seeing a drive toward taking charge of the production by ‘designing quality’ for specific markets. With so many Colombian farms being re-planted with the Castillo Varietal, the question becomes if the Country is able to meet the demand of an increasingly growing Specialty Coffee market.

Karagoto

Karagoto Factory

Karagoto Factory

For the sixth year running, Robert will be heading to the Nyeri district in Kenya to buy coffee. Starting Monday and for the following two days, he will spend his days cupping as many coffees as possible to find us the "cream of the crop".

The Place At the foot of Mt. Kenya is the town of Karatina and our favourite coffees have consistently originated from here. The Tekangu cooperative owns the washing stations (called "factories" in Kenya) and the Tegu, Karagoto and Ngunguru stations have, in particular, produced fantastic coffee.

For now, we'll focus on the Karagoto station because today we cupped a table of samples from Kenya and our favourites come from here. Karagoto is a washing station/factory with 1000 members and the harvest this year has been substantial: three times as big as last year's. While this year's yields are larger than normal, they are also substantially higher than last year's catastrophically low volumes. One of the results of last year's low yields were sky-high prices (the demand remained the same). Karagoto has developed a great reputation and steadily garner more and more interest from coffee buyers based on the merits of their consistently great coffee (i.e. excellent management and farming practices follow through in the cup). This season is a good example of Karagoto's solid management: the people at Karagoto decided to put the proceeds from last year's sales to good use and invested in better husbandry and fertilization. The results of these decisions are showing: the trees are healthier and there is better/more even maturation of the cherries.

Management happens on several levels and I will elaborate one in particular: that of factory management. Coffee that is processed at Karagoto is of such a high standard because the managers there are rigid about the quality of the cherries they receive. They will reject cherry that is not up to standard, or they will take the time to sort the unripes out.

The Buying Process It is important to elaborate on how we approach buying coffee here because it is both similar to how we approach buying from other regions and is more complex than simply flying into a region, cupping coffee, telling the supplier we want it and then coming home and waiting for it to arrive.

The first step is to visit the region early in the season (even prematurely, as Robert did in December last year) to cup samples and determine what the coffee might/will be like when it is eventually harvested. Although he was early and couldn't predict exactly which lots would be best, today's cupping acknowledged the benefits of "going early": the coffees most interesting in December are the ones we liked the most today. In particular, we enjoyed Karagoto's AA and AB samples. AA was sweet and showed a lot of complexity and AB was a more acidic and interesting profile.

And now it's time to follow-up on December's trip. As mentioned above, Robert will spend the first few days of his week in Africa (he's going to Ethiopia at the end of the trip) cupping extensively and intensely and will begin the process of getting a shipment together for delivery at the end of this month.

We are incredibly excited about the coffees coming from Karagoto - if you want to get your hands on some, contact melanie@collaborativecoffeesource.com as soon as possible. The sooner we know how much you would like, the sooner we can have the coffee sent.

Have a great weekend!

Addendum: I would like to add an important development that wasn't fleshed out above that has to do with the process of buying coffee in Kenya. Traditionally, coffee is bought at auction - even the fantastic ones we cupped today. We would like to do away with this time consuming and unnecessary process. We are currently working with the Karagoto factory on buying directly (this term is problematic for me but the discussion on that is for another post/series of posts). Within this context, "direct" means outside of auction. What are the benefits? There are many but from a quality perspective, buying before auction means quicker transport and thus, fresher coffee. But the only way for us to bypass auction is to offer a good enough price. Which is where you come in. Expressing your interest in these coffees now means we can commit to them and have them shipped sooner. Fresher coffee, new crop to your customers sooner, quicker/more direct payment to the supplier. Enough said.