Small Batch on the road
Back in November last year, production roaster Joe was lucky enough to travel out to Ethiopia with our African import specialists Schluter. Now, this may seem like quite a long wait before publishing his account of his experience but we thought that since Ethiopia season is now in full swing, the time is ripe. Like a coffee cherry. Over to you Joe: It’s hard to over emphasise Ethiopia’s importance to the history of coffee and humankind, it seems both were destined to be thrown together and inextricably linked. The Coffea Arabica tree (the beans of which we at small batch buy, as opposed to Robusta) is indigenous to the country and is the origin of all other varietals that have since been created through cross pollination or splicing by farmers and scientists around the world. So for me, as a first trip out to any origin country, I was pretty excited that it was to be Ethiopia. On the overnight flight to Addis Ababa I was sat, by a happy coincidence, in between two NGO workers specialising in agriculture in Ethiopia. I didn’t get much sleep as I was too busy learning as much as I could and picking their brains! On arrival I met the guys from Schluter, a small coffee exporter that have a long history in the country. We then headed straight to their office in central Addis, pushing through heaving traffic, and having that brilliant feeling of being somewhere completely new. We did a quick tasting of some early crop coffee before our driver arrived to take us the 8 hours or so south to the coffee growing regions of Sidamo. Driving even long journeys on Ethiopian roads is never boring, up there with some of the most dangerous roads in the world; basically anything can happen. We had seven flat tyres in the course of our trip, witnessed many horrendous looking scenes of accidents and generally wore out the horn by trying to get goats, donkeys, children and adults out of the way. Forget about Stop, Look and Listen, people in the countryside actively walk out in front of cars as it is incomprehensibly deemed “good luck”. As we travelled down the Rift Valley, the open plains slowly gave way as we climbed in altitude to the lush greens of the area called Yirga chefe, which literally means fertile grass. It certainly lives up to its name, producing some delicious coffees that we have been buying at Small Batch for many years now. What I found really interesting was learning how the local people feel about coffee in these regions. It really is part of their day-to-day culture and international coffee prices are quite literally front-page news, with an estimated 15 million people involved in the coffee industry, contributing to roughly 60 percent of the country’s total export market. Most families in the region would have at least a few coffee trees they can pick from and before organized coffee wet mills were introduced in the 70s they would be simply sun dried and used themselves or to sell in the local market. We were offered this green coffee many times in little plastic bags by the side of the road and while it was tempting to buy these little pick n mix bags out of curiosity, it is illegal to leave Ethiopia with coffee so it wasn’t really worth the risk. This brings me onto another point which makes this country unique in coffee terms but not necessarily in a good way. In 2008, under the direction of Eleni Gabre-Madhin a former economist at the World Bank, the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) was established. Gabre-Madhin was deeply concerned that the farmers in the country growing crops like maize, wheat, sesame and coffee were far too vulnerable to the global market price, which can result in the farms running at a loss and crops rotting in the fields. The ECX was to help empower to farmers and secure better financial gains. In doing this it centralised the coffee export market and graded it by region rather than at washing station level. This is a real problem for what most forward thinking coffee companies want; namely, transparency. Essentially this angled their export more towards large bulk roasting companies, which have more financial weight, rather than the specialty market. You can still negotiate the opacity of the ECX, if farmers have formed a cooperative then some provenance still remains but it’s more red tape for them and for us the buyers. This is why it’s so important to have an exporter on the ground in Ethiopia and why we are lucky to work with Schluter, who help us to know what we are buying and from whom. So this is why taking coffee back with me personally was not an option, although I did want to smuggle a few fresh cherries and parchment into my pocket at the last mill we visited. But the instant fear of a life in an Addis Ababa prison put paid to that! So after a night spent in Haile Gebrselassies’ (ex Olympic Gold winning runner and all round Ethiopian legend) hotel on the shore of the beautiful Lake Awasa, we piled back into the car to finally get to my first wet mill, Haicof mill, Sidamo at an altitude of 2000m So now I should probably give you some information on how coffee is processed in Ethiopia, and similarly across most of Africa. The lorries come in with a representative of a co-operative of farmers, where they are paid by the kilo for their cherries, The bulk of Ethiopian coffee is then Wet Processed, this means loading all the cherries into a silo (at the highest point so everything is gravity and water propelled) and then passing these through a de-pulper. This is a machine with 3 disc burrs that are set to the right grade to take the flesh of the cherry without smashing the bean inside. From this step on the coffee is referred to as parchment, which is a layer of thick skin that needs to be dried to be properly removed. From the de-pulper onwards it is graded continually through channels all the time, with any really light beans or “floaters” separated out. This process is done at night because all the picking is done in daylight, so the mills mostly run under the light of the moon and some very low wattage energy saving bulbs! These beans of varying sizes are now stored in the fermentation tanks, where it is left for 24 hours, softening the parchment. It is then pushed through channels of water against the current so that again it is graded, by heaviest being best. It is pushed along by a team of men using a kind of wooden paddle. Once the beans have negotiated this process they are taken on sieve-like trays to the drying beds, these are raised above the ground so that the air can circulate easily and are left to dry being turned regularly and covered at night to keep away the damp. They are dried for around a week to 10 days depending on the weather conditions. This wet processed coffee is historically what was considered most desirable for export, and as a result is what most mills concentrated on (normally only a very small percentage of natural was produced and it is still graded below washed). However, in the last few years, Ethiopian naturals have become very sought after in the specialty market because of their incredible fruity flavour profiles. Some of the mills we visited (like the Dumerso mill in Yirgacheffe [alt 2200m]) are now paying a higher price to farmers for perfectly ripe red cherries to be sundried naturals. These have increased to make up around 50% of their output as a result of demand from the specialty market. This is a great example of specialty coffee being a force for good and securing the farmers a better price per kilo. This kind of reliability and support is important because it is possible that coffee could become financially unworkable; the farmers have to be very practical and will be quick to switch to other areas of crop production if they can make more money from it. Bad news for coffee lovers but when it might make the difference between secondary school for your children or not, it’s an obvious decision. At the first wet mill we visited they were not yet running due to a slightly late harvest in that region, so we took a little walk and discovered a few interesting and disturbing things. There was vast number of fields that looked recently tilled and planted with small scrubby bushes. What’s been happening is that many of the farmers in the area have pulled up their coffee trees and planted Khat (a leaf which is chewed to attain a mild high). It’s easy to understand why when you take into account that to farm it requires basically no skill, you get two, sometimes four, harvests a year (as opposed to one with coffee) and you will get just over double the price per kilo. Also because it is not registered on the commodities market you can sell it directly at market legally (or export to the Yemen or Somalia). I saw Khat everywhere and it has been growing in use in Ethiopia in recent years. Another problem is that when you grow Khat it alters the PH of the soil making it useless for growing good coffee in the future. The other interesting thing I saw here was a bridge that had been built over a ravine in between two fields, before the Ethiopian government set up the ECX Starbucks used to buy regularly from this region and built this bridge because the ravine was claiming about one farmer’s life a year. It just reminded me that the company’s buying and social policies are better than many people think and the problem is more at the final stage of the coffee process (i.e. bulk roasting and Soya Mocha Frappacinos) than at origin buying level. It was amazing to wander around the forest of these regions and look at the coffee tree growing in its natural, wild state, under the shade of high forest canopy teeming with large black and white Colobus monkeys and smaller Grivet monkeys. The farmers here carry out very little agronomy (the science and technology of using plants for food) and as a result the fruits they pick will often vary, which is another reason why the processing mills are so important for quality control. Also the mills are often running for only a short amount of time so the farmers are under pressure to get their cherries to the mill (and collect payment) while it’s still running. As a result they will often strip pick their trees (literally strip each branch of its cherries regardless of whether they are all ripe or not) which is something that would not happen in say Brazil where they could afford to send workers back out multiple times to pick at only the perfect time. All the coffee is still drunk; it’s just that the lower grade beans will stay in the country for local consumption. Seeing these things does make you realise that although this is the birthplace of coffee they have been somewhat left behind in terms of the science and technology of producing excellent coffee and this is something that can still be improved on in Ethiopia, it’s just lucky for them that they still have an amazing unique product naturally. There are companies like Technoserv that are assisting rural communities in learning basic skills to improve quality and help in the forming of co-operatives, but they will always need the security of a guaranteed market. As we pushed further south we picked up a local translator the brilliantly named Awgicheww which when pronounced properly sounds exactly like ‘I will get you’ which given that he can understand all the local dialects is pretty appropriate. The main spoken language is Amharic but in the south you could be fluent in that language and the kids would just stare at you blankly. Out in the country I had one of my favourite evenings of the whole trip. In an amazing eco lodge type hotel set on a beautiful hillside with incredible plants and animals, where they grew all their own food and we stayed in traditional woven huts. In the evening they do a traditional coffee ceremony in a clearing which is really interesting from a coffee roaster’s point of view. The ceremony starts with the lighting of two clay stoves of coals; one is used to burn frankincense, the smoke of which fills the air. The second stove is used to cook the coffee beans from green, in a pan. So there is this amazing multisensory experience going on with coffee smoke and frankincense and the beans are roasted pretty dark so things get very smoky! The roasted coffee is then crushed in a big pestle and mortar and poured into a clay pot [jebena] and mixed with water to create a kind of Turkish brew. It is then served very hot in tiny handle less cup which is interesting, because there is no table! Coffee is also regularly served with popcorn which I never knew and absolutely love, it also explains why sometimes you will get a bit of popcorn in with Ethiopian coffee when you roast it, a little roasters treat! At this ceremony we were surrounded by vultures and the hyenas feeding on the meat that had been thrown out for them, which was amazing. The next day we walked to see the caves that they sleep in during the day, and had a little crawl inside which was mildly terrifying. I later found out that in the past when someone dies their body would be thrown outside the village or town walls to the hyenas. So they are well used to tasty human bodies… So after this wonderful night we were back on the road to see the last mill of the trip, Kebado Sabtmo, a pretty large mill for Ethiopian standards and it was going at full pelt. Teams of women working at the raised beds and then moving en masse to the next bed, sorting the red cherries for sun drying, all the time singing local spiritual songs; a really amazing place to be. The women being orthodox Christian dress very modestly but colourfully and mostly with a head scarf. They use these to cover their mouths in what looks like embarrassment when you talk to them. I asked our translator why they are so shy but he pointed out that it was more that they found us hilarious and didn’t want to laugh directly in our faces! At each farm we would have a chat with the mill owner over coffee and popcorn, which gave us a chance to ask any questions we had and listen to the trials and tribulations of running a wet mill. All too soon we had to head back towards Addis Ababa, and the airport, leaving me happily exhausted and feeling that I had learned more in one week than I had for a long time, and with a new found respect for the coffee that I handle on a daily basis, back in my day job at the roastery. When you see the amount of hard work that goes into producing this amazing coffee it just tastes all the better. Many thanks to Ed at Schluter for looking after me on the trip and of course Al and Brad for sending me out there!