It was a dark October evening in the shadow of England’s defeat to South Africa that Phil and I caught the red-eye flight into Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It’d been 4 years since DRWakefield had last set foot in Ethiopia so we had a lot to catch up on and a lot to see.
Touching down on Ethiopian tarmac in the early hours of the morning with very little sleep, and with 4 hours to kill until our connecting flight, there was only one option – to the coffee shop. When in Addis, as the old saying goes. Sufficiently caffeinated we caught our second flight south to Hawassa, a relatively short hop compared to the overnight flight from London. Picked up from the airport by Tracon, we then drove down through Sidama to see our first washing station, Haru, in the Yirgacheffe region at 16:30.
Haru Washing Station
At 2000 masl and with over 300 raised drying beds Haru is one of the largest washing stations in the area. The owner, Komilachu, was eager to show us their washing and drying process (pulp and wet ferment the coffee for 36 hours, before washing off the mucilage and drying on raised beds for 10-15 days).
Perhaps now is a good time to digress into how the coffee industry works in Ethiopia. As the home of (Arabica) coffee and the origin of its consumption, it is deep-rooted into their culture and their industry is slightly different to other coffee-growing countries. Because Coffea Arabica is native to southern Ethiopia you’ll find it growing along the sides of the road, and in between other local flora in the forests. This abundance, as well as its cultural significance, means that most coffee in Ethiopia is grown by independent smallholder farmers with 1-5 hectares of land. These farmers will then sell their cherries to a local washing station, who will process and dry the coffee into parchment.
Traditionally, the washing stations are also independent, and they would auction their coffee through the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) to exporters who would then mill the parchment into exportable green coffee. Coffee Exporters are not allowed to own washing stations in a bid to stop multinational corporations from creating a vertically integrated business and undercutting locals. While providing benefits for producers such as security, insurance, and price transparency – the push for greater traceability and higher quality from the specialty market led to a change in policy in 2017. Now, exporters are allowed to create agreements directly with washing stations, bypassing the ECX. This is known as ‘vertical integration’ in Ethiopia although the exporters do not own the washing station, just partner with them. This allows buyers to get greater traceability as well as a hand in quality control and allows producers the security of selling their coffee at a price known in advance rather than waiting for the auction. There are benefits and drawbacks to both systems, and in general the ‘vertical integration’ is used for specialty while commercial coffees are still often traded on the exchange. 
Hambella, Beloya and Koke
The next day, we visited three more washing stations that Tracon partner with: Hambella in Guji, Beloya and Koke in Yirgacheffe. Although it might sound like relaxed day with only three items on the agenda, these washing stations are very far apart on rural unpaved roads. We also got to experience unseasonably heavy rain, which Phil had promised me he’d never seen in his 7 visits to Ethiopia. Opinion on the severity and seasonality of the rain was debated amongst producers we met – with some saying this was unusual for the time of year and a noticeable effect of climate change, and others said this was normal. Whatever the reason, the rain certainly couldn’t help with the harvest or the drying.
Many of the coffee growing regions we visited during our trip (mostly around Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, and Guji) had either just begun their lower elevation harvest or were due to in the coming weeks. Other lower lying regions such as Limu had begun their harvest, with some already being milled for export. Generally, higher coffee gets harvested later due to delayed development at altitude. It is this elongated development which also produces more complex flavours in the cup, and thus the first coffees to leave the washing station are usually commercial grade with higher quality coffees coming later.
It is also worth noting here that while the grading system in Ethiopia does have a green preparation/defect limit, most of the emphasis is placed on cup profile. For this reason, you often find Ethiopian Grade I coffees with small beans but a very good cup profile; while Colombia Excelso for instance dictates that the beans must be of screen size 17+.
Clean Water Project
The next morning, we met up with Teddy from BNT with whom we are running a clean water project with this year in Idido Village. The concept of the project is that we will pay a premium on top of the regular price of their coffee, and this will be used to help fund clean water for the village with BNT topping up the rest. The village sits atop a hill in the Yirgacheffe region, with a river cutting through the valley below where many residents currently source their water. In the washing station there is a groundwater pump which provides clean water, but it is still inaccessible for most. Those that do get their water from the pump still have to battle a steep hill back to the village carrying litres of water. The funds raised through this project will help build piping and a pump to take this water up the hill and into the village where all residents can access the clean water.
Idido village was only accessible via a mountainous track which even the 4×4 Land Cruiser struggled on. After a quick tour of the washing station and village the rains set in again, so we had to make a swift exit lest we be stranded there.
BNT Dry Mill
The next day we returned to Addis, where many of the exporters and their dry mills are based. With most of the day spent travelling, we only had time for a quick tour of BNT’s dry mill, which wasn’t in full swing yet being so early into the harvest.
For those of you unaware of the lengthy process coffee goes through before it even reaches our warehouses – dry milling is the final step where the parchment is milled leaving the green coffee bean within which is then bagged for export. The dry mills are usually very large, collecting parchment from many washing stations, and having ample storage space both for parchment to be milled as well as green coffee waiting to be exported. It is in the dry mills that most of the sorting – both mechanical and manual – usually takes place.
After a brief tour of the facilities, we went to their onsite QC lab where the head of quality, Benti, put on a selection of coffees for us to cup. Being so early in the harvest, the only fresh crop coffees we cupped were commercial and UG (under-grade), although we were treated to some delicious natural and anaerobic processed coffees from 22/23 crop. We were also given a banana and strawberry fermentation coffee to sample. I’m not going to debate the benefits or negatives of such processes here, but I do think it’s nice to see that there are producers in Ethiopia who are experimenting in order to achieve a higher cup score and secure better prices for their coffee. Whether you agree with it or not, these coffees scored high.
Kerchanshe’s Dry Mill
On our final day, we went to go see Kerchanshe’s dry mill in Addis. Being the largest exporter of coffee by volume last year, it was a huge mill with thousands of bags of coffee – even when it’s not at peak production. We then visited the QC lab where Naol, the head of department put on a huge selection of 36 coffees for us to cup. These included a range washed, natural, and anaerobic processes as well as samples from their mechanised farm – a first in Ethiopia. Most coffee growing origins other than Brazil harvest by hand. In order to have a mechanised harvest, every part of the farm must be built for it. The coffee trees must all be planted in neat rows wide enough for a tractor to drive between them, specialised equipment must be brought in to shake the cherries off the trees without damaging them, and you need sorters on site to separate the red from the green cherries which the mechanised harvesters can’t differentiate unlike hand-pickers. It’s a huge investment on Kerchanshe’s behalf, and this is the first year that the harvest has been mechanised. It will be interesting to see the quality of this product going forward, and if any others will follow suit.
I’m not sure if any of you have tried cupping 36 coffees, each with 5 cups, but you’re left with the curious combination of intense hunger (from tasting so much without swallowing) and complete lack of taste (from palate fatigue). After fixing the hunger issue with I’m sure what was probably a very nice lunch (that we couldn’t taste), we met with Israel – the owner of Kerchanshe – for a chat before heading out for a pre-flight meal and drinks. Here we were treated to traditional Ethiopian honey wine (think mead with a scrumpy cider aftertaste – and a similarly ambiguous alcohol content), Injera (the national dish – slightly sour spongey bread which is both the plate and the utensil for eating the toppings), and a range of traditional Ethiopian dances. Sufficiently fed we returned to the airport in time to watch England secure 3rd place in the Rugby world cup on a tiny phone screen halfway across the world.
My takeaway from my first visit to Ethiopia is that the people are exceptionally hospitable and friendly. Having never met any of them before, I was treated like an old friend everywhere we went. I was also amazed by the deeply ingrained coffee is in Ethiopia: it was stunning to see coffee growing wild everywhere we went, but just because they are wild does not mean the were unwieldy. These were cared for, natural yet nourished, brimming with cherries as plentiful as anywhere else. And this makes sense, as Ethiopia is not only a coffee exporting nation, but a consuming one too. It is estimated over 50% of coffee grown in Ethiopia is consumed internally, higher than any other coffee growing origin. I’ve left out the Ethiopian coffee ritual from this article, and that’s because I think it’s better experienced than read. I’ve come away from this trip with the firm belief that for anyone who is interested in or works in coffee, a pilgrimage to its home is a must.