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As the birthplace of coffee, it’s not surprising that Ethiopia provides some of the world’s most flavorful and authentic coffees. Beans from its two main growing regions — Sidamo and Yirgacheffe — are highly regarded among specialty coffee roasters. Over the past several years, the Ethiopian government has been making an effort to control, standardize and brand coffee from Ethiopia in order to maximize the gross national profit from its main export. While this effort has improved and standardized the overall quality of coffee coming out of the small African country, it has also had the effect of suppressing some of the region’s finest, most outstanding coffee, noted a coffee buyer for Equator Coffees & Teas.
Ethiopian law has recently changed to require all coffee growers to sell their coffee to the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, where it will be graded and blended to create a generic blend that the ECX feels best represents the character, flavor and quality of the region in which it was grown. The end result is an evenly good coffee, but the high notes of some of the most distinctive single origin farm coffees are lost. While there’s much to be said in favor of standardization and all the improvements that the ECX has brought to Ethiopian coffee and its markets, there’s also reason to mourn the loss of the individuality and the character of those coffees that stand out among the best.
There is another side to the homogenization of coffee beans from Ethiopia. Overall, Ethiopia is a poor country, one of the poorest in the world. Coffee pickers and growers often live on as little as $400 a year, and it’s not unusual for children as young as 8 or 10 to be out picking coffee to help support their families. For small coffee farmers, the requirement to sell their coffee to the ECX means that they must accept the price determined by the exchange. In some cases, that price is more than the coffee farmer could have commanded on his own — or her own, for that matter. Many of the most productive coffee farms in Ethiopia are owned and run by women. For others, though, particularly those that grow the finest, most distinctive coffees in the region, it removes their ability to trade directly with coffee exporters who may be willing to pay considerably more for the highest quality coffee beans.
There is an exception to the rule for coffee farmers — a farmer who owns more than 30 hectares of land can apply for and receive an export license to trade directly with coffee buyers. This worked out especially well for a small region of Ethiopia located near Sidamo, Amaro Gayo. There, a small group of farmers sell their coffees directly to buyers through one woman in the community who has an export license. Amaro Gayo exports natural coffee — beans dried in the cherry — with an amazing fruity, rich, chocolatey flavor that is unmatched. Because the coffee is so good, Amaro Gayo coffee commands a price that is double what they’d get if they sold through the ECX. The farmers have reinvested the profits into their community and their farms, which further improves the quality and makes it even more desirable and valuable.
There are other ways to get single origin or grower coffees out of Ethiopia, notes the buyer for Equator — but it requires knowing the right people and their prices for doing business. The takeaway for consumers is this: Ethiopian coffees are among the best and most distinctive in the world. Some coffees from specific origins within the larger regions, however, stand far above the rest. Keep your eye out for coffee roasters selling Ethiopian coffees tagged with a farm or coop name. You’ll pay a premium price, but the coffee will be an experience.