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Eyeing Ethiopia

Eyeing Ethiopia

The current climate from a buyer’s perspective
By Chris Ryan

photos by David Pohl

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Lately, with coffee’s price on the commodities market going up seemingly daily and reports emerging from origin countries of potential coffee shortages, some specialty coffee professionals are wondering what challenges may lie ahead for the industry. In the January issue of Fresh Cup, we took a look at what high prices and low coffee supplies could mean for Central and South America.

But Latin America is only one part of the coffee-producing world. On the other side of the globe are Asian and African origin countries, and one of the heavyweights in that part of the world is Ethiopia. David Pohl, green coffee buyer for San Rafael, Calif.-based Equator Coffees and Teas, recently returned from his first visit to the country. He talked with Fresh Cup about the country’s forecast for 2011, the challenges Ethiopia faces and the vast differences between origins. 

What parts of the country did you visit on this trip?
A: I was in southern Ethiopia, in the regions of Sidamo and Yirgacheffe. Within those areas, I visited sub-regions like Aleta Wondo, Amaro Gayo and Guji, and in total I visited 12 or 13 groups. I was mainly working with Trabocca, an exporter that primarily works out of Ethiopia and has done more in terms of working on quality than any other group in Ethiopia in recent times. So I was with them half the time, and then the other half I was off on my own visiting some of our partners that we have established or developing relationships with. I had always wanted to go to Ethiopia—the coffees from Ethiopia are so wonderful. It probably represents about 15 percent of what we buy, so it’s a pretty big origin. And I just wanted to understand it a little better.

Q: This being your first trip there, is there anything that jumped out at you as being starkly different from your other origin experiences?
A: It’s very dry there. I’m used to Central and South America, where it’s quite humid and wet. The climates in Ethiopia tend to be drier and more desert-like. It seems like a minor thing, but it does affect the quality of the coffees. In the past five or so years, more and more people have been appreciating the natural coffees out of Ethiopia, and everybody wonders why they’re so good there and why it’s so hard to do natural coffees in Central and South America. I think part of it is that it’s so dry in Ethiopia when they’re drying the natural coffees, and in Central and South America it’s very humid, and it’s harder to evenly dry the coffees without over-fermentation occurring.

Q: How different is the quality of life there compared to other origins you’ve seen?
A: Honestly, the level of development is quite different. I was fascinated by this idea that the coffee we market is such a specialty boutique product, and we feel like we’re paying really good prices for it. In the end, the reality is that the income for the farmer is still really, really tiny. And for me as a coffee buyer and as a person concerned with quality and sustainability—both in environmental and social terms—it was pretty surprising to figure out how little coffee farmers are making, even when you’re talking about a fair-trade or a micro-lot coffee. The result for farmers is generally much lower than people realize.

Q: Did you get the sense there that their production will be down at all?
A: The sense you get in Ethiopia is that there isn’t all that much coffee, and the coffee that there is is extremely expensive. Some of the regions I saw in Sidamo had very low production this year—maybe half or a third of last year. And the Amaro Gayo region also was very short on coffee this year.

Q: How worried are you about how the high coffee price will affect specialty coffee?
A: It’s just such a fascinating time right now for the coffee market. This high price stuff is scary. When you look back at the micro-lot coffees we were buying last year, everything is at that price right now—even lower-grade blending coffees would be starting at those boutique prices right now. But I think higher prices for farmers and having people value coffee a little more could be a positive development for the industry. And certainly in Ethiopia, despite all the issues I saw, I did see traders and other people asserting themselves a little more about the quality of their product and wanting it to be valued a little higher.

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