Royal New York

November 2015 Trip to Ethiopia

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                                             Cherries At Gera Farm

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee – home to the greatest wealth of diversity and to thousands of varieties undocumented by the coffee industry. A country rich in culture, Ethiopia has over 80 different tribes of people, each with their own language, customs, and traditions. This November, Richard Borg and I were fortunate enough to meet with some of our suppliers, travel the countryside, visit farms and mills, and try to absorb as much information as we could about an origin which is as unique and interesting as it is complex and, sometimes, opaque.

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                                            Pickers At Gera Farm

We flew in to Addis Ababa, and after resting overnight from our long flight, hopped on a small plane to Jimma – a famous coffee town and actually the origin for a majority of the coffee exported from Ethiopia. The Jimma region is historically known for a lower grade naturally processed coffee, and you can see evidence of this driving through the villages- nearly every small house has a small raised bed (maybe three feet on each side) with cherries of every color drying. We came to visit our partners, Tracon Trading, who have a plantation about two hours west of Jimma, nearest a town called Gera, from whom we have been purchasing an excellent Grade 1 washed coffee for the past 2 years and a natural coffee starting last year. Their plantation is a large one, 1000 hectares, of which 500 are currently planted with coffee. Tracon plans to incrementally plant the rest of the available land over the next 10 years. At an altitude of 1900 meters above sea level, it sits much higher than most of the coffee land in the Jimma region. It is much cooler, and they had been experiencing more rain than is usual for the season – there were hardly any ripe cherries on the trees, but they were packed with green fruit. By the time you read this, picking will be in full swing and the new crop from the Gera estate will be well under way. Tracon is very close to completing the requirements for obtaining Rainforest Alliance and UTZ certifications, and in a few years they hope to have Organic certification – no pesticides are currently used but as you probably know, obtaining Organic certification is a long process that can take a number of years to complete. Tracon is dedicated to the welfare of the more than 500 workers who tend the plantation. No one under the age of 18 is permitted to work the farm, they provide housing for the workers who need it, in addition to water and electricity. They have also built a school for the workers’ children. 

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                                         Nursery At Gera Farm

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                                      Washed Coffee At Gera Farm

After spending two days in Gera, we set off on the very long and bumpy drive to Awassa. Awassa is the capital of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region, and is a resort town on Lake Awassa. It was a good stop-over point on the way to Yirga Chefe, and also home to the largest ECX (Ethiopian Commodity Exchange) delivery center, where producers tender their coffee to the exchange to be graded and stored before it can be sold to an exporter on the ECX trading floor. Awassa is where most of the coffee sold as Sidamo is tendered, and while there wasn’t too much going on during our visit in early November, the graders there might cup 50 to 100 samples per day when the crop is in full swing in December and January. During our trip the graders explained their process for evaluating all of the coffee to us – believe me, it is very complicated and a little bit difficult to wrap your head around; I will spare you the minutiae here but would be excited to discuss with you over the phone if you have some time – give me a call!

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                Sampling A Delivery At The ECX Delivery Station In Awassa

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            Coffee Waiting To Be Sampled At ECX Delivery Station In Awassa

From the delivery center, we left for Yirga Chefe. I felt like I was on a coffee pilgrimage of sorts – how many times have I seen this name (spelled many different ways) printed on bags over the last 10+ years I have been in coffee? What secrets did this “El Dorado” of the coffee world hold? Once we drove through Wenago (a town just to the north of Yirga Chefe), one thing that surprised me was the height of the coffee trees. We saw some that were 25 to 30 feet tall; these were not shrubs but proper trees! Unfortunately the tops were full of red cherries that it seemed difficult to pick – maybe some pruning is in order? Every few minutes driving down the main road there was another washing station, with wet mill and raised drying beds. We visited a few of these: the Konga washing station where our Natural Konga 3 originates, another washing station in Konga called Wote, and the Chelelektu washing station from where we receive some of our washed Yirgacheffe Kochere. Visiting these places was wonderful – seeing the ladies sort through parchment while singing was something I will never forget, and the scenery was gorgeous. Yirga Chefe is surely a special place.

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                              Raised Beds At Konga Washing Station

         Ladies Sing While Sorting Coffee At Konga Washing Station

From Yirga Chefe our next stop was the Hambela farm, another private plantation, this one owned by the exporter METAD. We were all extremely excited to visit this place, because it is the origin of one of the finest Ethiopian coffees we have had the honor of bringing to the States. The Hambela plantation is (depending on which road you take) 50 or 80 km down a dirt road from Yirga Chefe in the Guji region. It was a rough ride – the road was very muddy and at one point it looked like the Land Cruiser Richard was riding in ahead of me was going to flip over – thankfully, our drivers were skilled and fearless and took better care of us than I could have hoped to do myself. Hambela is one of the most beautiful places I have seen with my own eyes. 300 plus year old shade trees cover the farm, every time you crest a hill or round a corner you expect to see a dinosaur or something. The soil under your feet is so spongy and soft – you can tell how fertile and ideal the land is here for growing coffee. They are finding that with proper management their trees are yielding fruit within 2.5 to 3 years. For their washed coffee they have a Colombian Penagos wet milling machine that allows them to use only 1 liter of water to wash each kilo of parchment (instead of 6 liters when washed the traditional way). For their naturals they have on site an Ethiopian made dry hulling machine. We are really excited to see new arrivals from METAD- for a project only a few years in the making, the quality is already so excellent, and we expect to see more great things from them in years to come.

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                                         Nursery At Hambela Farm

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                                   Raised Beds At Hambela Farm

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                                       Eco-pulper at Hambela Wet Mill

After Hambela we took two days to drive back to Addis. The last stop of our trip was to the ECX trading floor, so we could see the trading in action. It was really interesting. All of the sellers wear a green coat, and all of the buyers wear a tan coat. During the different trading sessions for different types of coffee, the seller will say their price and hold up their hand. When they find a buyer to agree to their price, they give each other a high-five and then write up the sale with the clerk on the side of the trading pit. The increment for buying and selling is pretty confusing – it is unsorted parchment sold in Ethiopian Birr per Feresulla (a 17 kg unit of coffee). This makes it somewhat difficult for us to estimate our costs even if we keep track of the prices on the ECX website because it doesn’t include milling and sorting costs, and the grades of parchment sold on the exchange are not the same as the export grades we are used to seeing. Ethiopia has some of the most interesting coffee in the world but it can be really frustrating to try to deal with the lack of traceability available on the majority of coffees purchased through the ECX. Some good news from the ECX came up while we were there: starting this year they are planning on instituting a traceability program for specialty coffee, tagging and coding bags so the origin of the coffee can be traced back to the specific washing station or mill. We are excited for this new development and hope it can allow us to provide you with better information about your coffee in the future!

Phillip Miley

Anthony Chango