Newsletter: Kenya Gachatha Factory

Living in the Bay we’re fortunate to be around some of the American wine industry’s finest participants, from importers, to bars and shops, to natural winemakers in Sonoma county and beyond. It’s a beautiful place to be and we often find ourselves sharing anecdotes with our pals on that side of the fence. One of my favorite terms used by wine folk is “unicorn wine.” A unicorn wine is a wine that everyone talks about, a wine that everyone wants to drink, but a wine that is very rarely found on shelves or even tucked away in the deepest cellar in Berkeley.

It’s a dreamy concept that instantly makes me think of the tales of grandeur I’ve been hearing for years from some of the elder coffee statesmen that I respect most; romantic rants about the lucid blackcurrant and blackberry flavor of the most exquisite Kenyan coffees; conversations that habitually end with the lament that Kenya just isn’t quite what it used to be, that maybe, although forever and always a complex player, Kenya doesn’t quite offer the power and the purity that it once did.

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I would classify today’s Kenya offering as a unicorn coffee. To put it simply, this AA lot from Gachatha offers unadulterated flavor. It’s pure. Its sweetness is perfect. The aromatics are fragrant, fresh peach blossoms. Cup character? Take those sweet floral aromatics and turn them into ripe peach and creme fraiche with a drizzle of wildflower honey on top. The acidity? Dramatic. Think fresh redcurrant, golden raspberry, and the whole dang basket of ripe stone fruits from cherry to apricot. This is the best Kenyan coffee I remember purchasing in years. Maybe ever. We scored the arrival 92. The AB is every bit as sweet and wild, just slightly more contained. A stunner of a coffee nonetheless — we scored it 90 on arrival. If this Gachatha outturn doesn’t rival those mythical lots from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, then I say they truly no longer exist. Maybe they never did.

The farmer members of Gachatha received nearly 85 Kenyan Schillings per kilo of cherry for this outturn, one of the single highest prices paid for a lot in the entire country this season. This is the second consecutive year that Red Fox and C. Dorman have paid to keep these folks at the head of the class.

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Newsletter: New Crop Yirgacheffe G2

The season is upon us. Our first containers of washed Ethiopian coffees have now arrived on both coasts and what better way to start our offers with than the Queen Coffee of them all, Yirgacheffe. Today’s offering is a gem with all of the classic flavors we look for from that fabled region and in spades: potently perfumed honeysuckle in the fragrance, honey + milk chocolate candy bar on the break, white grape and perfectly articulate meyer lemon in the cup, with that concept continuing through the finish and morphing into a lemon hard candy note. It’s easily a 90.

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But can we trace this coffee back to the farm or cooperative level? No, we cannot. Did we buy it purely because of its electric flavor? No, we did not. We love this lot and, don’t get me wrong, we feel fortunate to be in a position of selecting the finest Ethiopian coffees available. This Yirg is a stunner and we stand behind it 1000%. But there is more to it than that.

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I personally have spent the past decade traveling to and within Ethiopia and have seen internal coffee politics change dramatically over that period. The Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) was established immediately following the 2007/08 harvest and instantly changed the playing field for all of us. As the coffee buyer for one of the world’s premier direct trade roasters, I was upset that the private washing stations and exporters we worked with prior to ECX were no longer able to export coffee to us directly. These partners were often the most trustworthy folks we had relationships with. They not only delivered the best quality, and in a timely manner, but they were the ones paying more to the farmers for cherry. It was the only way they could compete with the cooperatives next door. I was upset because the vast majority of these exporters were about to see their businesses become defunct due to the new laws.

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So we promptly began drumming up a new strategy. We decided to put the ECX in our rearview mirror, more out of emotion than anything else. We began buying from the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU) as well as from privately leased landholders with 30+ hectares of coffee production who, under the new laws, were still allowed to export directly. According to the new rules, landholders of this size were allowed to ship the coffee that they produced on their own farms. Those who were merely buying fruit, many of whom were our friends and strategic business partners in the growing regions, would have to tender their coffee blindly to the exchange, making those coffees untraceable beyond the larger region. But with the advent of the 2009 harvest, the truth became clear. Our tiny little business wasn’t sending a message to the government by avoiding the exchange. In fact, all we were really doing was hurting the businesses, and thousands of farmers along with them, that helped get us to where we were, reputation-wise. Why should farmers be punished for choosing to receive a better price for their cherry? To be perfectly honest, many of the privately held washing stations are STILL paying more for cherry because it is STILL the only way they survive against the neighboring cooperatives.

It takes a whole lot more than farmers and roasters to compose a strong and successful supply chain. Developing a win-win-win-win situation between farmers, export partners, ourselves and our customers is what’s most important. We’re only successful if EVERY participant involved our chain is winning.

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This Yirgacheffe is the first lot of several that we’ll offer this season prepared and exported by our old friend Heleanna Georgalis in Addis. Heleanna, like her father Yiannis, was born in East Harrar. They’re a family of coffee traders trying to find a way to not only survive as a business in the ECX era, but also to continue doing what they love….produce, cup, prepare, and ship extraordinary coffees. They’ve been loyal to us for years and we continue our loyalty to Heleanna. She knows exceptional coffees and we are proud to offer them. And that, folks, is why we’re in this business. It’s the people that interest us most. All of them. Producers, exporters, roasters and the rest. Building a winning supply chain is what this is all about.

Heleanna also happens to be our best dry miller of coffees in all of East Africa, bar none. Those of you who are tired of flawed green preparation coming out of Ethiopia will be pleasantly surprised with these lots. They’re meticulously sorted. They’re perfect.

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