Ethiopia 2015/2016 – Harvest Update & Forward Contracting

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It’s good, gang. It’s really, really good. I’ve spent the majority of the past two weeks in Addis, walking warehouses and cupping through table after table of gorgeous coffees. The South is indisputably brilliant this season. The West has shown an eclectic array of profiles with some very unique character. Weather has impacted Harar dramatically this season, but the coffee quality is fantastic. And we are hard at work, paring our selections down several times over to make sure we’re working with the very best coffees Ethiopia has to offer.

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Let’s start from the top….Guji has become one our top regions at Red Fox. Uraga, at the northern end of Guji zone, is the highest elevation coffee-producing area in the country at 2300 masl. Kercha, to the west, is an emerging producing region, and we’re seeing some of the best lots of the year coming out of here. Dynamite coffees are coming into Addis from all reaches of Guji. Along with fully traceable lots from Guji, we also purchase small volumes of top lots through the ECX. This season’s selection is without question the best we’ve sourced in the last handful of years; I scored the pre-shipment sample 91 points last week.

But Guji isn’t all we do. We put a lot of effort into bringing in some of the finest Grade 1 Kochere of the season. We love Illubabor, too. A handful of the cooperative groups born out of the Technoserve project, now unified under the Sor Gaba Union, offer some of the most unique flavor profiles in the country. A plummy, dark cherry, red grape, coca cola-like character tends to be more present than the honeyed, jasmine, sweet citrus, stone fruit profiles of the south. These are coffees that show tremendously well as filter or espresso.

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And we are bringing in some top lot coffee from Sidamo for the first time this season. We’ve cupped several times with these folks over the past few months, and have made our rounds through their warehouse. Our selections from Sidamo add a new dimension to our offerings — think sweetly floral aromatics and a heavy, ripe-fruit character from red cherry to satsuma.

Last but not least, we’ve begun selection for this season’s Harar lots. Drought has hit the region hard and production is estimated to be down anywhere from 40-50% compared with last season. We toured the western end of Harar a couple weeks ago and found the trees scarce, with very little coffee remaining on the few we came across. Khat production continues to increase at alarming rates, encroaching on the soils once dedicated to coffee production. Both the weather and khat make for a bleak future in Harar, as far as coffee is concerned. The lone bright spot at the moment is quality. Due in some part to the drought, coffees are drying very quickly and therefore tasting as clean as ever. Soft dark fruit is the tone-setter, along with raw tobacco and high % cacao. Cups are redolent with concord grape, blackcurrant, and fresh-picked ripe blueberry.

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Newsletter: Ethiopia Harar Longberry G3

This very small offering has been a long time coming. The whole concept of this offering is extremely unique. To be perfectly frank, we don’t do naturals at Red Fox. We don’t believe in naturals at Red Fox. The idea of “naturally” processed coffees contradicts our mantra entirely.

Until now.

Why? A whole lot has to do with weather. Drying naturals in less than perfectly arid, sunny conditions is a gargantuan risk — not just a risk of uneven drying, but of stimulating ochratoxin growth on the fruit itself. Drying naturals in Yirgacheffe in December, or in Panama in January, or in Kenya at any time is really, really tricky. It’s inadvisable to say the least. A lot of our aversion to naturals has to do with risk vs. reward for the farmers themselves, as well. I’ve seen too many buyers encourage farmers to make naturals, in less than ideal conditions, and then not buy the coffee when the processing doesn’t turn out as they had hoped. This rant could continue for pages but that’s not the point. Our point is that we have finally (after years of searching) found a natural that we stand behind.

Why? Because it was grown in Harar where the arid, desert-like climate is conducive to drying in under 20 days. Because the culture and lack of water in Harar is such that the natural process is the only process used across the region, dating back to the 10th century. Lastly and most importantly, because we partnered with Heleanna Georgalis who was born and raised in Eastern Harar. Heleanna’s father, Yannis, was one of two major players in the region for decades pre-ECX. He had the state-of-the-art drying and preparation facilities in Dire Dawa. Yannis lived and breathed Harare coffee culture for the vast majority of his life. He was a legend among Ethiopian coffee traders for his work in the east.

We spent a week in East Harar with Heleanna earlier this year learning the culture and trying to get a feel for the communities and their coffee-producing habits. It’s a whole other world out there. The “Mokka” variety is found only in Harar and parts of Yemen. The elevation is extreme, hitting above 2,500 masl in certain instances. And the climate is just so dry, with annual precipitation under 1,000 mm. This is our first offering from the area, but we plan to build on it and to offer multiple lots beginning in 2016. Red Fox projects are in the works as I type this. Harar will become one of the players in our lineup that adds real diversity to our menu.

The cup profile from Harar is as unique as they come. It doesn’t taste like the naturals from Sidamo or Yirgacheffe, which have that Nestle Quik strawberry syrup flavor. It differs even from a Yemen. The finest Harars burst with ripe, refreshing blueberry and fresh cut strawberry. Tangy, greek yogurt pervades both the flavor and mouthfeel. The finish is sweet and cacao-y. Our Grade 3 Harar offering is a meticulously prepared coffee that roasts almost as evenly as a washed coffee.

We’ve sent samples of this coffee out to folks we’ve cupped with over the past 10+ years, folks with some of the most respected pallets in our industry, and the feedback has been extremely positive. We almost never score naturals, but I am going to conservatively put an 88 on this one and call it the best Harar I’ve tasted in the past 15 years.

Cheers,
Aleco