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: 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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