Ethiopian Coffee: Figuring Out What That Unpronounceable Name Means
I have never heard anyone use the word complexily,1 but if it indeed exists, it certainly applies to Ethiopian coffee naming practices.
Thankfully, all coffee from Ethiopia now falls into one of three basic categories:
- Private Estates: Private growers can sell coffee directly on the international market, but the only ones who have the infrastructure to do so are large estates. Our Nigusie Farm and Leka Wato Farm come from two such private estates each representing over 100 hectares of land; a typical Ethiopian farmer has 2 or less!
- Cooperatives: Ethiopia has four cooperatives. The largest is the Oromia Cooperative Union. The others are the YCFCU (Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union), the Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, and the Kaffa Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union. Because cooperatives are groups of tiny farmers from different villages, towns, and districts who pool their coffees, these coffees are not as specific as estate grown coffees. Cooperative Union coffees, however, have more specific designations (usually down to the district level (called a woreda)) than coffee sold through exporters. These coffees is sometimes sold as Fair Trade and Organic, but in all cases the Union name is marked.
- Exporters: Recently, the country launched a commodity exchange (called the ECX), through which all coffee must pass. When coffee enters the ECX, it is given a grade (representing it’s quality) between 1 (the best) and 9 (the worst). The ECX also gives a coffee a geographical designation that is more specific than a region (such as Harrar), but less specific than farmer, village, washing station, town, or even a district. Exporters then bid on the coffees, which they purchase and sell to an importer in the US. If you’ve ever bought a coffee from an exporter, it would be labeled, for example, Grade 4 Guji. While our Gelana Abaya (a geographical designation…that oddly enough doesn’t exist anymore) did not have a grade, it came through the ECX.
The name of the coffee you are drinking will fall into one of these three categories. Figuring out which will require a list of all the exporter designations and large estates. Even then, however, in each of these three categories, terms, place names, and people/washing station names overlap and intermingle. And all of this makes direct work and transparency difficult. Nevertheless, we’ve worked hard to find importers who are working to make coffee from Ethiopia transparently sourced, traceable as far back as possible, and incredibly, incredibly delicious.
1 com•plex•i•ly |kəmˈpleksilē|: (adverb) the manner of doing something with a high degree of unnecessary complication. Some countries complexily designed their coffee markets.
2 the information for this post came from a variety of sources. A bibliography would be long, but three important places to consults: “Ethiopian Coffee Buying Manual” by Willem Boot (most important for this post), “Green Coffee Offerings: Africa: Ethiopia” by Sweetmarias (to whom the image is indebted), and “Coffee Story: Ethiopia” by Majka Burhardt.