Traversing the Valley: Ethiopia
"Ethiopia is where coffee started….They have so many varietals in Ethiopia that they can't even identify them." - Sam Mirto, Director of Coffee at Ferris
After four days' air time, five days on the ground, approximately 30 driving hours, and five washing stations, Director of Coffee Sam Mirto is spent, but content. In late November 2017, Mitro embarked on a trip to Ethiopia to secure more of Ferris favorite Misty Valley, a relatively new brew for the company with clean floral notes accompanying the hints of strawberry jam and milk chocolate. Along the way, he explored coffee from a few new farms, reaffirmed existing relationships, and explored a region that supplies Ferris with much of its signature, fruity flavors.
"Anytime you travel really far away, you want to make the most of it," says Mirto, who spent the majority of his time on the move, exploring the Gedeo zone, a coffee-growing region in the south of the country that encompasses the farm that produces Misty Valley, among others. At the time of his visit, the farmers had just begun harvesting the 2017 crop, a process that would last a few months.
Labor intensive and requiring much patience, farmers in this region—and especially in the quality-focused micro-region Guji—lay the harvested fruit to dry out in the sun, while employing 50 or so workers at a time to sort through the crop for defects by hand.
"The way that these guys do it is super meticulous," says Mirto. "It's just a reminder of how labor intensive coffee is and how many people touch it before it reaches your cup….but coffee is still relatively cheap," he adds.
Another unique aspect of Ethiopia is the law that require co-ops—essentially organizers that combine and sell cherries from multiple farmers—to market and sell each crop. Adhering to the law, Mirto visited co-op washing stations to get a feel for the process of each coffee. "We're sourcing it more directly that way," says Mirto, who, as a certified Q Grader (essentially a sommelier of coffee), cupped brews at one of the co-op's on site labs according to the standards set by the international Specialty Coffee Association. "The actual act of cupping coffee is supposed to be universal," says Mirto, who describes a very particular process in which eight and a quarter grams of ground coffee is brewed per 150 ml of water to prepare for cupping.
Though the process of co-op sourcing and the flavor profiles in Ethiopia are entirely unique, Mirto has specific goals that he maintains when embarking on any sourcing trip. "We want to establish long term relationships with the people that we work with," he says. Working to reconnect with suppliers, Mirto and his team seek to maintain consistency, quality, price and, most importantly, the sustainability and fairness of the exchange for the farmers and workers involved in the process.
These older relationships, as well as the new ones, are the gateways to the tasty beans and captivating stories that connect Ferris customers with the company's source locations throughout the world. "We, as coffee geeks are always interested in trying something new and exciting," says Mirto. "I'm always looking for a new coffee, a new story, a new producer to work with."
While on the ground, Mirto had the opportunity to taste a few new brews, but is still finalizing the sourcing deal for these new coffees. (Hint: his newest favorite was located in Guiji). This quest has to do with Mirto's goal to find "really cool micro-lot coffees," he says, that introduce Ferris consumers to complex flavors—if only for a short time. Much like Misty Valley, which he describes as clean, fruity and straightforward, these types of African coffees are exciting for those looking for an elevated coffee experience as well as those who are simply trying something new. "It’s kind of like a gateway coffee to open people’s minds to the idea of specialty coffee," says Mirto.
Always balancing consistency and exciting variation, Mirto represents the Ferris mission of innovation and tradition spurred by relationships. "Younger generations are looking for that variation," he says. "To a large extent that is what is driving the specialty coffee movement."
Sourcing coffees directly from their origin is vital to Ferris, and after his first trip to Ethiopia and a few other journeys under his belt, Mirto can see why. "Ethiopia is where coffee started," he says. "They have so many varietals in Ethiopia that they can't even identify them." With notes of fruit, honey and other complexities yet to be explored, Mirto is certain that Misty Valley, and other coffees from Ethiopia, will showcase on the Ferris roster for years to come.