Origin Story: Ethiopia

Sam, our Director of Coffee, recently made his way to southern Ethiopia to explore the Gedeo coffee-growing region. This process wasn’t easy—four days air time, five days on the ground, and approximately 30 driving hours—but it was worth it. Along his way, Sam was able to check out a few new farms, strengthen existing relationships, and experience the birthplace of coffee.

Anytime you travel you have to expect some sort of jet lag, but what Sam didn’t realize is that not only was he 8 hours ahead of his normal time zone but he had, in fact, traveled back in time to March of 2010! An interesting thing about Ethiopia is that, while we in the US use the Gregorian calendar, they use the Coptic calendar which is about 7 to 8 years behind ours.

After wrapping his mind around this jump back in time, Sam and the crew grabbed some breakfast and hit the road. He originally flew into the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, a modern city just like any other. However, only a mile out from the city the roads turned from fresh pavement to dirt and rocks. This meant that, while the drive from the city to the first stop was not geographically far, it would take them around 8 hours to reach their destination. Along their trek, the crew stopped at a few smaller washing stations and were able to see the wide range of growing and processing operations that Ethiopia has to offer. 

Every coffee farm and mill, no matter where you are in the world, will have their own way of doing things—whether that be growing, processing, or distributing. In Ethiopia, though, many of the farms are so small that they don't have enough money or crop to produce large amounts of coffee. Instead of working on their own, these farms work with co-ops. The basic system here is that these small farms grow coffee and deliver the cherries to washing stations, which are owned by co-ops, to be processed. 

A major change happened in the Ethiopian coffee world this past year when the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) decided to loosen the rules for purchasing coffee. Prior to this recent shift, anyone who wanted to purchase coffee would have to do so through the ECX, and thus through the Ethiopian government. So what does this change mean for Ferris? Our Relationship Coffee model is focused on creating real relationships with our producers and now we have even more of an opportunity to do that in Ethiopia. Before the shift, we were able to meet with co-ops and create relationships but we had to purchase coffee through the middle man (aka the ECX). Now we are able to invest more in the co-ops we work with because we can assess their needs and pay them a fair price directly.

One of the biggest stops on Sam’s trip was the Misty Valley washing station. All of you Misty Valley super fans out there—this is the place! This washing station is located in the same Gedeo zone, sometimes referred to as Yirgacheffe, Sam had been traveling through. Once there, Sam was able to see their beautiful coffees up close and personal.

While he was visiting, the crew was working on processing a washed coffee. At this point the coffee had already been fermenting in tanks for 48 hours, so the next step was to try to break off any residual sugar that was still clinging to the seeds. In order to break off the sugars, the Misty Valley crew had to physically push the coffee down channels filled with water using paddles. The channel would eventually turn into a pipe which would transport the processed coffee onto screens for drying. The coffee would then sit on drying beds out in the sun for around 15 days. During that time, workers would hand sort through the coffee to eliminate any defects. 

This process is a bit different from our fan-favorite Misty Valley coffee. The coffee we source is a naturally processed coffee. While the aforementioned coffee had to undergo fermentation and washing, natural coffees simply sit in the sun. Our Misty Valley beans lay out on the drying beds for around 15-20 days and are hand sorted during that time. The natural process lends itself to clean fruit overtones, a heavier body, and overall a less crisp and acidic cup of coffee. 

At another washing station along the road, Sam was able to experience an authentic Ethiopian coffee ceremony. During the ceremony, the ritual of preparing the coffee is performed by the woman of the household. She starts by roasting green coffee beans by hand in a pan over a fire. Next, the coffee is ground using a mortar and pestle and boiled in a Jebena (traditional boiling pot). The resulting coffee is nothing like what we drink here in our shops but the tradition surrounding it is what makes it so special. 

One of the last stops on Sam’s trip was a cupping lab! It is hard to find an Ethiopian co-op with a cupping lab, so throughout his travels Sam was unable to try any of the amazing coffee he was seeing. He participated in blind cupping, which basically means that he was able to see and taste the coffee but he did not know which coffee he was trying. This process is really exciting for coffee nerds like Sam, because they are able to focus on simply what is in front of them without being distracted by any preconceived ideas of what they “should know” about a particular coffee. 

By the end of the trip, Sam was able to visit numerous farms and co-ops and taste some of the best coffee he has ever had. Though he left with some serious jet lag, he took with him an even deeper understanding of Ethiopian coffees that we can't wait to share with all of you!