No matter what nationality of coffee you prefer, nor what style, nor whether hot or cold, infused with syrups, chocolates, extracted through an espresso machine or brewed straight up, your coffee originally came from Ethiopia, the birthplace of all coffee. Most likely discovered in the 10th century by nomadic shepherds, coffee has become the world’s second most traded commodity after oil, and though we’re a full 10 centuries into its cultivation, only now in the 21st century are we beginning to fully understand he properties of the remarkably complex coffee bean.
Ethiopia, the world’s 7th largest coffee producer, is a nation of 85 million people speaking over 80 different languages. Approximately 15 million Ethiopians work in the coffee industry with an estimated 600,000 coffee farmers throughout the country.
Ethiopia’s best know coffee regions are Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, Harar and Limu. With over 4000 documented heirloom varietals (and countless others as yet undocumented or undiscovered), Ethiopia is currently undergoing a period of intense commercial introspection, seeking to take ownership of its coffee heritage by bringing stability to an industry often at the financial whims of international markets and forces (a recent 17 year Civil War, for example) well beyond their control.
In 2004, Ethiopia launched the Ethiopian Coffee Trademarking and Licensing Initiative to help farmers recover a greater portion of profits for their beans by trademarking the nation’s primary growing regions. In 2008, the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange was launched, a governmental attempt to develop a modern trading system that brought the entire nation’s coffee sales under one roof. Both these projects have shown great value though each of their ‘one size fits all’ approaches have also met with some resistance, primarily from American and European specialty coffee buyers whose long-established partner relationships with 1% of Ethiopian farms were in jeopardy of being dismantled.
However, Ethiopia does have a long established cooperative culture with districts throughout the nation. Cooperatives allow for traceability, some down to a specific farm, which is key to both direct trade and the specialty industry, with prices quite often at record levels. With luck the cooperative system will continue as these long-term relationships have benefitted both Ethiopia and Western consumers interested in coffee that’s certified to have brought a better standard of living to the farms and communities that produced it.