Late last week we had a chance to cup the first roast of the recently arrived “Sidama Natural”, our fruit-laden wildly characteristic single-origin Ethiopian. This is the last of our new crop coffees to arrive, and it’s been the most difficult. Yes, it is late, for starters. But it’s actually one of the first Ethiopian coffees to arrive in the US. When I look a lot of the green brokers offering sheets I see that they don’t have a single Ethiopian container scheduled to land for at least another two weeks. This is a testament to the hard work of Menno Simmons, our exporter, and partner with the Sidama Farmers Cooperative Union (SFCU), the producer of this fine coffee.
Also, everything in Ethiopia is a little up in the air this year. The government let out a lot of line in the past five years, and allowed for a good deal of liberalization in the coffee market. The opening this created made way for a lot of exciting coffees. This year, the government reeled it back in. It seems as if we are watching the growing pains of a 30-year marxist-inspired regime coming to terms with reality. The bummer is that a lot of great coffees are lost, and those that we can get out are held back by a lot of the strong-arm tactics of the government. The Misty Valley, for example, that turned a lot of heads last year is simply not available. The legendary Bagresh family that produced it is along with all other coffee producers and exporters mandated to sell their coffee into a new government run auction. There, coffees will be graded (by region, and then by quality) and 70 bag lots will be created by blending coffees graded by the same region and quality. It’s kind of like California telling Anderson Valley that they can’t grow grapes and then make wine out of them. You can grow grapes, but then you’ve got to sell them into the state-wide auction. Pinot Noir will be graded by quality by a government taster, and then lots will be created by blending the grapes with Pinot from around the state. The winery can then buy grapes out of the auction and make wine. Bummer if you’re Navarro or Lazy Creek or Goldeneye (a few of our many great local wineries). All that work you did to produce those distinctive grapes with exactly that character you’re looking for is all for naught….
Also, because there is no way to trace a bag of coffee through the auction, there is no way to keep the trail that’s required for organic or fair trade certification. Bummer again.
Luckily for us, there are three cooperatives who were able to get a “second window” exception that allows them to export directly what they produce. And even more luckily, Hache, the producer of our “Sidama Natural” is one of them. So though it’s been a roller coaster of a ride, we were able to maintain one of the few channels available for the procurement of Organic and Fair Trade coffee.
By now you’re probably ready for a cup of coffee, so I’ll get straight to it.
I was hopeful when I first cupped the pre-shipment sample in April. Though the coffee might have suffered at the hands of the many obstacles lining its way to us, it was still shining. Lots of honey, sweet pithy citrus, and hints of fruit—not as intensely strawberry-toned as before, but more filled out in other ways. The shots I pulled really registered—while they weren’t winey like last year’s Hache, but they were really, really sweet and caramelly, with really good depth, dimension, and crema. Not precisely a repeat performance but an impressive performance nonetheless. Then I made a decision that is probably fairly rare in the coffee world. Instead of looking at a coffee that had changed, and pushing aside in search of something more like the previous year’s, I booked another container of coffee from the farmers of the Hache cooperative.
After considering the options I decided that this was a time for us to stick with the farmers. Their coffee had showed us its potential, and though I was hoping for even better than last year, it’s still really good. If this is what an off year looks like, then this is a good place to be. If I’ve learned anything from watching Paul and tasting coffee alongside him it’s that when it comes to coffee, you’ve got to focus on people and the long term—when you find potential and invest in it, and keep your commitments, the good that comes later on down the road is well worth the wait.
All that said, I’m looking forward to sharing this coffee with you. We’re up and running in production, and if you order a package right now you’ll probably have it by the end of the week. At the end of the day, the Ethiopian government can do whatever it wants and we’ll keep coming back. The small-scale farmers of Ethiopia grow the world’s most unique coffees. This year is bright, deeply sweet, and full of nuance and character ranging from grapefruit to honeycomb. It’s heavy bodied, round, and smooth. Their coffee is simply too good to live without.
I’ll be working hard to get back to the quality of last year, maybe even surpass it. For now, we’ve got something really nice. I was talking with a friend yesterday who’s a winemaker in the Anderson Valley and she was lamenting the smoke damage caused by last summer’s wildfires. I asked her how this would affect her sales. She told me simply that the she would do everything she could do make the best wine possible. And that she expected that her customers would understand. She said that the real thrill is in riding out the hard times, making the best wine possible, and making it to those magical years when everything comes together, and each sip is almost magical. I nodded, and told her that I understood.
Thanks for reading, for supporting our search for the great coffees of the world, and for supporting us and our commitments to the farmers far away in the mountains of the coffeelands.