To travel to the origin of coffee is where every good coffee story should begin. Here we hope to discover the source of true Geisha still growing in the wild lands of the African bush. Travelling to Ethiopia in early 2015, Sasa Sestic, World Barista Champion 2015, went on a journey to discover the real bean. Here is his story…
After changing four planes and travelling for 38 hours from Canberra to Addis Ababa we finally managed to get to Ethiopia. Looks like my travel agent was not happy with me, maybe because I didn’t buy him a present for Christmas, so he decided to find me longest possible flight! Maybe it’s just a long way to Ethiopia from Australia.
Anyway, this long journey did not stop me from having a super quick shower in the hotel and getting straight into cupping. I tasted around 40 cups and a found few highlights from Beloya, Konga and Aricha cooperatives. All three coffees were naturally processed with really distinct flavours and were really clean.
Beloya was a really interesting cup with really nice white grape acidity, strawberries, a hint of floral and a medium to full body. As this coffee cooled it became sweeter and a lot creamier. I visited Beloya a few years ago and the soil here is a really special colour; purple and full of different minerals.
Konga had typical notes of dark cherries, vanilla and a hint of blackcurrant; perfect for blends to bring nice fruity notes. Konga is not as clean as the other two coffees, but it is definitely a full body coffee.
The coffee that really made my day was Aricha. It had distinct apricots, blueberries, sparkling citric acidity, medium to full body and super sweet. As it cooled down it became more like apricot nectar. It’s a really versatile cup, which I believe can suit filter, espresso and also milk based coffees.
After a 12 hour drive we made it to Sidamo/ Yirgacheffe. The first stop was the ECX warehouse (Ethiopian Commodity Exchange) in Sidamo. Here all the washing stations from Sidamo bring their coffee in parchment, in trucks. Random bags of coffee are checked for moisture (a maximum of 13% is allowed). Samples for green bean evaluation and roasting are also taken. Coffee is then graded by Q graders and finally sold in ECX. For example Yirgacheffe washed grade 2, coffee is usually sold in 30 bag lots and then to local exporters.
Local exporters would have to buy approximately 15 lots of the same grade coffee to make up to one container that is ready for export so it is not a surprise when buyers purchase a container of coffee from ECX; there is lot of inconsistency in flavour notes. Unfortunately trading coffee this way makes it impossible to achieve traceability and it is also really hard to have consistent tasting coffee.
Luckily for Project Origin, I managed to find the way to escape ECX and buy coffee direct from the washing and milling stations and even from small producers in the Yirgacheffe Kochere Worka region. The farm is owned by Geligelu Edemi and it has 11 hectares of heirloom trees that are approximately 15 years old. The farm is sitting at 2,050m above sea level.
There are over 20 members of the family and they all pick and dry their coffee. All coffee is dried on their own African beds also at 2000m. It is a rare find to come across a producer that one can buy directly from in Ethiopia.
Coffee in Kochere has a really nice tropical sweetness with notes of apricots, honey sweetness, lime acidity and a hint of strawberry. They even have their own storage where they keep all of their coffee. This year ECX told them they cannot sell directly any more so they have approximately 90 bags of amazing coffee that might be mixed with so many other lots and sold as Yirgacheffe natural grade one.
However using some connections, we will hopefully be able to buy their lots direct this year. This business for the family would mean that they will be able to complete their storage and improve their house for the entire family. For Project Origin it would be an amazing success to be able to buy 100% traceable coffee every year and also work with the Edemi Family to give us a consistent flavour profile.
We also visited a lot of different washing and drying stations in the Yirgacheffe and Sidamo regions. These washing stations buy coffee from farms in an approximate 10km radius; they then carry on processing. Most mills will have the same techniques to process washed and natural coffees.
With washed process coffee, a higher premium is awarded for red cherries. After this, coffee is pulped using traditional disk pulpers. Separation of light and denser beans is done by their traditional gravity system; it’s very simple and works very well. The coffee is then fermented in concrete pools for 2 to 3 days in clean spring water. Once there is no more mucilage, coffee is then rinsed several times in concrete channels and taken to another pool for another day of soaking. This traditional way of processing really helps to highlight clarity in flavour and acidity in washed Ethiopian coffees.
On our first day in Yirgacheffe, we visited a washing and drying station in the Dumerso area. This station sits at 1,750m. They specialise in preparing really high quality natural process coffee. This attention to detail starts from picking cherries from a small, selected micro area. The coffee is sun dried on African beds for approximately 20 days. The days get extremely hot: the cherries are covered during the day so they don’t dry too quickly. Coffee is spread very thin and for the first 3 days and is not moved at all, making sure they do not damage the cherry. After 3 days coffee is moved several times per day to ensure even drying and slightly under- and over-ripe cherries are also removed. After talking to the manager we can even get dark red picking for our special micro-lots.
I really enjoyed visiting Aricha, Konga and Cheleletku but the most unique experience I had was in one of the stations at Kochere.
Upon arriving at the station I was greeted by a really passionate manager who started giving me samples of their coffees so I could cup them and offer feedback. This inspired me as these people are growing one of the best coffees in the world but still they want to make their coffee better. In the following days I cupped over 20 different lots from Kochere and all of them scored 86 points or more. This was a huge score considering coffees are really fresh and did not have time to rest.
As the manager was explaining how they dry natural process coffees in African beds I saw these beautiful, big, long and thin coffee cherries approximately screen size 17, together with other smaller cherries, which are
more common to Ethiopia. These big, bold cherries can be found only in one particular area and only a few growers have these coffee trees. Tasting coffee cherries reminded me of tasting papaya. No one has ever asked for this coffee to be separated so they never realised the potential of what this can taste as a single varietal. We have separated approximately 500g so I can taste and if we get some really exciting flavours they are very happy to prepare a 30 bag lot and prepare this coffee exclusively for us.
After a few exciting days in Yirgacheffe we headed back to Addis to have several cupping sessions. The most exciting day for me was driving to the Kafe region, to visit a farm we work with near Bita town.
I discovered this farm about one and a half years ago. Mahabb Mustefa owns Bita Bonga and it sits at 1,950m. The size of farm the is 800 hectares.
This farm was established in 2009. Coffee trees are planted in the deep forest together with a few wild coffee trees. This is the most sustainable practice to run a farm. There are three varietals at the farm: 71010, 71012 and 71014. All three varietals are sectioned and separated.
At Bita Bonga they also employ a full time agronomist. Both the ergonomist and manager of the farm are extremely knowledgeable on growing and cultivating great quality coffee. In 2015, they also plan to build a mill for washed process coffees.
Bonga Mahabub employs approximately 400 people and during harvesting season, up to 700. They have basic facilities for workers including a child care centre, and the local primary school is only 2km away.
One of the most exciting projects they are doing is giving seeds to local people that have really good land for growing coffee, with the idea of forming an alliance of small farmers. This will help people in the area to have a secure source of income.
When I tasted Bita Bonga back in Australia, I can often identify distinct jasmine notes. As this farm is located in Gesha region, I really thought there would be a high chance to possibly find a Geisha varietal. One of the reasons for my visit was to hunt Geisha trees or forest coffee, collect seeds and then send to have a DNA analysis.
After another 12 hours in the car we finally arrived at the farm. We immediately headed to a deep forest to look for wild coffee trees. As we were heading to the destination I looked up and saw a tree that is very tall and skinny with long, thin leaves very similar to Geisha trees in Panama.
The manager explained that this was a hybrid from the Djima research centre called 71014. As we were driving deeper and higher at approximately 2,100m, I realised that I would not be able to take any seed samples as harvest had finished approximately 3 weeks prior. This was really disappointing! In order to do an accurate test I needed to mark each tree that I was taking samples from and also needed to measure the length and size of the trees.
Even from the African bed I could see the big varietal mixed together with other 71010 and 71012 varietals, which are a lot smaller and rounder; we could not do our analysis. On the bright side, we saw some wild coffee trees deep in the forest.
The shape of the tree was completely different than any other coffee tree I have seen. We discovered these coffee trees in the middle of the Gesha forest. They have been completely untouched and they have not ever been cupped as a single varietal. The pickers at Bonga would pick these wild coffee trees and just mix with the other varietals. Unfortunately, it looks like I will have to come back in the middle of next harvest in order to complete my Geisha varietal hunt. I spent the rest of my time working with management from Bonga to improve their picking, drying and also storing systems in order for us to have even better coffee next year.
Our last visit in Djima was the Ethiopian Institute Of Agricultural Research Centre. To organise a visit here was not easy but somehow we managed to get there. This institution was founded in 1967. At the research centre they specialise in researching coffee plants. I was really hoping I could find some answers about Geisha here.
They have developed 37 new varietals that are completely resistant to coffee bora and taste better with higher yields (in their opinion). Some of these varietals are used in Bita Bonga which seem to be performing at that farm very well. At the research centre they have over 183 hectares of land where they have planted over 300 different varietals including wild forest varietals, and also Geisha (well, they said it was Geisha).
In their opinion, Geisha is very small plant that is grown only on low altitudes, below 1,500m and the seed is very round like bourbon, and small. This coffee does not have any characteristics of Geisha at all. The coffee tasted like chocolate and had an apple like acidity with brown sugar sweetness; a solid 83 points coffee. So this made me think that they are not on the right track with Geishas, and after I asked a few more questions, they were staring to get uncomfortable and were not keen to talk to us anymore, so our visit was a lot shorter that what I was hoping. At least I learnt that they do not have Geisha in their lab.
So on my last day before I was heading back to Canberra, I had organised to have another tasting session to select some more lots, and also taste some coffees from some mills, and some privately owned farms that I visited, in the Yirgacheffe region. We cupped some really distinct flavour profiles. One coffee really stood out on the table; we all scored it 91 points or more. This coffee had mango sweetness, a creamy mouth feel, floral, earl grey, strawberry and cherry aftertaste with distinct red fruit aroma. Local cuppers were also pleasantly surprised with the flavour profile of this coffee. We all wanted to find out what it was.
Finally the head cupper from the lab told me, “This is your coffee Sasa!” I was a bit confused by what he meant. He told me again, “This is your long bean that you separated in Yirgacheffe in the private estate farm.” I could not stop smiling…
This coffee I picked had come from an African bed while it was still drying and I had separated only the large, bold beans. I also looked for a certain colour of bean. This coffee did not have any rest, which means in a few months this coffee will score at least 3 to 4 points more.
Adrenaline started pumping through my blood when the producer told me that they will take all dried coffee cherries on the African bed again and hand select only the bold beans with the specific colour that I requested. Next year we will be able to do this preparation a lot easier and also in larger quantities.
I will be sending these seeds to Denver for further Lab testing to be able to find out the DNA of the seeds with the hope to maybe rediscover Geisha or even possibly another new varietal.
I could not hope for a better result from this coffee hunting trip in Ethiopia and I cannot wait for our customers to taste the coffees I selected.