The first of the fresh-crop Ethiopia coffees are starting to roll in. Here we have a dry-processed micro-lot from the village of Shakiso.
Grown at over 1800 meters, this coffee leans towards exotic. Allowed to open up, the coffee blooms with fresh guava and black raspberry; luscious tropical fruit and some spice, clove perhaps, balances well with subtle nectarine.
We are proud to announce that Coffee Review scored this coffee an astounding 95.
Here is what Ken Davids had to say:
Blind Assessment: Crisply lush, extravagant. Dark chocolate, jasmine-like flowers, brandy, honey, layered fruit notes: kiwi, mango, banana. Sweetly tart, vivacious acidity; syrupy but lively mouthfeel. Long, resonant, flavor-saturated finish.



For our third African sourcing trip, we partnered with our friends at Temple, Klatch and Portola for a trip to Ethiopia and Kenya, two coffee origins that we count on for a lot of coffee.


First stop was Addis Abada, the Ethiopian capital.  The goal for the Ethiopian portion was to meet and establish contacts with new specialty exporters capable of connecting us with great farms and farming groups.

On our first day in Addis, the cupping we had scheduled fell through – stuff happens on these trips – so we played the tourist card and checked out some sights in Addis.  We first went to Addis University to see the museum that is housed in Haile Selassie’s old home, which was built by the Italians during their occupation in the 20s.  Selassie was the popular emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.   In addition to being revered by the Rastafari as the re-incarnation of God, Selassie is credited for establishing Ethiopia’s first education system turning the land that surrounded his house into Ethiopia’s first university, still considered the best college in Ethiopia.


On day two, serious cuppings began.  First we met up with the source of our our 93 point Natural Ethiopian and our 92 point washed Ethiopian coffee last season so we are very much looking forward to what we can get this year.  Teddy has many exciting projects he is working on but we were a tad early in the season so we have to wait a couple more weeks to see samples from those efforts.

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We continued to cup the next couple days with other companies, big and small, before heading to Kenya for stage two of the sourcing trip.  During the course of our coffee exploration, we were able to learn a lot about how the Ethiopian coffee market works.  “Direct Trade” as it is known in Central and South America, does not really exist in Ethiopia.  The system here is not so much based on small-lot transparency so it is difficult for small farms to connect directly with buyers and, then, even more difficult to ensure that mills are keeping a particular farmer’s lot separate from the others.


Most coffee in Ethiopia is sold through the ECX, the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange that was set up to streamline coffee trade.  Basically, it is an auction system that allows exporters to purchase lots of coffee while also providing an outlet for farmers wanting to sell their crop.  About 80 percent of Ethiopia’s coffee goes through the ECX.  In fact, all coffee produced in Ethiopia MUST go through the ECX unless:

The coffee is processed at a Cooperative

The coffee is from a large privately owned farm capable of processing their own coffee.

In some cases, if a small farmer wants to sell his/her coffee to a specific buyer, they can sell their coffee to the ECX, then buy it back  — prior to an auction – at an agreed upon price to the ECX, and then sell to the specific buyer – this is where the potential for a “Direct Trade” relationship exists but these situations are rare and difficult to organize and manage.

Selling green coffee to the ECX is the only way farmers can get paid quickly for their crop because the ECX promises payment for all coffee the day after delivery.  This is significant given the need of many of the farmers to purchase food and basic necessities.

While on the surface, the ECX has its advantages, we got conflicting accounts of exactly what happens to the coffee once in the ECX warehouse.  In theory, lots are to remain separated until final sale.  However, there is some question as it if this actually occurs on a consistent level.  Many buyers/exporters (the ones who care) will take great pains to actually mark individual bags of coffee – each bag in a particular lot – to ensure that what they buy through the auction is exactly what they wanted.

Also, there is nothing in place to ensure that an exporter will keep the lots separate once the purchase is made.  Any exporter can buy multiple lots of green coffee and simply blend them all together, further eroding transparency, to make one big lot, which is easier and more efficient to export.

Much of what we see in the specialty world from Ethiopia is from cooperatives.  In most cases with cooperatives there is transparency down to farmer – good records are kept of a farmers’ coffee contributions and his/her payment, but no lot separation per farm.   You can have several different lots of coffee from a single cooperative, but each lot can be made up of coffee from 50 to 1000 farms or more.  As far as payment, farmers get some payment up-front, and based on the sale price the cooperative ultimately gets for the coffee, they get additional money once the coffee is sold.  By joining a cooperative, the farmers stand to make the most money per pound – if the cooperative is well-run and well marketed – but there is a lag time for this money – making the ECX a popular solution, albeit a short-term one.

True Direct Trade does not exist on a large-scale level in Ethiopia.  Very large farms though, ones that can effectively harvest and process their own coffee, can sell directly to buyers and last year the government supported an initiative to facilitate lot separation down to the small farm level for 7 farms in the Konga area.  This year, the government is expanding the initiative to 70 farms.  This is encouraging development with great potential, but much needs to be done to give more farmers an opportunity to sell directly to buyers.

For us, we are working with an exporter who is working in Yirga cheffe to separate small regional groups within one cooperative, five to ten farmers from specific areas.   This is moving in the right direction and as long as the coffee is excellent, we hope to bring some coffee from this project in later this year.

Next up….KENYA


Our timing could not have been worse.  A few days before we arrive, the coffee trade in Nyeri known as the best coffee region in Kenya, basically collapsed.  Within Nyeri there are numerous mills, a couple of which we bought from last year, Makwa and Lennette.  The beauty of the Kenyan coffee system is that it maintains transparency while also maintaining regional characteristics.   Each region within Nyeri can produce different tasting coffee with unique flavor profiles, for example.

The 2013 elections gave more power to local governments so in Nyeri, promises were made to the farmers:  the new Nyeri government promised an absurd price per pound to the farmers but all coffee would have to go through a government-run mill.  “Absurd” because the government will not find buyers for this coffee if all the coffee from different regions is mixed together and, most importantly, if the quality is not there.  Since good coffee from one small region will be mixed with bad coffee from the same or different regions, both goals for specialty coffee buyers – quality and transparency — will be instantly lost.  Sadly, the government is attempting to actually REMOVE value from the coffee while promising MORE money to the farmers.

Before this season, farmers had a choice of which mill to use but now the local government wants to remove that choice and effectively shut down all the private and cooperatively run mills in Nyeri.  On top of this, they have made it illegal to move coffee – even one block – without a special permit that one can only get at the centralized government-run mill.

The Results of Nyeri Issue:

Everything in Nyeri is at a standstill.  Mills are refusing to move coffee to the central mill.

Millions of investment dollars are at risk now that private mills are not operating.

No one is getting paid because for the first time in years, the marketers refused to participate in the Kenyan auction.

Thousands of jobs have been eliminated.


While the situation in Nyeri is developing and continues to evolve as both sides of the issue negotiate, it remains to be seen how the quality and transparency will be ultimately impacted this season.

The good news is that there are many other great growing regions in Kenya; and Kenya has an excellent mill and cooperative system in place that is both efficient and conducive to producing excellent coffee.  With the exception of large estates, all farmers deliver their cherries to regional wet mills.  Well-run mills, keep accurate records of farmers and payments.  On top of this, marketers, those who buy and sell coffee, have and continue to invest millions to mills to improve a mills quality and efficiency.

After the coffee is milled, it is graded based on green bean size only, AA, AB, C, PB.  In general, each grade will equate to a sale price at the Kenyan coffee auction in Nairobi that occurs each Tuesday.  Easily 30,000 bags can be traded during one of these auctions, 600-700 lots, in a single day.  Marketing agents/exporters are the ones bidding on the coffee who in turn sell the coffee to importers, brokers and roasters.  Each week, marketing agents collect samples of all the coffee that will be sold the following week.  They then cup these samples and apply their own grading system to the samples naming each one, a Micro-lot, Specialty Grade, Commercial, or Below Commercial.

Most marketers have a customer for each grade of coffee so they will target specific lots during the auction in hopes of fulfilling a client’s need.  In our case, we are looking for the “micro lots.”
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Our first cupping of the trip was at Dormans.  Dormans is known for sourcing some of the best Kenyan coffee available and most third-wave coffee companies buy from or have bought a Dormans lot, as we have in the past.  They support many mills and get their coffee directly from these mills while they also buy a fair amount from the auction.

Dormans has perhaps the coolest cupping lab I have seen. It is difficult to convey its grooviness but the layout, but the vibe is certainly conducive to cupping.  Perhaps not as state-of-the-art as some labs that I have cupped in, but certainly their lab is more soulful than most.  We found some gems here we hope to bring in this year.

Then, we were off to meet up with T M, our contact an Sangana, the source of all our Kenyan coffee from last season.  Once again, we are happy to work with T M who does a great job finding small-lot coffee that is up to our standards.

Since the situation in Nyeri made it impossible to visit mills on the weekend, we decided to do a quick safari in Amoseli Park, about a 6-hour drive from Nairobi.  This was a pretty cool opportunity and worth the effort.  See pics.

Based on the difficulty to travel there from California, sourcing coffee from Africa is a challenge, but considering the quality of the coffee we can get, it is a challenge worth taking.  We were very successful with the coffee we sources from Africa last year and I am happy to report the quality of coffee coming out of Kenya this year, looks even better than the 2013 crop – very impressive.  Stay tuned for updates but it looks like we will have more great African coffee for you in the spring.

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by Chuck Patton
Bird Rock Coffee Roasters