Tasting Notes: blueberry, caramel, watermelon
Washing Station: Testi West Arsi Washing Station Region: Nansebo
Variety: Heirloom Ethiopian varieties Altitude: 1900–2050 masl
The Testi West Arsi Washing Station was established in 2010 and serves about 850 smallholder producers in the area, the Nansebo woreda. The farmers deliver their cherry to the washing station, where it is depulped, fermented for 24–48 hours, and washed before being dried on raised beds for 12–15 days.
Coffees in Ethiopia are typically grown on very small plots of land by farmers who also grow other crops. The majority of smallholders will deliver their coffee in cherry to a nearby washing station or central processing unit, where their coffee will be sorted, weighed, and paid for or given a receipt.
Among coffee-producing countries, Ethiopia holds near-legendary status not only because it’s the “birthplace” of Arabica coffee, but also because it is simply unlike every other place in the coffee world. Unlike the vast majority of coffee-growing countries, the plant was not introduced as a cash crop through colonization. Instead, growing, processing, and drinking coffee is part of the everyday way of life, and has been for centuries, since the trees were discovered growing wild in forests and eventually cultivated for household use and commercial sale.
From an outsider’s perspective, this adds to the great complexity that makes Ethiopian coffee so hard to fully comprehend—culturally, politically, and economically as well as simply culinarily. Add to that the fact that the genetic diversity of the coffee here is unmatched globally—there is 99% more genetic material in Ethiopia’s coffee alone than in the entire rest of the world—and the result is a coffee lover’s dream: There are no coffees that are spoken of with the reverence or romance that Ethiopian coffees are.
One of the other unique aspects of Ethiopia’s coffee production is that domestic consumption is very high, because the beverage has such a significant role in the daily lives of Ethiopians: About half of the country’s 6.5-million-bag annual production is consumed at home, with roughly 3.5 million bags exported.
Coffee is still commonly enjoyed as part of a “ceremonial” preparation, a way of gathering family, friends, and associates around a table for conversation and community. The senior-most woman of the household will roast the coffee in a pan and grind it fresh before mixing it with hot water in a brewing pot called a jebena. She serves the strong liquid in small cups, then adds fresh boiling water to brew the coffee two more times. The process takes about an hour from start to finish, and is considered a regular show of hospitality and society.
The majority of Ethiopia’s farmers are smallholders and sustenance farmers, with less than 1 hectare of land apiece; in many cases it is almost more accurate to describe the harvests as “garden coffee,” as the trees do sometimes grow in more of a garden or forest environment than what we imagine fields of farmland to look like. There are some large privately owned estates, as well as co-operative society comprising a mix of small and more mid-size farms, but the average producer here grows relatively very little for commercial sale.
PROCESSING AND PROFILE
There are several ways coffee is prepared for market in Ethiopia. Large estates are privately owned and operated by hired labor; the coffee is often picked, processed, and milled on the property. On the other end of the spectrum, “garden coffee” is brought by a farmer in cherry form to the closest or most convenient washing station, where it is sold and blended with other farmers’ lots and processed according to the desires of the washing station. Co-op members will bring their cherry to be weighed and received at a co-op washing station, where there is more traceability to the producer level as per membership rosters of the co-operative.
The profile of Ethiopian coffees will vary based on a number of factors, including variety, process, and microregion. As a general rule of thumb, natural processed coffees will have much more pronounced fruit and deep chocolate tones, often with a bit of a winey characteristic and a syrupy body. Washed coffees will be lighter and have more pronounced acidity, though the individual characteristics will vary.