Coffee, this fantastic raw material that people have enjoyed for so many centuries. It's hard to describe the extent to which it has affected humanity, so many people who in some way come into contact with this raw material every day, through hard work on a farm in southern Ethiopia, on a boat leaving a port in Indonesia, by a roaster somewhere else in the world sampling a raw coffee sample, or a person sitting on a bench looking out over the expanses and drinking a cup of coffee. This coffee, this wonderful raw material originally comes from Ethiopia, the absolute origin of coffee. There is something particularly interesting about the absolute, it piques our curiosity! Let us try to acquire a somewhat more nuanced picture of this absolute, and this time with a focus on coffee.
Text: Eskil Edblad
Photo: Jonatan Låstbom
In southern Ethiopia, in the Oromia region, the Oromo people have lived for many hundreds of years. One of the areas in Oromia is named Guji, after one of the Oromo tribes. The Oromo people have a rich culture; they have many customs and ceremonies. This people began by using the coffee berry as a fruit, long before it was understood that it could be used in the way we use it today. They crushed the coffee berries, mixed them with fat, and thus had prepared something resembling our modern energy bars.
What touches us is that this people developed a coffee ceremony where essentially all the multiple steps in the coffee chain are gone through, washing, sorting, roasting, grinding, and brewing. The final brewing takes place in the so classic Ethiopian brewer Jabana. This reverence for coffee is beautiful and is a good reminder that we should take time for coffee brewing, not rush, reflect on how much work has been put into these coffee beans and try to refine them with respect and care.
Let's return to Guji, here is the place where conditions are optimal, where the Oromo people have always cultivated coffee, they have never needed to plant any coffee trees because here they have always grown wild, this is fantastic! One of the individuals from this venerable ethnic group came to put Guji on the international coffee map, specifically Tesfaye Bekele. So who is this man and how did this happen when he became a coffee legend?
Tesfaye grew up in the countryside in the Guji zone. He grew up under simple circumstances in a coffee-producing family. So, from a young age, he was directly involved in the craft of coffee, although initially it was nothing that attracted him. He chose his studies, and this led to him later being educated as an agronomist. This education, in turn, led to him working for the Ethiopian government with environmental supervision as his main task. He was later assigned to perform his work in Guji. At the end of the 1990s, Guji was hit by violent fires and large areas were devastated. It became Tesfaye's task to rebuild this area. He focused on replanting trees together with coffee bushes, to increase diversity. He actively tried to get the people to be part of this project. Initially, this was not received well, many complained that it took too long to get any harvest. The patience was not there among the people who lived there. Tesfaye was stubborn and chose to end his service with the government to start his own farm, Suke Quto in Shakiso, and thus show that this was the right way to go. His plan worked, his farm became a successful example and people have since then begun to establish farms around Guji with Suke Quto as a model.
Johan & Nyström's relationship to Ethiopia:
Our relationship with Tesfaye Bekele goes back to 2012. Over these years, we have visited him several times in Guji and year by year built up an even closer relationship. The relationship is important, it makes it more than just a purchase of raw coffee. It creates a long-term relationship and increases transparency. It also gives a deeper insight into what positive effects one's purchase creates. For example, our business relationship has allowed Tesfaye to donate money to the construction of a school in the nearby village of Kurume. Something we value highly is being able to tell about Tesfaye and all the wonderful details to our customers and guests. Telling about our relationship to Mr Bekele makes the coffee experience so much bigger, it creates a wholeness that is hard to beat.
Suke Quto – a unique place
Suke Quto is not like any coffee farm, a big reason for this is the place, the absolute cradle of coffee. To fully understand it, one needs to go there and see how incredibly ideal conditions are in this area. It is the absolute opposite of an industrial plantation.
The coffee trees are allowed to grow virtually wild in a forest with shade trees, rich wildlife, where the soil is lush green with various plants, the soil is volcanic, trees that have died are left to become part of the cycle again, as said, completely ideal conditions. Even though nature itself is sufficient for the coffee to develop well, Tesfaye uses a system called semi-forest coffee (SFC), a system where the forest is maintained so that the coffee trees develop in as optimal a way as possible. Examples of this are that Tesfaye thins out certain trees that compete with the coffee trees but to a very limited extent, time is also spent on weeding and planting new coffee trees. One could say that Tesfaye carefully directs the forest so that it becomes even more optimal for coffee production. This type of cultivation accounts for about 20% of the ways used to produce coffee in Ethiopia.
To give a more nuanced picture of other cultivation methods in Ethiopia, one can also mention forest garden coffee (FGC) and garden coffee (GC). These "styles" differ from semi-forest coffee in the sense that they affect the natural farm to a greater extent than in SFC. FGC is the style that is the most common in Ethiopia, accounting for about 30%.
The annual cycle and climate
It is interesting to look a little closer at the Ethiopian cultivation cycle. There are three of them and they are called Bega, Belg, and Kiremt. Bega extends from October to January/February. This is the long dry season. It is during this season that the harvest and processing of the coffee take place. During this period, some rainfall may occur.
Belg extends from February to May. This period can be seen as the precursor to the longer and more intensive rainy season. During this period, there are smaller amounts of rain. It is during this period that the coffee blossom blooms, pollination and the first phase of coffee berry development occur.
Kiremt, this period extends from June to September. This is the main rainy season. During this period, it is the final phase for the development of the coffee berry. When Kiremt transitions to Bega, the last part of the ripening phase takes place.
As for the climate in Ethiopia, unfortunately, it is not an exception considering the negative climate changes we have seen in recent years. The temperature has increased in combination with decreased rainfall in some areas. Unfortunately, it looks like the temperature increase will not decrease but instead increase further in the future. As for the scenario for rainfall, it looks somewhat brighter but one never knows.
Tesfaye works with the varieties welicho/wolisho and kurume, they are so-called regional land races, these varieties have been taken from the wild state from the forests and then adapted to the different types of coffee farms by the coffee farmers. These two varieties are commonly found in the southern part of Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, there are about 130 cultivated varieties of this kind.
These varieties are contrasted with those developed by JARC, Jimma Agricultural Research Center, and these are called improved coffee varieties, of which there are only about 40. These were developed in the 1970s because of the coffee diseases that became increasingly common during the 1960s, and therefore varieties that were resistant to these diseases were needed. So, when you buy coffee from Ethiopia, both types of varieties are common. Some of the so-called regional land races are more common in specific areas. These varieties are not as resistant but in terms of taste, I would argue that they are of a somewhat higher taste caliber but this is for one to decide. If we pause and look closer at welicho and kurume, both have been named after native tree types in Guji, this reflects in a way the respect shown to nature, the trees are more than just trees for those who live there, one can see the names of the varieties as a tribute to nature.
Tesfaye always impresses with his coffee production, we always look forward to getting Welenan. It is special to drink the first cup from this year's harvest. The so typical Ethiopian cup with its inviting playful fruitiness, which varies its fruity dress from year to year.
If one dares to summarize the factors for the exceptional coffee quality in Ethiopia, I would consider the following aspects.
- The nature is ideal for coffee production, the genetic diversity that has developed over such a long time is phenomenal.
- Most coffee producers work on a very small scale, utilizing the resources that nature provides, considering what nature gives is so exceptionally good in Ethiopia, they generally do not need to use any fertilizers or pesticides.
- This in combination with producers like Mr Bekele results in a very good final result.
The future in terms of coffee production in Ethiopia is full of challenges. First and foremost, we should point out that this production constitutes a whole 30% of the country's exports and that a whole 15% of the population works within this sector.
A study from 2014 highlighted that areas suitable for coffee production could be halved by 2050. In a more recent study from 2017, it is highlighted that a whole 59% of the land that is usable for coffee today may be unusable at the end of the century. This is very serious and we can only hope that the negative scenarios do not materialize but that ways are found to prevent this very negative development.
Despite gloomy forecasts, there is hope and it is Ethiopia's large areas at higher altitudes (over 2000) that make one feel somewhat hopeful about the future. If it is possible to move coffee production to these areas and develop them in the right way, this wonderful coffee culture will most likely continue. Then, hopefully, Tesfaye's family can continue to produce fantastic coffees and we at Johan & Nyström can continue to refine these coffees and give you unforgettable coffee experiences.