It's a question we get a lot, especially when we have popular coffees such as Ethiopia or Kenya coming in. Although the logistical process is not difficult per se, it involves so many steps that this, make it complicated. Therefore, it requires proper planning and coordination. At each of these steps there is a risk for quality of the coffee to be affected if anything goes slightly wrong. As we know, the quality of coffee is determined by the quality of the harvest, i.e., how ripe the cherry is when it is removed from the coffee tree. This is the maximum point of quality in the production chain, after that, everything is deterioration, or at best, maintenance.
The task of getting your coffee from the plant to your roastery is what we call coffee logistics. It is a process that consists of three main stages: production, preparation and export/distribution. Each of these stages contains a series of sub-stages or tasks that are carried out by a large number of people and/or machinery. It is also important to note that a number of customs, legal and sanitary rules and regulations must be complied with. Furthermore, in our role as importers or buyers of green coffee, we must ensure that the highest quality standards are met at each of these stages.
During the early days of our civilisation, in the place where Ethiopia is today, local tribes used to consume coffee by roasting the whole cherry until it was burnt. The charred cherry was then added to a beverage of cow's or goat's milk and butter. The result was an intensely flavoured, protein-rich and nutritious drink that is still consumed to this day in some areas, such as Guji. I had the opportunity to try it and honestly, I didn't like it. The texture and taste of the milk with the butter plus the burnt cherry is not a good mix for my understanding of taste, but as I was invited to the home of a very traditional brewing family, it is frowned upon in Ethiopia to refuse what you are offered, and I had to drink it anyway. I was offered a second one, but that I refused because I couldn't take it anymore.
As we know, Ethiopia is the birthplace of the Arabica species and the place where the history and culture of coffee in the world begins. The natural processing method is the oldest way of processing coffee, and it is also born in Ethiopia, then implemented in Yemen and spread all over the world. Before someone invented the washed method, which by the way nobody knows who and when it was created, all coffee was processed using the natural method. In Ethiopia, natural coffees have been produced for centuries and to this day, to a lesser extent than washed coffees. But due to climate change and desertification in Ethiopia and many other coffee producing areas of the world, natural coffees are projected to regain prominence.
We recently saw on social media that a roastery was promoting an Ethiopian coffee, emphasising that the altitude of 2,000m above sea level at which it was grown was impressive!!!! And this made us think about how incomplete the information we receive is and how little is known about all the factors that influence the cultivation of coffee and its impact on quality. Because altitude alone does not tell us much, if it is not accompanied by latitude (location of the place where the coffee has been grown with respect to the Equator), microclimate, soil quality, species, variety, process, etc.
All this information boils down to the need to produce denser coffee beans. Density in coffee is synonymous with quality, because a bean grown at the right altitude and latitude is most likely to grow in a cold microclimate with less oxygen, which will slow down the ripening of the cherry on the plant. Slow ripening is essential to produce quality coffees, because the longer the cherry spends on the plant, the more sugars the cherry will absorb during its development and the more complex its flavour will be.
Burundi is an ideal country for the production of high-quality Arabica coffee, which could generate a solid and recurring income for thousands of farming families. An average altitude of between 1,500 and 2,000 metres, abundant rainfall and a tropical savannah biome combine to create exceptional growing conditions, with coffee accounting for 80 per cent of the country's exports.
Despite this, the Burundian coffee sector faces many challenges. Poor soil health and inadequate maintenance of coffee trees result in low and irregular yields. Production is also threatened by climate change, which increases the frequency of both droughts and heavy rains, resulting in increased soil erosion. Meanwhile, poor processing practices reduce the quality and price of much of Burundi's coffee, and the country's cumbersome business and political environment makes it less attractive to global exporters.
The long journey of coffee has come to an end. It has been several months of arduous effort in which thousands of hands have worked together for a single goal, the production of coffee of the highest possible quality. Although the logistical situation has improved compared to last year, the departure from Ethiopia to Djibouti is chaotic and slow, which risks affecting the quality of the coffee and its moisture content.
Ethiopia, the world's second largest producer of "arabica only" after Colombia, has only one harvest per year and in a very limited period of time. Producing so much coffee in such a short time is a major challenge, especially when there are deficiencies in such important aspects as infrastructure, capital flows, inflation, climate change and the lack of organisation so characteristic of Africa, but particularly present in Ethiopia.
Once we have selected our new lots from Ethiopia and have signed the contract with all the import specifications (or export in the case of the producer), the coffee needs to go through a very important stage of the production chain called "Dry Milling", this process includes hulling, various types of classification, and finally packaging and loading into the container. Each of these stages is described in detail below:
1. Hulling: One of those essential steps in the elaboration of coffee and which consists of the "liberation" of the bean from its wrapping or parchment. This is done by means of hulling machines that use friction and pressure to carry out their task.
When it comes to the selection of Ethiopian coffees, the possibilities of flavours, fragrances, and aromas are virtually endless. Cup profiles are so varied that most importers or roasters do not expect a specific profile for an Ethiopian coffee. The same does not hold for origins such as Kenya or Sumatra, where roasters are looking for berries or chocolate, respectively.
From a sensorial perspective, the acidity of Ethiopian coffees is as diverse as the number of acid components that a coffee bean has. Like sweetness, cleanliness and texture, acidity is fundamental in our sensory analysis and selection work. It is important to note that in the long journey of coffee from the plant to the cup, the acidity and all the sensorial attributes can be modified, enhanced, damaged or eliminated.
We are not going to tell you that everything is hunky-dory in Ethiopia, that everything is perfect, that the coffee farmers are happy, or that the future is bright, because that is certainly not true. While there have been improvements in the humanitarian situation caused by the war, the economic and climatic situation is only getting worse. Temperatures are rising and rainfall is falling in a pattern that could lead to a 25% drop in production by 2030, and inflation is hitting hard, reaching 34% per annum last December.
For a coffee importer, (I think we all share the same opinion) Ethiopia is the most challenging origin, but at the same time the most rewarding in terms of travel experience and coffee quality. Quality is part of the establishment, from a genetic and terroir perspective Ethiopia is always expected to have unique, complex and intense cup profiles, but there are problems related to human intervention that do not allow these high expectations to be realised.
Today in the world of specialty coffee, Bourbon and Typica are the most important Arabica coffee varieties. Recent genetic studies have confirmed that Bourbon and Typica were the seeds brought from Ethiopia to Yemen, and from the latter they spread throughout the world, forming the basis of modern Arabica coffee cultivation.
It was the French who attempted to introduce coffee three times from Yemen to Bourbon Island (now La Réunion), in 1708, 1715 and 1718. Genetic studies have confirmed that only a small number of plants from the second introduction and some from the third introduction they were successful. Until the middle of the 19th century, Bourbon coffee did not leave the island.
Coffee has been traded for commercial purposes for 400 years. From there, it has spread to approximately 70 countries where it is currently grown. The Dutch were the ones who began to establish economies of scale around the production and export of coffee. Later they grew coffee in Java and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The first exports from Java to the Netherlands occurred in 1711, and the Dutch East India Company was the first multinational corporation in history and the first to export coffee on a large scale.
During these four centuries, a pattern of neo-feudal behaviour has been generated, which has forced small coffee growers to chain themselves into ultra-dependent relationships with large landowners or multinationals, which have caused multimillion-dollar profits for large companies, in addition to the concentration of land, marginalization and slavery. This is how this business model has been perpetuated until today.