Thursday brought the event we had all been gathered for – discussion of Harar coffees. The room was packed with an equal number of distinguished foreign guests and Ethiopian nationals from all parts of the industry, with the notable exception that no growers were present. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I haven’t attended one of these events before, so just about anything would have been beneficial for me.
Ken Davids, of Coffee Review fame, was the keynote speaker, and did a great job with what could have been a controversial talk assigned him by the organizers: basically, a talk on what’s gone wrong with Harar coffees, and how they might regain their preeminent status in specialty coffee. Imagine being in Ethiopia, in front of a room full of Ethiopian coffee people, many from Harar, with the job of telling them why their coffee has fallen from grace, and how to fix it. Without creating defensiveness and hostility. A tall order for anyone, but Ken was up to the challenge. It helped that the crowd was predisposed to recognize the problems and were open-minded when it came to hearing potential solutions.
The way Ken delivered his message tactfully and respectfully was to rely on objective, recorded history about Harar coffees. I must admit that I’ve heard the discussion about declining quality of Harar coffees, but I was blissfully unaware of the extent of the issue. Sure, like every other coffee buyer, I work hard to source great Harars, ones with characteristic flavors of blueberry and chocolate. But because of my small scale (I sell maybe five sacks of Harar a year) I can manage to find what I need. Many of the buyers present had a different challenge, however, in that they may need dozens or even hundreds of sacks with excellent, consistent quality. And because they can’t procure that much excellent coffee consistently from Harar, they buy alternatives, mostly natural Sidamos. This is quite a change from history – Ukers obvserved in his 1920’s classic “All About Coffee” that Harars were the only excellent coffees from Ethiopia back in the day, in fact, he lumped all other Ethiopians under the category of “Abbysinian Mocha”. Ken searched his Coffee Review database and found that as recently as 2000 there were reviews of excellent Harar coffees, but in the past few years the reviews were remarkable only in that they made a point of saying how much better they used to be.
Ken prescribed what he saw as some steps to restore Harars to their rightful status, and we would see later in the trip is that many of these recommendations are already being implemented to greater and lesser extents. Ethiopians are aware of the issues, and have made great progress in offering agronomy and other technical assistance to farmers, washing/drying station operators, and coffee processing plants. All in all, it’s safe to say that there are great Harar coffees available, albeit with some work on the part of the buyer, and perhaps not in enormous quantities, and it is reasonable to expect continuous improvement in the quality of all Ethiopian coffees.
We wound up the day by visiting four local exporters to see their sorting and bagging operations. They were all very similar: armies of women (girls, almost) sit at long tables which are actually conveyor belts. Coffee beans are poured onto the moving belt until the entire length is covered, then the belt stops moving. The women pick through the beans on front of them, removing all manner of defective beans. After a few minutes of picking at the beans in front of them, the belt advances, dumping the sorted beans to be aged, and presenting new, unsorted beans to the nimble fingers of the sorters. This goes on for eight hours a day, while the women sometimes sing aloud in unison. To a westerner, it is an amazing way to contemplate spending a workday, especially given the reward these women receive is 1 Birr per hour. At an exchange rate of $1 USD to 11 Ethiopian Birr, the math works out to about $0.75 USD per day. Seventy five cents for an eight-hour workday. This is low even by Ethiopian standards. But this is a country where, believe it or not, it could be worse.
It was surprising to see that at this point in the season (harvest ended in December), the exporters, whose job it is to hull the coffee (remove it from parchment), sort it, and rebag it for export, were really not very busy. The relative inactivity was due to below-average numbers of contracts at this point in the year, which in turn traces back to uncertainty regarding the new system of coffee exchange initiated by the Ethiopian government this year; I’ll comment more extensively on that topic when I talk about Day Five.
All in all, the first day of conference exceeded my expectations in terms of how interesting the topics were, how engaging I found the speakers, and the quality of the dialog. The tours were excellent, and I wound up the day looking forward to cupping Harars the next morning. I will confess to being less excited about the prospect of another evening meal of injera wat, as I had run out of dental floss the day before, but I took one for the team and after shoeing the cockroaches away from my bed I settled in that night anticipating another great day.