Ethiopia – The Coffee of the Forest

20 Apr 2015

Coffee has a long-standing link with Ethiopia. It was domesticated on the Ethiopian plains thousands of years ago, and has become part of local traditions and community rituals. For millennia, families have been toasting coffee berries, grinding them in a mortar, then offering the coffee as part of an impressive ritual – a ceremony that lasts almost an hour and exhibits hospitality, friendship and respect.                                                                    

Ninety percent of Ethiopian coffee is a product of small-scale producers. Twenty percent is found in the forest: some is cultivated among the trees and some is wild. It is this small portion of wild forest coffee that is most precious.   

 

A Slow Food Presidium has been established in the Harenna forest, one of the biggest in Ethiopia, within the Bale Mountains National Park (in the Oromia region), 350 km south of the capital Addis Ababa. The landscape here is a world away from the classic plantations: the coffee plants (Arabica species) are spread out and the producers move around the undergrowth, collecting the wild coffee berries in the wicker baskets attached to their sides. After this phase, the coffee isn’t washed (the rinsing of beans in water and the fermentation process are crucial phases for the Latin American coffee Presidia), but is instead immediately dried (technically this is defined as “natural coffee”).

 

The Presidium is involved at this phase, improving the harvest (thanks to the more accurate selection of ripe berries) and the drying process (thanks to the acquisition and the installation of a suspended net, essentially a sunbed in which the coffee is sorted).     

 

Year upon year, the sensory profile of the coffee has improved and appreciation of the Harenna forest wild coffee is continually-growing among roasters, whether small or artisanal, national or international. Some of them have even visited the forest and met the collectors, exchanging ideas and suggestions on the management of the product.

 

Today there are around a hundred producers, united in two cooperatives. Through the Oromia Union, they export their coffee to Italy. The operation is still small, yet significant considering how far it has come. Previously, producers would cross berries of varying grades of maturity to then be sundried (where sometimes they would partly rot, owing to the humidity) and sell them cheaply to travelling merchants, without any organization or technical assistance.

 

Since 2012, the coffee from the Harenna forest has become packaged under the Slow Food brand and, since 2015, it has become part of a Lavazza blend: Etigua (a combination with the Huehuetenango Highland Coffee Presidium in Guatemala). The producers, who before the Presidium rarely left the forest to visit local villages, now participate in training and events in Addis Ababa, but also abroad. They are also often visited by journalists from all over the world. A 2007 documentary tells their story and that of their extraordinary region.    

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