Yirgacheffe is actually part of the Sidamo region in southern Ethiopia, but its exquisite washed coffees are so well-known that is has been sub-divided into its own micro-region. This steep, green area is both fertile and high – much of the coffee grows at 2,000m and above.
At first glance Yirgacheffe’s hills look thickly forested - but in fact it is a heavily populated region and the hills are dotted with many dwellings and villages’ growing what is known as ‘garden coffee’. There are approximately 26 cooperatives in the region, representing some 43,794 farmers and around 62,004 hectares of garden coffee. The production is predominantly washed, although a smaller amount of sundried coffees also come out of Yirgacheffe.
In 2008 Ethiopia began the centralization of all coffee exports through the newly established Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX). This eliminated most roasters’ and importers’ ability to provide accurate information of the precise traceability of coffees. Until December of that same year, growers could also sell direct to export markets, but this was subsequently reigned in. Since that time, the difficulty of determining precise provenance in Ethiopia – a corner stone of specialty coffee – has been a tremendous frustration to buyers in consuming markets.
Today, around 90 percent of coffees move through the ECX and are cupped according to profile then graded and marked generically for export. G1 lots, such as this one, are the highest grade and are in limited supply. When purchased through the ECX, however, the only traceability information given even to these highly sought after lots is the area code of production, such as ‘Sidamo’ or ‘Yirgacheffe’, which are coffee producing regions, or Kochere, Yirgacheffe, which denotes that this coffee comes, generally, from the town of Kochere and its surrounds in the Yirgacheffe producing region.
Around 85 percent of Ethiopians still live rurally and make a living from agriculture; each family usually lives in a modest home (often a single round mud hut) and farms their own plot of land, where they grow both cash crops and food for their own consumption. In Yirgacheffe, coffee is one of the main cash crops – covering from half a hectare to 1.5 hectares (the latter is considered big). This is usually planted alongside a second cash crop – often a large-leafed tree used in making roofs for (and also shade provider for the coffee) known as 'false banana'. This looks like a banana tree but isn't - instead its thick stem is used to produce both a nutritious flour and a fermented paste that are staple ingredients (particularly across southern Ethiopia).
There is only one main harvest a year in Ethiopia - this usually takes place in November and December across all of the country's growing regions. There are, on average, 4 passes made during the harvest period, and, in regions that produce both washed and naturals, the last pass is used for the natural coffee. Washed coffees are then generally pulped on the same day that they are picked (usually in the evening/night), sorted into three grades by weight (heavy, medium and floaters), fermented (times vary - usually between 16 and 48 hours), washed and then usually graded again in the washing channels. The beans are then dried on African beds, where they are hand-sorted, usually by women.