Harar Roundtable Coffee Conference

Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters’ green coffee buyer, Scott Merle, and President, Larry Challain, recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia where they attended a variety of coffee farms and took part in the Ethiopia Harar Roundtable Coffee Conference.  The agenda of the conference was aimed at the specialty coffee industry and provided a platform for buyers and growers to discuss issues of growing and trading coffee in Ethiopia.  We will be posting a series of Scott’s journal entries, thoughts and photos from the trip.

I finally made it here to Dire Dawa and have a place in the Selam hotel, which is nice. That is, if your definition of nice is cold water only, no electrical outlets, a toilet that flushes and the one lamp. No bugs that I can see, and that goes a long way.  After the six hour drive that actually took eleven, I could care less about the accommodations.  During the eleven hour trip, we got two fifteen minute breaks and had about an hour and a half stop for lunch to eat some goat.  From Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa, we crossed from one side of the Great Rift Valley to the other and are now smack in the middle of where they’ve traced coffee back as far as they can. From this side of the valley, coffee spread northeast to Yemen before being taken to Europe and then the rest of the world. That’s all good, but can a guy find a decent semi-washed Djimma anywhere?

On to the Conference – the presentations are good, Ken Davids makes nice reflections on the unique qualities of Harar coffees and his thoughts on what has triggered the perceived diminishing of the Harar profile.  One of his arguments is that as buyers work with producers in other coffee-growing regions around the world and experiment with natural processing of those coffees, they have relied on and demanded less from Harar – the place where the fascination for naturally-processed coffees originated.  Conditions are described as perfect for this type of processing here in eastern Ethiopia, and it may only be a matter of dedication and care for the coffees of Harar to once again regain their place as King of Naturals.


Ken Davids (Coffee Review) speaking at the conference.

Abraham Begashawe adds his two cents to the mix, and this is what I’ve been waiting to hear.  He speaks of the great need for soil conservation and some luck with nature as necessary elements to work in tandem with the unique processing that will allow Harar to maintain its standing as the world’s foremost naturally processed coffee.  Abraham also begins to turn the conversation towards the newly created ECX system and what this may do to the specialty niche in Ethiopia.

What the experts agree on, and what I concur with, are the following necessary steps to insure we’re doing what we can to preserve the taste of Harar.
1 – Careful picking and sorting of ripe cherries
2 – Meticulous and appropriate drying techniques, including experimentation with raised beds and drying tables
3 – Clean storage methods and expedient shipping practices
4 – Identification and encouragement of re-planting of the best cupping varietals

I have the chance to cup some coffees from Harar that were dried on woven mats vs. dried on raised beds and the difference is striking.  As is the case elsewhere around the world, all it takes is attention to the details to preserve the best qualities these coffees possess.  The mat-dried coffee tastes dirty and flat with only hints of fruit, while the bed-dried coffee tastes complex, powerfully and cleanly fruity, and balanced.  The profile of this second coffee is the one I target in my buying each year, and the one that has become more difficult each year to secure.

As a buyer though, as long as I know this profile still exists, I am confident that with the partnership of the right miller and exporter I can find it, and can then demand follow through with proper storage and quick shipping to get it into the U.S. in the right condition for roasting.  Tasting a coffee like this now is a terrific sign that when the time comes to approve arrival samples in April/May, all the hard work I’ve put into it will assure us great coffees!

Up Next:  The difficulties facing specialty coffee roasters and the new Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) system.

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