Sourcing Diaries: Off to Ethiopia

Our coffee buyer, Byron  Holcomb, recently visited Ethiopia—also known as the birthplace of coffee—for a very important conference on Natural Process coffees. Here is the first of his journals and observations on the proceedings.


Addis Abeba. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

This is my third trip to East Africa. It is different. I honestly belive that everything started in East Africa: humans, coffee, the garden of Eden. The point is that I’m beyond excited to go to Ethiopia again.

Usually when I’m going to origin, it’s for chasing the best beans that a county or region has to offer. What is pulling me to Easth Africa this time is actually a conference about Natural Process coffees, or “Naturals”. A friend of mine is a brilliant coffee person and has invested an incredible amount of time and energy trying to understand Natural Process coffee. Being from Mexico, and a scientist by trade and a full time coffee consultant, he understands coffee more intimately on more levels that almost anyone I know. His name is Manuel Diaz. I met him in Uganda several years ago, just before the first Natural Conference happened in Yemen. I am on my way to the third Natural Conference right now.

We will be spending a lot of time cupping Naturals and discussing Natural standards. Here is the thing: most all specialty coffee (grading, scoring, purchasing, marketing) is based on our criteria for “Washed” coffees. Now, in the world, there is a small percentage of Washed coffees. There is a much larger percentage of Naturals produced out there. Some roasting companies refuse to purchase them. Naturals are risky business.

But they are also very very important. Look at the amount of water used in any washing mill, hundreds of liters per 100lbs of green coffee in some cases. Look at the consumer market: they aren’t nearly as sensitive as coffee buyers to coffee that tastes “fruity”&emdash;the hallmark of Natural process. I find that well roasted Naturals go over very well and can be an incredible source of sweetness in blends. I won’t say any names, buy I can think of at least four roasting companies that refuse to buy Naturals simply because they are Naturals. We at Dallis love brilliant coffees that will bring the daily customers of the cafes and restaurants we sell to coming back every day for a great cup, regardless of the process.

Let me define what I’m talking about: super-naturals. I like that name because it makes it very clear that we are not talking about commercial-grade-last-picking-rejects: the vast majority of naturals fit into that category. But here is the thing: imagine a farmer who doesn’t have water access or financing access to wet-mill his coffee, what hope does he have for quality? None, unless he can produce a quality natural. I personally have had totally different natural process results from my farm: three years of ok, one year of rejected coffee, and last year was incredible. Why? Same farm, same drying methods. If we as an industry could start to better understand Natural processing I think we could positivly affect more lives than probably any other coffee project out there. So yes, I’m excited and I know it will take years, but I’m patient.