A Lively Cupping Experience in Ethiopia

Mike Mowry
April 3, 2012
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In February I spent a week traveling around Ethiopia with representatives from other coffee companies as part of a Cupping Caravan. In two 15 passenger vans, top loaded with gas ranges, propane, and 5 gallon bottles of water, we spent the first few days cupping—the industry term for analyzing coffee—at various ECX field labs. ECX stands for the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange, which is the government agency responsible for grading all commodities produced in Ethiopia. The bulk of their work is around cupping and green grading (the grading of raw, unroasted coffee).

The last few days of the Caravan were a highlight of my professional career. We left behind the organized, more formal labs and instead cupped outside, in farming communities, with farmers watching us taste their coffees. Here’s a rundown of the cupping at the Hama Co-operative in Yirga Chefe:

The van rolls up to the Hama Co-operatives office. Kids come running from everywhere to greet the van, yelling “farenji”, and “you, you, you, you!” Calling someone a farenji in Ethiopia (in the Amharic language), is bit like saying gringo in Latin America, or mzungu in other parts of Africa. It’s a friendly way of saying foreigner. From the van you can see a hundred farmers and their families awaiting our arrival. Based on the turnout, and the excitement in the air, you can tell that this will be an important event, not just for the cuppers, but also for the farmers present.

The purpose of this gathering is for the farmers from the Hama Co-operative to watch us cup coffees, some of which are from their co-operative, and then for us to publicly share our findings with the group. We’ve set up our gas ranges and propane tanks, the coffee is ground and measured out into each cup, and the water is on the boil. Our two cupping tables are set up under an open-walled, wooden structure, set on relatively uneven ground covered with bamboo mats. On the dirt road near the cupping area, we watch as cars and donkey taxis zip by. It’s a busy scene, in a busy town, but we’ve got to put the commotion out of our heads for the task at hand. And so, the cupping begins…

While we smell and taste the coffees, the farmers and their families watch on, speaking to each other as we go, watching the cuppers from abroad slurp each cup, take notes, and move around the tables. It’s quite an experience squeezing past people, grading the coffees, and taking in the vibe from the people and the street scene all around us. As the end of the cupping comes, the cuppers gather together to share notes, and to determine the highlights from all of the coffees. Then, one of the most important steps in the process takes place: it’s time to share our results with the farmers who have been watching so patiently.

One of the most unfortunate realities in the world of coffee trading is that most farmers have never been trained to properly grade the cup quality of their own coffee. Year after year, harvest to harvest, they painstakingly labor over their coffee trees. Not knowing how to grade your coffee for cup quality leaves a huge gap in the power dynamic for the farmer. You could be producing some of the finest tasting coffee in the world and never know, never be able to ask for more money for your harvest.

Of the seven coffees we cup, Hama Co-operative does really well on the table. It comes in at 87.5 points, with notes of jasmine and vanilla in the aroma, and black tea and ripe fruits in the flavor. As we announce these results, the farmers and their families are visibly excited about the results, and the totality of the moment, that “ah hah” feeling sets in. A process comes to an end, you can step back from it and see it in its entirety; more fully understand its purpose.

Though I’ve known it for years, in this moment I have a better sense of the importance of coffee cupping, and the huge effect it can have on the livelihood of subsistence farmers half way around the world. At Equal Exchange, we take our coffee grading responsibilities very seriously. For us, as importers, it’s our duty to get our information back to the co-operatives that we trade with.

I’m truly honored to be part of it.