Java Enabled: Is Yirgacheffe a Coffee or a Brand?

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Like Champagne and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Ethiopia's Yirgacheffe coffee takes its name from the region where it's grown. Sweet, fruity and well-balanced Yirgacheffe has become a household name among coffee aficionados. Now, due to changes in how Ethiopia regulates its coffee market, Yirgacheffe has grown much bigger.

Ethiopia trademarked the Yirgacheffe name in 2006 in an attempt to capitalize on the region's reputation. Then, in December 2008, the Ethiopian government mandated that all coffee be sold through a national coffee board, known as the Ethiopian Coffee Exchange (EXC). While the mechanics of all these political and business maneuvers might sound obtuse to the average coffee drinker, they could have a serious impact on whether your coffee truly originates where it claims to originate.

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Why bother with a national exchange in the first place? The global coffee industry is plagued by unscrupulous middlemen who buy small farmers' coffee cheap and then sell it high to exporters. The ECX aims in part to regulate the price of coffee to insure that market prices are paid. In addition, the ECX promises to regulate the coffee coming into the exchange to maintain a certain level of quality.

Good intentions aside, some importers are still on the fence about the exchange. "There's a lot of fear about government involvement in the coffee trade. They don't have a very good track record," said Jake Elster, co-owner of Crop to Cup, a single-origin coffee importer. "But the system has the potential to raise values for the average farmer, and they're the ones that need it most."

While the average coffee grower might be able to get more for their coffee thanks to the Yirgacheffe name, some in the specialty-coffee industry in the U.S. worry about the new system. This industry is no stranger to paying a little more for a good product: Fair trade, bird-friendly and organic are well-known tags on the side of coffee bags. However, the one thing that holds the system of specialty and ethical coffees together is the one thing that the ECX doesn't currently address: traceability.

Specialty coffee is increasingly about single-origin and micro-lot coffees, which take terroir, climate and consistency of quality into strict consideration. The ECX funnels coffee from all over the region -- and maybe outside the region -- into the exchange under the umbrella Yirgacheffe brand. Without a reliable way to assure buyers their coffee is coming from the right place, a cloud of doubt shadows the ECX.

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