October 20, 2020

Exploring Ethiopian Heirloom Coffee Varieties


If you’re reading about Ethiopian coffee production, before long, you’ll start to see the word “heirloom”. 

While a true definition of the phrase is difficult to find, in Ethiopia, it is used as a catch-all term for the many wild or genetically undefined varieties that are native to the country. For third-wave coffee enthusiasts, these exotic and rare varieties are an exciting opportunity to try new and unusual flavours.

To learn more about Ethiopian heirloom varieties, I spoke to Biniyam Aklilu, a director at Nardos Coffee, and Erik Liao, the co-owner of Triup Coffee and the head roaster at 19 Coffee Roasting Lab in Taiwan. Read on to find out what they said. 

Lee este artículo en español Explorando Las Variedades de Café Heirloom de Etiopía

What Does “Heirloom” Mean?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “heirloom” is defined as “a valuable object that has belonged to a family for several generations”. Similarly, in the coffee sector, the term is broadly used to refer to old cultivars of the Coffea arabica plant which have existed for some time.

However, in Ethiopia in particular, the word “heirloom” is often used to refer to varieties that are native to the country, many of which are still found in the wild today. It is estimated that there are between 10,000 and 15,000 heirloom varieties in Ethiopia today, the majority of which have not been formally genetically identified. 

While many heirloom varieties begin life as a wild plant, some are later brought to various specialty coffee farms across the country, where they are cultivated, harvested, and processed.

Heirloom varieties are typically classified into two groups: JARC varieties and regional landraces. JARC varieties are those developed and researched by the Jimma Agricultural Research Centre (for desirable characteristics, such as greater resistance to disease or increased yield). Regional landraces, however, are coffee trees that grow completely in the wild.

Erik tells me that in Ethiopia, there is also a “semi-forest system”, where a “larger forest area is [typically] owned by a private party”. 

“The difficulty with wild heirloom varieties is just that: they’re wild,” Erik says. “It’s difficult for farmers to be able to identify and separate varieties in the wild, whereas on the farm, pickers and producers can better separate each variety.”

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Identifying Heirloom Varieties Across Ethiopia

Across the thousands of different heirloom varieties in Ethiopia (identified or not) there are a huge range of varying characteristics, including yield, cup quality, flavour profile, and disease resistance. 

However, one of the biggest problems with these thousands of heirloom coffee varieties is identification. This is partially due to the sheer number of genetically distinct varieties that exist in Ethiopia. Furthermore, in some regions, many different varieties grow in close proximity to one another, making it difficult to separate and identify them.

Finally, heirloom varieties are typically identified by producers based on years of experience alone, as the huge number of varieties makes it nearly impossible to genetically verify them on an wider scale.

Biniyam tells me that at Nardos Coffee, they “go from farmer to farmer to identify and understand each variety within the heirloom family”. While this is a labour-intensive process, it allows producers to share knowledge and consequently record data on just some of the many thousands of Ethiopian heirloom varieties. 

After identifying a variety, Biniyam says that Nardos Coffee labels them. “Varieties are now named based on the year they were discovered and the numeric sequence they follows,” he explains. Recording this data and labelling these varieties improves traceability across the supply chain in Ethiopia.

And while there are over 10,000 unique varieties across Ethiopia, growing any one of them at scale can be difficult. Each variety has its own unique requirements, and will often be suited to a certain region within the country.

“The Badessa, Khudumi, Miqe, Sawa, and Wolichu varieties are all indigenous to the Guji area, for example,” Biniyam explains. For this reason, he says, transporting varieties around the country is not always a good idea.

Erik says that even if you can grow a plant from one region in another area, the results might not be what you’re expecting. “If you were to take a Kurume from Sidamo and plant it in Guji, for example, the outcome would be completely different… it would create a very different cup profile.”

Biniyam says that recognising and recording the differences between different varieties means that Nardos Coffee “are able to fine-tune processing methods” for the indigenous coffees they work with.

He adds that the ever-increasing recognition of heirloom varieties is also supporting producers in Ethiopia. “We supply more than 4,000 farmers with coffee seedlings, as well as providing them with farm management and financial support,” Biniyam says.

As well as providing producers with more information about their varieties for potential buyers, consequently improving traceability, this also helps them to be more stable in the long-term.

Cup Profile

Generally, Ethiopian heirlooms tend to have a floral and fruity cup profile, but the specific characteristics do vary heavily from region to region.

Erik tells me that in Guji, coffees tend to be very fruity, with notes of berries and jam, whereas in Sidamo, coffees are more floral, with strong apricot flavours.

He also emphasises the importance of sourcing single varieties and recommends that roasters take care when using heirloom coffees in blends. “I’ve found that because Ethiopian heirlooms are so distinct, blending instead separating varieties can really change the cup profile. 

“For example, some coffees we source will shine with floral notes. However, if we blend that single variety with others, then the resulting blend can show gentle floral notes in the beginning but finish with fruity flavours.” 

Biniyam explains that as with any coffee, it’s important to take care when processing heirloom varieties. He explains that Nardos Coffee uses washed and natural processing (as well as experimenting with fermentation) to highlight the unique characteristics of each individual variety.

As for roasting heriloom coffees, Erik says: “If I want to develop the beautiful complexities of an heirloom coffee to create a floral cup, I’ll roast it quite fast. Because the beans are usually smaller, we generally finish the roast with a shorter development time.” 

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and its thousands of heirloom varieties make it an origin like no other.

As the industry moves forward, an increased focus on data recording will naturally support producers to learn more and more about these wild varieties. This in turn will lead to greater traceability, which supports communication and improves relationships across the entire supply chain.

Enjoyed this? Then read How To Prevent Coffee Varieties From Being Misidentified

Please note: Nardos Coffee Export is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

Photo credits: Nardos Coffee Export

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