Specialty coffee is a categorization given to premium quality coffee, which must pass specific physical quality standards and sensory (aroma and taste) assessment tests (cupping). Such coffee beans are grown with a lot of attention and care at the perfect altitude, at the right time of the year, in good soil. They are sold at a premium and are bought by roasters or coffee traders directly from the farmers.
The specialty coffee association (SCA) defines specialty coffee in its green (unroasted) stage as: “ coffee that is free of primary defects, has no ‘quakers’ [ an unripe and often bad-tasting coffee bean], is properly sized and dried, presents in the cup free of faults and taints and has distinctive attributes”. Specialty coffee should also be naturally sweet with unique flavour profiles.
Often ‘Gourmet coffee’ is mistaken for specialty coffee but it is not true, as there are no standards that gourmet coffee should adhere to.
Speciality Coffee Supply Chain
The Ethiopian coffee supply chain is an effective layered system that focuses on sound, consistent monitoring, and adherence to rigorous international quality standards – a vital factor for specialty coffee buyers.
Our supply chain starts from the many ‘Microlots’ supported by Ask International Trading. These are small plots of land growing coffee trees with special quality (85+ cupping score) with more time and attention are given to developing its uniqueness. These farms are surveyed in detailed and categorized and certified using different standards like Organic, FairTrade, and Rainforest Alliance.
With the strong adherence to the principle of sustainability, our farmers are supported on each coffee growing stage by our outreach program the ‘Out Grower Scheme’ through our NGO, the Buna Qela Charity Organisation. The objective of the program is to bring in farm-level sustainability to ensure the best quality coffee in the present and the future.
To achieve this goal our agronomists work closely with the farmers with ideas and scientific techniques drawn from experience and research. The farmers are given training in sustainable farm-management practices as well as techniques to control pests, soil management, and building resilience towards climate change. Also, assistance is provided in the adoption of management practices like organic fertilizer application, pruning, stumping as well as planting quality coffee seedlings. Regular training is also conducted so that coffee farmers adhere to the requirements of certification standards.
Interventions of Ask through our NGO have started to bear fruit with productivity improvements. For instance:
- Coffee stand management like pruning and stumping has increased up to 100 Ha.
- Old stock was replaced with 1,000,000 Seedlings.
- Around 100 farmers have adopted compost to improve soil fertility.
- Understanding the importance of shade trees conditions of shade trees were inspected in 5 selected sites and new ones were planted to support coffee productivity.
Also, to provide additional income to the farmer, assistance is provided in improved methods of food crop production and livestock husbandry. Veterinary clinics and farmers’ training centers were constructed for additional support.
The benefit of working closely with farmers is that it guarantees the aromatic profile and the quality of our coffees while ensuring higher revenue for farmers which also benefits the community at large.
Producing high-quality coffee is not restricted to following good agronomic practices alone but also extends to adopting good post-harvest practices. The harvested coffee cherries are procured directly from individual farmers or primary cooperatives supported by Ask . These cherries are processed along with the cherries harvested from the Ask International Tradingfarms such as Debeka, Gelana Gesha, and Bale mountains.
Over 60,000 metric tons of coffee is annually processed through its 36 washing stations and dry mills. After processing coffee is given a grade and a geographical designation. The geographic designation is important for the specialty coffee market, which values traceability.
Green Coffee Grading
The Green coffee grading is done before accepting coffees for storage in its warehouses. The coffee grading system is solely based on quality, covering both unwashed (natural or dry-processed) and washed (wet-processed) coffee.
To qualify as specialty coffee, the beans must be graded using a standard international quality score by the SCA. Coffee beans with a score of 80 or more points (out of 100) qualify as specialty coffee. These are exported to high-end roasters who will be selling their coffee at premium prices. Beans with a score close to, or above 90, are considered to be exceptional.
Beans with a score of 80 to 84 are considered to be of export quality and those with a score below 80 are called ungraded coffee which stays in Ethiopia for local consumption.
The grading system uses the composite result of the physical features
(raw value) of the green coffee, as well as the cup quality or liquor
characteristics (cup value).
For washed or wet-processed coffees, the raw value accounts for 40% of the grade and consists of defects (20%), shape (10%), colour (5%), and odour (5%). The cup value comprises of 60% and is made up of cleanness (15%), acidity (15%), body (15%), and flavour (15%). Cup defects (such as taints and bad taste characteristics) comes under the cleanness section of the grading system.
With unwashed or natural or dry-processed coffee, the raw value accounts for 40% of the grade and consists of defects (30%) and odour (10%). The cup value (60%) is evaluated in the same manner as for the wet-processed coffees. Besides, quality evaluation includes green bean moisture level assessments. Generally, beans with moisture levels greater than 12% or below 9% are rejected.
Challenges to Speciality Coffee Production
Climate change is a major threat to specialty coffee production, especially due to the increasing incidence and duration of drought. Changing weather patterns are causing serious disruption to agriculture, on which 85% of the population depends.
A report published in the magazine nature states that “39–59% of the current growing area could experience climatic changes that are large enough to render them unsuitable for coffee farming, in the absence of signiﬁcant interventions or major inﬂuencing factors”.
Apart from climate changes the industry is also challenged by low access to the Fairtrade market, a poor application of good agricultural practices, lack of income diversification, high costs of production, and lack of market information.
Despite the challenges faced by the industry the quality and diversity of Ethiopian coffee are undeniable. It offers deeply fascinating facets like flavour profile, production history, and future potential.
As the largest producer and exporter of coffee in Ethiopia, Ask International Trading has a proud history of providing quality specialty coffee to the local and international markets. Ask specializes in coffees sourced from Yirgacheffe, Lekempti, Gimbi, Djimma, and Sidamo where some of the world’s finest specialty coffees are produced.