The village of Benti Nenka is located in the Guji region, with around 500 farmers delivering their cherry to local washing station. Benti Nenka is located in the Hambela Wamena woreda, about 550 Km south of Addis Ababa. Here, coffee is the main cash crop, the average farm size is somewhat higher than in Yirgacheffe at around three hectares, and farmers typically intercrop their coffee plants with other food crops. This maximises land use, and provides food for their families. This traditional method leads to greater biodiversity, and means that most coffees grown here are organic by default. Guji farmers also cultivate a rather different range of heirloom coffee varieties to those seen in Yirgacheffe, including wild varietals originating from the nearby Harenna forest.
This leads to a rather different expression in the cup, somewhat less delicate and tea-like than coffees from Yirgacheffe, with dominant ripe stone fruit and softened magnolia florals.
In Ethiopia, coffee still grows semi-wild, and in some cases completely wild. Apart from some regions of neighbouring South Sudan, Ethiopia is the only country in which coffee is found growing in this way, due to its status as the genetic birthplace of arabica coffee. This means in many regions, small producers still harvest cherries from wild coffee trees growing in high altitude humid forests, especially around Ethiopia’s famous Great Rift Valley.
There are three categories of forest coffee growing in Ethiopia, Forest Coffee (FC), Semi-Forest Coffee (SFC), and Forest Garden Coffee (FGC), with each having an increasing amount of intervention from coffee producers. Forest coffee makes up a total of approximately 60% of Ethiopia’s yearly output, so this is a hugely important method of production, and part of what makes Ethiopian coffee so unique.
Throughout all of these systems, a much higher level of biodiversity is maintained than in modern coffee production in most of the rest of the world. This is partly due to the forest system, and partly down to the genetic diversity of the coffee plants themselves. There are thousands of so far uncategorised ‘heirloom’ varieties growing in Ethiopia; all descended from wild cross pollination between species derived from the original Arabica trees. This biodiversity leads to hardier coffee plants, which don’t need to be artificially fertilised. This means that 95% of coffee production in Ethiopia is organic, although most small farmers and mills can’t afford to pay for certification, so can’t label their coffee as such. The absence of monoculture in the Ethiopian coffee lands also means plants are much less susceptible to the decimating effects of diseases such as leaf rust that have ripped through other producing countries.
The washed process involves completely removing both the cherry and the mucilage from the outside of the parchment with the use of friction, fermentation and water. After being harvested, the coffee cherry is then sliced open by either a metal or a sharp plastic blade.
The two seeds (also known as beans) are pushed out of the cherry, which leaves the seed with mucilage as their outermost layer. It is essential in the washed process that all mucilage is removed from the seed which leaves only the flavour that developed in the cell structure of the seed prior to processing.