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.

Single-origin coffee and direct trade relationships with importers can be the key to breaking cycles of poverty in coffee-producing countries. (A previous post I wrote about Jake Elster and Crop to Cup explores this topic further.) By working with specific importers and roasters, farmers can establish lucrative relationships that last as long as the farmer can produce a quality product.

But there is still the question of what to do with those farmers who make a living off coffee as a bulk commodity. "It's not so much about the brand as it is about moving coffee. People come in and buy the top coffees but you're still left with all the rest," says Elster. "When 90 percent of your coffee isn't bought by the specialty-coffee industry, there's less push to accommodate single-origin importers."

Elster told me that the ECX is starting to allow some exceptions to allow for direct sourcing of coffee, but the opportunity is still limited: "I think it's still too early to say too much about it. Everyone's watching and waiting to see if they do what they say they will."

Elster adds, "The big question is whether or not the specialty-coffee market will keep buying."

Zach Dyer is a writer living in Saint Louis. He did his thesis research on coffee farmers in Southern Mexico. Since then, he has visited coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico as well as roasters and cafés across the U.S. He blogs about coffee for Gut Check every Wednesday.

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