Trace the lineage of the Arabica plant and all roads lead back to Ethiopia. That country's coffee heritage makes it a destination for sourcing trips by roasting aficionados eager to immerse themselves in what remains to be one of the country's largest exports.
As Ethiopia began its latest harvest season, Phoenix Coffee Director Christopher Feran embarked on a nine-day journey in the Horn of Africa to explore options he plans to bring to his string of Cleveland shops early next year.
"It grows wild there," he explains one day after landing back in Cleveland. "There are thousands and thousands of heirloom varietals. They're grown at altitudes 2,000 meters and above, so you get high sugar content. It's very bright, very sweet, and has floral and fruity notes you wouldn't find in other parts of the world."
Feran, alongside a partner from New York-based Crop to Cup Coffee Importers, arrived in the capital, Addis Ababa, at two in the morning. They spent their next days directing their attention to various cooperatives throughout the region.
Due to coffee making up such a large portion of Ethiopia's cash crop, the business has become highly regulated. To sell coffee, most farmers go through the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX), a large scale operation with quick monetary return yet muddled transparency. It's suspected that coffee from different farmers can become mixed within the ECX's warehouse. Specialty shops like Phoenix are more interested in cooperatives, where precise records are kept for each farmer and lots are strictly separated.
Each day, Feran visited three or more cooperatives and mills, such as Alaga Sekala, to collect samples to roast and cup. He was able to visit the Jimma outpost of TechnoServe, a non-profit focused on combating poverty by connecting farmers with capital to further their cooperative work. To date, the organization has assisted in creating more than 90 farmer-owned wet mills, significantly adding to the carefully tended and ethical farming model Phoenix seeks to support.
"We talked to the mill managers and some of the workers handpicking and processing the coffee," explains Feran. "We were looking at the agricultural methods from the farm and seeing how clean the final quality of the coffee was coming out. We were verifying that they were using good practices at every step."
With so much of sourcing trips revolving around the examination of relationships between farmers and their crops, Feran began to understand many of the nuances and frustrations often incurred by the requests of importers.
"We're buying a product they spend their entire lives learning how to grow," explains Feran. "When we come in as Americans wanting something very specific, it's not always something they can accommodate."
Demands by importers to not pick the coffee cherry before it is ripe, for instance, can often mean the difference between stolen crops or quality.
"It's this damned if you do, damned if you don't situation," he says. "Their farms are a walk away from their house. They're not in the backyard. You have to understand that this is the way that they have to make a living. It's humbling and it certainly leads you to understand why many of the farmers in the Harrar region of Ethiopia have stopped growing coffee altogether."
The rest of his stay, he says, was spent in the capital, meeting with exporters and more mill managers to develop partnerships with others in the coffee world. At a final mill trip on his last day, Feran firmed up details on the coffee that will be introduced to Cleveland. For Feran, cultural differences were an obstacle worth overcoming.
"Because of the language barrier, you have to be persistent. If that's the only barrier you have, you can get there. You just have to be willing to try."