Yirgacheffe coffee boasts an unbeatable reputation. Buyers, roasters, and consumers relish Yirgacheffe coffee because they know its taste is one of the most distinguished. In this blog, we give a complete and definitive view of Yirgacheffe coffee. From the bean, the people, and the region. We leave no stone unturned.
Let’s start with the region.
The Yirgacheffe region is a tiny area within the Gedeo Zone. In official terms, Yirgacheffe is a woreda. Woredas are small areas, or provinces, within zones. For instance, the Gedeo Zone has six woredas. And Gedeo belongs to the larger Southern Nations and Nationalities People’s Region (SNNPR) state of Ethiopia.
However, the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) classifies coffees from the entire Gedeo Zone (including the Borena Zone) as Yirgacheffe coffees. It sounds confusing, but it’s a large improvement for the zone. Before the ECX labeled the Gedeo and Yirgacheffe regions as unique, buyers and sellers lumped the entire region together with Sidamo. Yirgacheffe is popular because its coffee is traceable today.
It depends. When buying Yirgacheffe coffee, always check what the seller implies. Is it the Yirgacheffe woreda in the Gedeo Zone? Or does it come from another woreda within the Gedeo Zone? In that case, know your woredas. Here we list the six woredas you find in Gedeo:
Get a full view of the zone by taking a look at the Yirgacheffe map.
While the Gedeo Zone is part of the SNNPR state of Ethiopia, it juts into the Oromia regional state along the eastern escarpment of the Rift Valley and is surrounded by Oromia on the east, south, and west. The zone’s administrative center is the laidback town of Dilla in the north of Gedeo. When you drive from Addis Ababa to the southern regions of Gedeo, you pass Dilla and enter the highlands of Yirgacheffe. Topographically, the Gedeo Zone’s lowest point is 1268 meters above sea level, and its highest point is almost 3000 meters above sea level.
The Gedeo Zone is named after its people. True to its name, over 80 percent of the zone’s residents are Gedeo people and speak the Gedeo language. According to the last national census (2007), the zone is home to over 840,000 residents, most of whom live in rural areas. The majority identify as Protestant Christian. But you also find Orthodox Christians and Muslims.
The Gedeo people have lived in this area for as long as anyone can remember. One story traces their origin to an aboriginal tribe who may have been the very first people to live in the area. Culturally, the Gedeo have traditions similar to the neighboring Guji Oromo, with a system of ranks and age classes called baalle, which is similar to the Oromo Gada system. The Gedeo, along with their neighbors, were incorporated into the Ethiopian Empire in the late 1890s.
Like much of southern Ethiopia, farmers in the Gedeo zone grow several crops on their land with their staple being enset (also called false banana). The government encouraged coffee cultivation from as early as the 1920s. And in most cases, farmers grow their coffee side by side with enset and other crops in home gardens. Plots of land here are small, with the majority of farmers cultivating areas between 0.25 hectares to 2 hectares in size.
In a country that has an estimated 10,000 varietals of coffee, what makes Yirgacheffe coffee unique? A major factor is the altitude of the mountains in this region of southern Ethiopia. Contrary to what you might have in mind, the high altitude actually makes it tougher for coffee plants to produce beans. Tough sounds bad, but in this case, it works in favor of flavor.
The harsher conditions at higher altitudes mean trees need to work harder to bear fruit, so the coffee beans take longer to mature. Because they spend longer on the tree, they have more time to absorb flavors, resulting in a fuller and more developed taste. Yirgacheffe coffees give a few of the finest developed tastes Ethiopia has to offer.
The Yirgacheffe coffee flavor profile tends to have more acidity than other Ethiopian coffees graced with floral and fruity notes. The body of Yirgacheffe coffee is often light and well-balanced. The region produced both washed and natural sundried coffees. Yirgacheffe is one of the first regions in Ethiopia to use the more modern washed method (starting in the 1970s).
Before they encountered Christian missionaries, the Gedeo believed in Magganno (or Mageno). Magganno is the supreme being who they believed manifested himself in his works of creation. As a result, the Gedeo hold nature in quite high esteem. This may be one reason why home garden agroforestry practices are one of the most sustainable ones in Ethiopia. Their home gardens maintain diversity and balance in the ecosystem.
While experts do not know exactly when the Gedeo developed their current form of agroforestry, they are pretty certain of why it came about. As the population increased in the area, there wasn’t enough place to dedicate separate fields to cash crops, staple crops, and supplementary crops. Also, as more land was needed, it was difficult to maintain communal forest areas. The solution was to use the land for a combination of everything. In a typical Gedeo garden, you will find trees, cash crops (like coffee), staple crops (enset and maize), fruits, and vegetables – all growing together.
At altitudes of 2000 meters above sea level and higher, the dominant plants are enset and indigenous trees. At altitudes between 1600 to 2000 meters above sea level, it is a mix of coffee and enset. And at lower altitudes, enset disappears and the mix is predominantly coffee and fruit trees.
Ethiopia has lost a lot of its forest cover in the last century, but traditional agroforestry systems like the Gedeo’s have helped preserve the country’s plant diversity.
Gedeo smallholders have grown coffee as a cash crop for decades. They grow a mix of local landraces – such as Kurume and Wolisho – and more disease-resistant cultivars from the Jimma Agricultural Research Center.
The typical harvest season for Yirgacheffe coffee is from October to December. Once the cherries make their way to washing stations, they go through the rigorous process of soaking, fermentation, cleaning, and drying. Coffee processors produce both natural sundried and washed coffee.
Washing stations purchase cherries from smallholders in the surrounding area since there aren’t many large farms here. A typical Yirgacheffe washing station might work with several hundred smallholders in the vicinity.
Washing stations work hand in hand with farmers in many ways. One of the most crucial for the quality of Yirgacheffe coffee is training. Besides paying attention to how they care for their trees, farmers need to pick the cherries at just the right time and then make sure they get them to the washing stations as fast as they can. Typically on the same day as picking. Many washing stations train the smallholders with best practices such as these.
Washing stations may also provide transportation to ensure the cherries get to the washing station as soon as possible after they are picked. And washing stations tend to work with the community on projects such as schools and infrastructure. One of the better-known community-driven washing stations is the Aricha site.
Waste from pulping is sent back to the farmers so they can use it as a natural fertilizer, helping keep the whole cycle organic. Once dried, the coffee then goes through a painstaking process of sorting by hand before it is sent to Addis Ababa for further sorting and grading.
As a coffee importer, we have a strong focus on Ethiopia as a whole, and Yirgacheffe in particular. And because we are involved throughout the entire chain, we know which Yirgacheffe coffees to select. Either for back-to-back or spot positions.
If you are a roaster and want to find out which Yirgacheffe coffees we offer, sign up for our newsletter. Every Thursday, you will receive a concise email with all the details about our new spot coffees, including Yirgacheffe.