For many decades, the Sidamo region has been the powerhouse of Ethiopian coffee production. As far back as the 1940s, there were commercial coffee plantations here, and although it is one of Ethiopia’s smaller regions in size, it produces an outsized 28 percent of the country’s coffee (according to 2005 export records). Where is this wonderfully productive place?
The Sidama region is in southern Ethiopia, as are most coffee-producing areas of the country. Until 2020, the region was part of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR). It is now one of Ethiopia’s newest regional states with its capital in Hawassa. Due to the vast number of microclimates here, and because of different landraces that may have been passed down within families or communities, there is an immense variety of coffee packed into the Sidama region.
Despite being in a region filled with spectacular coffees, Bombe coffee, which is processed at the Ayla Bensa washing station, stands out as exceptional.
Bombe is a high-altitude location in the Bombe mountains of Bensa district, Sidama (around 2000 m.a.s.l). This altitude plays a key role in why the Bombe coffee is so special.
Very high altitudes make things difficult for the coffee tree. The colder climate slows the growth cycle, and development takes longer. Coffee harvests from higher altitudes are typically later than those at lower altitudes, even in the same vicinity. In addition, higher altitudes tend to have better water drainage, so that reduces the amount of water freely available to the coffee tree.
The result is a slowly matured cherry that is small, dense, and packed with flavor. Lastly, coffee in Bombe tends to ripen uniformly. This makes picking the cherries a simpler process because they are all perfectly ripe for picking at the same time. Together, these many factors combine to produce Bombe’s delightful flavor packed with citrusy and floral notes.
The farmers who deliver their cherries to the Ayla Bensa washing station live high up in the Bombe mountains. Living as they have for many years on small farms. Like most Sidama farmers’ fields, their garden farms sit behind their homes and the farmers tend their crops with their family members.
Typically, three to four hectares in area, these small garden farms also provide the food the farmers eat. Therefore, farmers intercrop their coffee with enset (false banana), the main subsistence crop in the area, as well as other food crops like yam and maize. Coffee is the main source of income for most of these farmers.
Sidama farmers are of the Sidama people group and have a culture that stretches back centuries. They speak the Sidama language and follow a calendar that is based on the movement of the stars. Therefore, the colorful Sidama new year festival – Fichchee – does not have a fixed date every year.
As opposed to the high-altitude farms, Bombe coffee is processed lower down at the Ayla Bensa washing station. The washing station maintains a buying station, so farmers do not need to travel far to sell their cherries to the Ayla Bensa team.
Once at the Ayla Bensa washing station, Bombe coffee is processed as a separate lot, kept apart from other coffees to preserve its unique flavor. The washing process starts with removing the pulp, a couple of days of fermentation in water, followed by a manual rinse, and finishes with the coffee beans drying on raised beds until the moisture content reaches desired levels.
In addition to processing fantastic Sidamo coffee, the Ayla Bensa team is working on a small farm in the Bensa region too. The coffee from this farm is destined for dry processing on site. Unlike washed coffee, here, the coffee is dried whole, intact in the cherry. Then, the dried pulp is removed to reveal the bean inside.
This process can be carried out anywhere as there is no need for copious quantities of water, and you will often find farmers drying small quantities for their own use in their own fields. Natural dried coffee tends to be fruitier in flavor.
The Bensa region holds exciting potential. However, a shortage of rainfall affected the harvest this past year (2021-22). While there is nothing the Ayla Bensa team can do about rainfall, they plan to reduce their own water usage by installing new Penagos machines at the washing station. Besides lower water consumption, these machines produce a higher quality bean, meaning Ayla Bensa’s washed coffee can attain an even higher level of excellence.
And for the region as a whole? The variety of flavors in Sidama has us to source and buy from washing stations around the region. In addition to washed and natural dried coffee, the team is also expanding its production of fermented lots from the Sidama region. Even more flavors from Sidama to savor.
There’s a lot of potential for growth in Sidama coffee export (despite the challenges faced this year due to a shortage of rainfall). While Ayla Bensa has traditionally offered washed and natural coffees, the station has seen positive results from small lots of fermented coffee from the Sidama region. The coffee in Sidamo is high-end specialty coffee. When it is fermented, it may even unlock new flavors and develop potential. While Ayla Bensa hasn’t produced any fermented lots yet, it should hopefully be adding them to its roster soon.