Understanding The Myth of Heirloom Variety Coffee

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When we speak of Ethiopian coffees, we use descriptors such as “rosehips” and “magnolia”. But if you’re curious to know what specific variety produces these flowery notes, you’re often stuck with just one word: heirloom

In the early days of third wave coffee, heirloom was used as a catch-all name to describe coffees from Ethiopia. But it’s not a very useful term. Because there is no recognition of the different varieties, Ethiopian producers are being deprived of transparency and the opportunity to earn a higher income. Roasters aren’t able to differentiate between Ethiopian coffees, and consumers are denied the chance to savour new, exciting flavours because it’s not clear which variety is on offer.

But changing the terminology is easier said than done. Let’s take a closer look at what heirloom means and the difficulties in achieving more transparency about Ethiopian varieties.

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A coffee berry disease-susceptible landrace in Ethiopia. Credit: Getu Bekele

What Heirloom Actually Means

The word heirloom describes an old cultivar of a plant grown for food. Some say that a cultivar must be over 100 years old to be classed as heirloom, others 50 years. And then there are those who classify heirloom plants as from before 1945, which was roughly when hybrids were introduced, or 1951, when hybrids became more widely available.

In the coffee world, you’ll find the term heirloom applied to varieties introduced to Latin America and Asia over a hundred years ago, and also to many coffees from Africa, particularly those from Ethiopia.

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Wild coffee in Ethiopia. Credit: Getu Bekele

Getu Bekele is East African Supply Chain Manager at US roastery Counter Culture. He also contributed to a reference guide to Ethiopian coffee varieties. He says that, in Ethiopia, the term heirloom came with the specialty movement. Specialty coffee buyers who didn’t know what varieties of Typica and Bourbon they were buying classified everything as heirloom.

But he tells me that Ethiopian coffee producers do have individual names for different coffee trees. They will most likely not use the variety’s globally accepted scientific name but will use a local word. A community might borrow the name from an indigenous tree that shares physical characteristics with the coffee plant.

Medina Hussein is Export Manager at DW Coffee Export, an Ethiopian coffee supplier. She tells me that specialty buyers differentiate coffees from Ethiopia by region, altitude, and cupping score, but not by variety.

Producers tend to JARC-improved coffee varieties. Credit: Getu Bekele

Broadly, you can classify Ethiopian coffee varieties into two types: JARC varieties and regional landraces.

JARC varieties are those that were developed by the Jimma Agricultural Research Centre (JARC), one of Ethiopia’s agricultural federal research centres, for increased resistance to pests and higher yields. There are around 40 such varieties.  Regional landraces are coffees that grow wild in Ethiopian forests. Getu tells me that there may be over 10,000 of these.

This means that when a consumer picks up a bag of Ethiopian coffee and sees the variety described as heirloom, the beans come from some combination of the more than 10,000 varieties.

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A JARC research plot in Melko. Credit: Getu Bekele

The Advantages of Using Specific Variety Names

What if buyers stop asking for heirloom and instead asked for specific varieties? There is an argument that this would encourage efforts within Ethiopia to use a common language for coffee, and that it would help us better understand what varieties exist in the first place.

Getu says, “If you look at the Ethiopian coffee varieties map published by Counter Culture, Kiburi, Sinde, Bedessa, Yawan… all these different landraces from the western, south-western region of Ethiopia, they’ve got different characteristics. They taste different.

“If you tell the farmer ‘just produce the western and south-western landraces, he’s going to mix up all these different varieties together and will produce mixed flavours”.

So, identifying varieties and selling them separately could mean that buyers would have a more accurate idea of what profile to expect from each lot.

Getu asked coffee producers in the Guju region to begin separating lots. He says, “…at the end of the day, we found Kurume [a regional landrace] is an amazing variety that will change the whole quality profile of the area”.

He hopes that identifying the variety by name and marketing it specifically will help smallholder producers earn higher premiums on their coffees.

Using variety names could also help producers in other ways. Planting a large farm with coffee you know only as heirloom could mean that you make a significant investment in plants that are not resistant to disease. By using variety names, producers can be more informed of the risks of the crop they select.

Jabanto coffee farmers in Gedeo. Credit: Getu Bekele

Problems With Abandoning The Term

The term heirloom may seem much too general to be meaningful. But its use does have some advantages.

For one, naming each variety has its own problems. It’s uncommon to find the same variety in different regions. Getu explains that “if you plant a variety in Haararge, and if you plant that exact same variety in Yirgacheffe… you don’t find the same adaptation potential and you don’t find exactly the same quality profile.”

What this means is that each region cultivates varieties with different characteristics, so calling varieties by the same name can be confusing.

A coffee buyer who has taken the time to acquaint themselves with all the varieties in the Guji region may discover that this information isn’t useful when looking at the completely different varieties in Haararge. This makes it very challenging for single buyers to know the full spectrum of coffee varieties in Ethiopia.

Jabanto coffee farmers gather to discuss coffee stumping. Credit: Getu Bekele

Another challenge is that producers are used to mixing varieties at harvest and selling the result simply as heirloom. So if a buyer wants just regional landrace coffees, they might struggle to get it.

Medina Hussein says that, if a buyer asked her to obtain regional landrace coffees exclusively, “I could only give 50 bags, or 100 bags, nothing more than that”. She says that she would also need prospective buyers to ask her for such an order with plenty of notice before harvest to ensure she could fulfil their needs.

This relates to the fact that many of Ethiopia’s farmers are smallholders who treat coffee as a cash crop. They select varieties based on whether they’re disease-resistant and high yield. Flavour has less priority.

A producer with Gedeo and Guji regional landraces at Tsegaye Tekebo’s farm. Credit: Getu Bekele

Heleanna Georgalis is the owner of MOPLACO, a green bean coffee exporter. She tells me that if a roaster wants to work with a farmer to test a specific variety of coffee, they’re going to struggle. “A farmer with 0.01 hectares of land will really not sell you ten kilos of coffee, and you are not going to buy it for $200 per kilo just because you want him to plant a variety called Bedessa.”

So although grouping thousands of varieties together under one blanket term may seem illogical, in the context of Ethiopian infrastructure, it makes some sense.

Coffee cherries on the branch in Ethiopia. Credit: Kyle Petrie

Jimma Agricultural Research Centre has ongoing efforts to genetically document different coffee varieties and some buyers are collaborating to develop a common language for these varieties.

But there’s a long way to go in documenting every variety and agreeing on how to refer to each one. “In Ethiopia, it will take a long time to reach [full transparency about varieties],” Heleanna tells me.

Getu Bekele sees a bright future for Ethiopian coffees. “10 years from now, we’re expecting high-quality, amazing, great coffees from different parts of the country.”

If consumers request more details about the Ethiopian coffee on offer in a café, roasters may start to ask buyers which varieties are in heirloom blends. Transparency could trickle down the supply chain and benefit all parties involved.

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