The Discovery of Yirgacheffe Coffee

Upon his return to Ethiopia, in 1960, with an MA degree in Economics, from Berkely University, California, Hailu Gebre Hiwot the founder of Haicof Plc. joined A. Besse, the largest private company that was the pioneer of washed coffee production in Ethiopia. He took a through training from a German coffee expert in the production of washed coffee and was assigned to the Sidamo Province, a major high quality coffee growing region, 350 km south of Addis Ababa. A. Besse had established 8 washing stations dotted along the main road for some 150 kms south to Yirgacheffee. There was only one other washing station in Yirgacheffe owned by a French firm called Cafex. These 9 stations were established in the 2nd half of the 1950s. Hailu’s job was to supervise and control washed coffee production in the Province.

The quality control was rigorous, only fresh red ripe cherries were pulped, fermented and dried meticulously. The coffee thus produced was bulked according to size and color of beans. Buyers in Europe found the Sidamo coffee quality attractive with balanced acidity and body.

It was at this juncture that history was made. The coffee that was produced in the 8th washing station proved to be conspicuously different from coffees that came from the other 7 stations in the Province. It was like “EUREKA moment” for Hailu who was meticulously documenting production. A distinguished type of coffee was “born”, with greyish/bluish and greenish/bluish color, and bigger and more uniform sized beans that looked unusual and beautiful. Hailu therefore made what later proved to be a history making decision, not to bulk the coffee with the others. The excitement prompted him to look around this washing station to discern what possible factors accounted for the unique visual characteristics of the coffee. The coffee cherries came from the lush heavily shaded coffee farms on the slopes of the leeward side of the range of mountains called Koke that runs north – south to the east of the station. The river called Melkalole cascades east-west to meet with another river flowing from the south called Konga. At an altitude of 1700 to 1800 meters nature must have endowed Yirgacheffee more than any other place in the coffee growing regions of the country, the optimum quality soil, climate, and rainfall to make the coffee so attractive.

Hailu hastened to express his findings to Addis Ababa and samples were sent separately from Melkalole, the 8th station named after the stream, and the samples of the seven other stations designated Sidamo coffee, to England and Germany for cup testing. At the time Ethiopia did not have cupping facilities or trained cuppers.

The verdict: To Hailu’s great elation both buyers gave identical comments. “keep Melkalole coffee separate, produce as much of it as you can. We’ll pay premium price for it.” The green gold mine was thus discovered. The rest is history. Once the superior quality and premium price of Melkalole coffee was established, the Government in the subsequent years, made more extensive study to create Yirgacheffee brand and eventually designated some 19,000 hectares of coffee growing areas in and around the small town of Yirgacheffee as the home of Yirgacheffee coffee. The washing station of Melkalole, closed down since, was located at the south eastern corner of Yirgacheffee town. Initially the total annual production was obviously small at below one thousand tons. Now the quantity produced is vacillating around 3,000 tons annually and is fetching up to 30 cents/lb over the normal washed Sidamo. This amounts to some 20 million dollars annually in foreign exchange earnings to the country. Dedicating his life to the growth of Ethiopian coffee Hailu Gebre Hiwot is affactionaly called “Aba Bunna” or “Father of Yirgacheffe Coffee”.

It is a well-established fact that high quality of coffee is determined by two main factors: the innate genetic quality and the environment. Nature has generously endowed Ethiopia with both factors making it the exclusive source of Arabica coffee. The name Arabica is a misnomer. The coffee should have been called Abysinica or Ethiopica to reflect the actual origin.

To underscore this fact, Dr Peter Baker writes: “One thing is certain though, Ethiopia is the ultimate source of the vast majority of quality coffee genes and the distinctive quality of many Ethiopian coffees affirms that there could well be many new varietals there of great potential.” No other country can boast the varied cup profile of Ethiopian coffees, from the fillers to the exotic. This vast plate of variety will be the perfect module for branding/promoting. Roasters/Consumers that opt for balanced body & acidity will go for the washed Sidamo, you want fruity coffee we have natural Lekempti/Gimbi coffee, you fancy mocha flavor we have Harar which is all dry processed, you prefer winy and spicy cupping flavor get washed Limu, how about intense flora, fine acidity and rich body, surely you have washed Yirgacheffee, etc. etc. That’s why knowledgeable observers refer to Ethiopian coffee as a marketer’s dream.

Special Certificate of Recognition given to Hailu Gebre Hiwot for his discovery of Yirgacheffe Coffee by Dilla University