Almost overnight Ethiopia’s Guji Zone went from obscurity to prominence in the global coffee scene.
Only a few short years ago, most of the coffee produced by communities in Guji, a densely forested and mountainous region in Southern Ethiopia, were sold under the names Yirgacheffe or Sidamo (two neighboring regions). Coffees from Sidamo and Yirgacheffe had long received recognition for their amazingly distinctive characteristics and qualities, and many roasters saw these two areas as the premier coffee-producing regions of Ethiopia, while Guji remained a relatively unexplored region with almost no identity. This lack of identity led to most of the value being created by Guji coffees never returning to the communities themselves.
Recently, changes in Ethiopia’s coffee trading sector opened the door to new possibilities for farmers in Guji to receive the recognition they long deserved, and today, the Guji Zone is considered one of the premier coffee-producing regions in Ethiopia, if not in the world. It’s no secret why people go crazy over Guji coffees. When you taste this coffee you’ll immediately recognize the depth of flavor and complexity that cannot be found anywhere else.
The King of Guji
Ture Waji is one of the leaders whose dedication and passion brought global recognition to Guji coffees. Before starting his own company, Ture worked with Moramora and Guji Highlands, two of the original coffee-producing companies who were heavily investing in communities and coffee from Guji long before the region gained any notoriety. While working for these companies, Ture developed the ability to produce some of the most densely flavorful and expressive coffees in all of Ethiopia, if not the entire world. His eye for detail and relentless pursuit of perfection garnered attention from coffee roasters around the world who wanted to partner with Ture and showcase his amazing work. His reputation gained him the nickname “King of Guji.” Though Ture would never consider himself the king of anything (he’s a super humble guy!) his personality and presence have become a visible representation of Guji coffees around the world.
Today, Ture owns his own company: Sookoo Coffee. Sookoo translates to “gold,” and we believe this is the perfect way to describe the coffees that Ture and his team produce. Utilizing the sundried natural or “in cherry” fermentation method, Ture’s coffees tend to strike the absolute perfect balance between absolutely wild and remaining supremely structured.
Traditionally, the sundried natural method of processing coffee results in a lot of strong fruity flavors without the complexity, depth, or cleanliness created by the fully-washed method of processing. Ture’s coffees break that mold and set a new standard for what sundried natural coffees can taste like. By thoroughly removing and under-ripe or damaged coffee cherries, and working closely with the farmers he sources cherries from, Ture’s coffees retain high levels of funky-fruitiness while still displaying huge amounts of depth and expressiveness.
In 2018 Utopian traveled to Ethiopia to meet with Ture Waji and several other producers in order to establish a direct relationship with the people who produce such amazing coffee. During that trip, we experienced firsthand the complexity of the Ethiopian coffee supply chain. At that time Ture was actually transitioning out of working for Guji Highlands and beginning Sookoo. That year we purchased two coffees from Guji: Sewana which was a Guji Highlands coffee, and Korommi, a coffee produced entirely by Ture. Both were phenomenal, but Ture’s coffee was particularly fantastic. Last year we purchased a handful of bags from Ture’s lot Bookissa, a selection from a village in Shakisso (another area of Guji). This year marks year three, and we believe this year’s coffee is the best yet.
In Ethiopia, the vast majority of coffee producers fall into the “smallholder” category, meaning they oversee around 7-12 acres of land, farming not only coffee but a mixture of other cash and subsistence crops, as well as potentially owning livestock as well. Whereas in Latin and South American many coffee farmers oversee the entire process of coffee production, from picking ripe cherries through sorting, fermentation, and drying, smallholder farmers in Ethiopia (as well as most of East Africa) do not oversee all of these steps. Instead, most farmers will pick cherries from their coffee trees and deliver them directly to a local collection center. The collection center then usually oversees the sorting, fermentation, and drying of the coffee seeds until they’re ready for milling, a final step that translates the seeds to a roastable product.
Because of this system, coffee quality varies depending on the collection center and who is overseeing the processing. We’ve seen the best coffees come from collection centers that genuinely try and partner well with producers year after year to create sustainable structures that continue with each new harvest. We feel strongly that Ture Waji and Sookoo Coffee are doing a phenomenal job of providing security, sustainability, and structure for the families they work with each season.
Before the beginning of the 2020-21 harvest season, we called Ture to talk about the details of how difficult it is to maintain sustainability for smallholder farmers. Without going into too many details, it is sufficient to say there are many costs of production we do not often associate with cultivating coffee. Without accurately understanding the costs of production we could easily underestimate what farmers need to be paid to make a profit each year. We are working with Ture and our friend Tim Hill at Atlantic Specialty Coffee to ensure each coffee we purchase meets these requirements. In addition, we are actively speaking with Ture about finding ways to pay second-premiums back to farmers, as well as looking into ways to donate to the construction of a school in the kebele of Dambi Uddo, one of the communities we’ve sourced from before.
We are still navigating the nuances of sourcing well in Ethiopia, a country filled with so many talented coffee producers. We thoroughly believe in the work Ture is doing with farmers in Uraga and Odo Shakiso, and we look forward to partnering with him on more harvests to come.
Raro Nensebo – The Crown Jewel
This particular coffee comes from 23 farmers associated with the Raro Nensebo village, located in the Uraga woreda (district) of the Guji Zone.
Recently Uraga has become one of the most interesting areas producing coffee today. Uraga is a densely forested area with few paved roads. Elevations in Uraga are some of the highest in the county, with the coffee from this specific community being grown at between 2000 and 2350 meters above sea level. As you can imagine travel through Uraga is difficult, and reaching which means most of the coffee from this area is still sold to local buyers who pay low prices and blend the coffees to create indistinguishable lots. Luckily, Ture’s reputation allowed him to befriend many of the individual farmers in these remote communities, and in return, he’s helping these farmers access the premium prices paid for top-quality coffee.
Most of the farmers in Uraga oversee between 7-12 acres of land and cultivate the specific variety of tree 74110 (selection 110 from the 1974 tests) which is a newer variety that was selected from the original wild ancient coffee trees growing in the Illubabor forest. This specific coffee variety is ripe with fruit flavor and floral aromatics while also retaining a particular “rustic sugar” characteristic that makes coffees from Uraga so special.
The diversity and intricacy of Ethiopian coffee are largely due to its status as the ancestral-genetic homeland of coffee as we know it today. Coffee has grown wild in Ethiopia for thousands of years, with the earliest cultivation and consumption only dating back to the mid 15th century. Because of this ancient heritage, many of the trees found in Ethiopia are considered to be offspring of the old “wild” tree varieties, which we believe contribute significantly to the supremely unique flavors found in Ethiopian coffee.
Raro Nensebo is a near-perfect example of the ancient and rustic flavor profile that’s typical of Ethiopian coffee. On the nose, you’ll notice fragrant aromas of wildflowers, jasmine tea, and tropical fruits. In the cup, you can expect a full spectrum of lush and expressive flavors. When hot, expect intense and direct fruit flavors of mango, peach, and tropical melon. As it cools you’ll experience tones of blue and red berries, along with rich chocolate. This coffee can’t be described as anything less than an outstanding example of the unmistakable and distinctive personality of Ethiopian coffee.