I recently met Joseph Brodsky of Ninety Plus Coffees and spoke to him about the work he does in Ethiopia. It’s hard not to have heard of Ninety Plus Coffee. Most of us remember 2008, pre Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, when there were blindingly amazing coffees coming out of Ethiopia, Ninety Plus were in the middle of an awful lot of that, and the ECX almost killed them. The situation is once again improving, it has not yet recovered to the level of that year, but it’s heading in the right direction.
The world has of course change a lot since 2008. This explains a lot of the criticism Ninety Plus tends to receive (at least from my perspective). Price has gone up, while quality has struggled to match that of years gone by.
One of the more interesting efforts they are working on are trying to move towards more single varietal coffees, a hard task in Ethiopia, where much coffee grows wild and varieties differ every couple of hundred yards.
Ultimately this is for me, one of the most promising parts of the future of coffee. Take processing out of the equation (most of N+ coffees are dry processed and much of their work focuses on processing). Instead consider only varietal derived flavour. Nearly all the coffees we taste are relatively close at a genetic level (and often at a taste level) to each other.
Consider this Principle Components Analysis of 133 genetically distinct cultivars of C. arabica (Alemayehu et al., 2010). This plot, can at the simplest level be interpreted as an indication of variability or of similarity, here measured at the genetic level at 33 locations within the genome. Genetically the cultivated group (which contains such favourites as Bourbon, Typica, Catuai, Catimor among others) cluster very tightly, indicating a very limited genetic diversity. The Ethiopian specimens (and these are specimens taken from germplasm collections not from the wild per se) on the other hand display relatively large variability.
That this group is made up of just 78 Ethiopian varieties should also raise an eyebrow (itself being an almost insignificant number compared to that in the wild). Surendra Kotecha, writing in 2008 on behalf of the Coffee Improvement Programme phase IV wrote that Ethiopia contains 99.8% of the genetic diversity of C. arabica. Look at it another way, 0.2% of genetic diversity in C. arabica is found outside of Ethiopia. This is the tiny corner in which we exist.
The bad news is that deforestation in Ethiopia has eroded this genetic pool significantly. Thousands of varieties, probably never tasted in isolation bar by a few indigenous people, are now lost forever. The rate of deforestation in Ethiopia has been estimated to be around 2.5-3% per annum (Reusing 1998), and conservation of this genetic pool is probably destined to relative failure.
Conservation is costly. Forests are useful resources to expend in other ways, especially with a shorter term view. The Jimma Agricultural Research Centre has a germplasm collection containing about 5500 unique accessions of C. arabica (Bayetta, Labouse, 2006). This is still a tiny, tiny fraction of what grows wild in the forests. The rate of genetic erosion has the upper hand over efforts to perform ex situ conservation.
The ECX, though it kind of rained on our collective parade a little, in the scheme of what we now discuss, is a trifle. Hundreds of varieties more spectacular than Geisha may have already disappeared. It is a somewhat bleak assessment. However, I cannot see how shifting the focus more towards single varieties in Ethiopia can but help. The sooner the value of this genetic resource is given a per annum monetary amount, perhaps the balance may shift from erosion to conservation, ensuring future delights, and maybe some more diversity in our little corner.