Ethiopian Bale Mountain Farm - one coffee, two processing methods

By Catherine Franks

This week we are launching a twin pack of coffee that is a first for us here at Steampunk and I thought it would be nice to share with you how this came about and why we are doing it.

Ludwika and I were very fortunate to travel to Ethiopia in January 2019. It was an incredible experience and one that we returned vowing to repeat as soon as we could. Little did we realise that the following year the world would change so dramatically due to Covid and the political situation in Ethiopia would take such a tragic downturn. 

enjoying coffee culture in Addis Ababa

While we were in Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, we were able to visit coffee growers and washing and processing stations in the Oromia region. We made lasting friendships with importers and other coffee professionals across the globe. We were profoundly touched by the warmth of welcome we received and the generosity with which knowledge of coffee growing, processing and Ethiopian coffee culture which was shared with us on that trip.  

It was on a cupping table at the Adola washing station (pictured above), where we camped for a few days, that we first tasted Bale Mountain. When we returned to Scotland we made sure to order pre-shipment samples from that farm as soon as we could. We ended up roasting naturally processed coffee from that Bale Mountain farm in 2019 and again the following season in 2020. As we cupped samples from the harvest of 2021 (the harvest period is December - January), we loved the traditional fruity and aromatic natural that we also know is so popular among our customers but we also really loved the sample of washed and wanted Bale fans to experience its clean complexity. By trying the same coffee, grown in the same place with the same growing conditions that has merely been changed through the method by which it was processed teaches us a lot about the impact processing can have on the taste of the coffee we enjoy. 

You can read more of the details about this coffee, the vertically integrated supply chain through which we sourced it and more about the farm itself in the product description for the coffee you can see at the bottom of this post. We also recorded a podcast with Bruna Costa of Kamba Coffee in which we discuss the sourcing of this coffee and quite a bit more about our trip to Ethiopia. You can listen to this episode by clicking HERE. We met Bruna on that trip to Ethiopia and have worked with her since to source many incredible Ethiopian and Brazilian coffees that we have roasted for you.

Processing

Before travelling to Ethiopia, I had worked in coffee for quite a few years and of course was familiar with coffee processing methods. I had read a lot and also watched quite a few YouTube videos where I had seen processing in action in different parts of the world. Back in 2014 I had also visited a small coffee farm in Tanzania where I had seen coffee growing, being processed and even roasted there. But it was only when I was on this trip in Ethiopia that I truly understood the labour intensive nature of the processing and really appreciated how every step in the process has such a potential impact on the finished product. 

Although we did not visit Bale Mountain farm itself due to its very remote location, the washing stations at Adola and Anasora are close by and the images shared here are from these two places and show how the Bale coffees will have been processed. 

There is a ton of information available online about processing coffee and I will not try to replicate it here but check out this great video from Sweet Maria's Coffee on Ethiopian Coffee Processing for a really good, concise overview. Basically a natural coffee will have been dried in its surrounding fruit (the coffee cherry) whereas a washed one will have had the fruit removed and undergone some sort of fermentation and wet processing (washing) prior to being dried. Both types of coffee have their final processing take place at a dry mill in Addis Ababa prior to export.

Natural Method

Natural processing is the traditional method used in Ethiopia as it does not have the high demand for plentiful fresh clean water for the processing. It should be noted that in addition to not using lots of water it also results in less potential for pollution of water supplies with runoff from coffee processing. 

Pictured above is a special small lot being processed in the natural method at Anasora. The coffee is moved frequently to encourage even drying and prevent any mould or rotting which would affect the flavour. This is a very high grade of coffee and the hope is that with careful specialised processing like this, the value of the coffee can be maximised. 

Once the coffee is fully dried it begins to resemble this:

Washed Method

When coffee goes through the washing process, it begins with the cherry going through channels of water to separate out the quality of coffees. The denser beans (therefore higher quality) sink and can be siphoned off to be processed into special lots which could potentially fetch a higher price. This was a learning point for me as I had somehow pictured a 'lot' of coffee being separated out solely from the picking stage and had not appreciated how it could be separated out further at this washing stage too. For high quality natural lots the separation by quality is done entirely by hand.

In this image above, taken at Anasora, you can clearly see the channel on the left of the picture which has siphoned off the heaviest, densest coffees from the bottom. This is after the coffee has been pulped and the fruit has been removed but prior to the washing/fermentation stage.

The picture above, again at Anasora, shows the drying beds in the background and the washing and fermentation tanks in the foreground. The men in the bottom right of the picture are using wooden rakes to agitate the coffee and wash the last of the fruit (mucilage) off of the seeds.

Once the coffee has been washed and fermented, it is spread out to dry on the raised beds. 

Once the coffee is dried, both natural processed or washed coffees, if intended for export must travel to Addis for final processing at the dry mill. We travelled in a little bus to the dry mill operated by Israel Degfai to see this final part of the processing.

(At one point in that bus journey, as we teetered at a sharp angle on a very narrow road, we thought it was our last.) 

There are lots of pictures and video of all of the parts of the processing in our Instagram story highlights. Scroll all the way to the right and hit the highlight called Ethiopia to watch. 

The proof is in the tasting

As I've tried to highlight above, the experimenting in processing as well as the careful selection of the best coffees, is done to try to maximise the value achieved for the coffee when it is sold. Obviously this benefits the drinker of the incredibly high quality of interesting lots but most importantly it ensures the best price which translated to a better income for the producers. At the washing stations we visited careful track is kept of the producers so that a premium based on quality can be paid to the growers once the coffee is sold. This gives them a second payment about halfway through the year between harvests. Otherwise harvest time (Dec-Jan) would be the only time of year they received an income from coffee production. 

As coffee drinkers here it is also important for us to know that the very best coffees produced in Ethiopia are not allowed by law to be sold domestically but must be exported. This is to bring foreign revenue into the Ethiopian economy. Ethiopia is one of the biggest coffee drinking producers (50% of their production is consumed domestically) and coffee culture is a key part of Ethiopian culture. In fact you could say that coffee culture originated in Ethiopia as that is where coffee itself originated. That the top quality coffees cannot be roasted and enjoyed in Ethiopia and instead are exported for us to enjoy certainly gave me pause for thought. I would like to hope that we truly appreciate what a privilege it is to drink them.

We hope that offering this set of Bale Mountain coffees showcasing the two processing methods will give coffee lovers the chance to see how big an impact the processing has on the taste of the coffee.

The natural Bale has a rich jammy blueberry fruit to it. The high quality processing avoids any of the fermenty funky flavours sometimes found in naturals. There is definitely no funk. But there is a rich black cherry sweetness layered over dark chocolate - like a black forest gateau - a big chunky mouth filling coffee. This would be a perfect mid afternoon coffee when you need a sweet little perfect cup.

Take the same coffee and wash it however and you end up with something altogether different. This one is clean, delicate refined. The florals are more prevalent and there is a gentle note of bergamot and a more tea like finish. The fruit (blueberry again) is fresher rather than jammy and there is a definite biscuit underlaying the fruit. It reminds us of a freshly baked vanilla cookie - sweet and fragranced but also comforting and smooth.

We hope you enjoy it!