To get a better understanding of the terroirs of the cloud forests on the Ethiopian Plateau, we interviewed coffee breeder, coffee-quality analyst, and author Getu Bekele. Getu coauthored the groundbreaking book A Reference Guide to Ethiopian Coffee Varieties.
BH: Is coffee the dominant understory plant in most forests, or is there a lot of competition for growth from other species?
Getu: The Forest coffee production system is one of the popular systems available in Ethiopia. This system is known for harbouring wild coffee trees. The level of coffee genetic diversity in this system is relatively higher than the level of genetic diversity available in other production systems (semi-forest, garden, and larger private farms). But when we are talking about the level of plant species diversity available in most forests, coffee is not the dominant understory plant. There are various understory tree species growing in most of the forests. And the availability of diverse species basically creates strong competition among different species.
BH: How densely spaced do the coffee shrubs tend to be in the forest?
Getu: The level of coffee management intervention by the local community who live near the forest highly affects coffee tree population density. Where the level of intervention is minimal, coffee trees are found growing densely. However, those parts of the forest areas that are highly accessible by the local communities are characterized by sparsely populated coffee trees.
BH: Do coffee plants prefer a particular type of forest canopy? Do plants perform better in spaces where trees have been pruned or large trees have fallen and created gaps in the canopy?
Getu: Coffee is naturally a shade-loving plant. Shade helps coffee trees to have a longer and more productive lifespan, with a consistent production pattern year after year. Thus, the nature of the forest canopy determines the inherent production potential of a given coffee variety. A lot of research has been conducted so far on coffee shade trees. A forest canopy that allows 20 percent of sunshine is supposed to be an ideal shade level for optimum and consistent production patterns. Coffee trees under such a shade level perform better than those trees under a closed canopy or on fully open farms.
BH: Does any planting occur in the forest? And if so, how do you choose the variety?
Getu: Legally, the local communities who live near the forest are not allowed to bring in and plant their own varieties (coffee or any other plants) in the forest. But in the other production systems like semiforest and garden coffee, farmers or local communities are allowed to do their own plantings.
BH: How do the plants that farmers grow as ‘garden coffee’, outside the forest, differ from the plants that grow within the forest?
Getu: Varieties that grow in gardens and forest production systems have different characters. The main difference is their morphological (physical) appearance. The coffee trees in the forest are aged. If a [forest] tree is young, it is a little bit longer, with [fewer] primary/secondary/tertiary branches. Moreover, the trees in a forest appear less productive. And the reverse is true with garden coffee trees.
BH: Does agroforestry offer coffee plants any more (or less) protection from diseases, compared with growing coffee outside the forest?
Getu: Since coffee is a shade-loving plant, naturally, the level of abiotic/biotic stress will be very severe when the coffee is planted without shade or outside the forest. The level of sunlight received determines the level of leaf-to-crop ratio. Under open farms, the level of crop is very high and that a significant level of imbalance between leaf (food source) and crop (food sink) ratio. This causes overbearing (overproduction) dieback (tree death). Thus, agroforestry is an inevitable option to [ensure] healthy coffee trees and consistent level of production year after year.
Getu: Coffee quality is a very complex trait. It is controlled by genetics (G) (genetic makeup of the coffee tree), environment (E) (altitude, soil, rainfall distribution, and other micro- and macro-climatic factors), and the interaction of both (G x E). Ethiopia is known as a centre of origin and genetic diversity. There are a wide range of coffee varieties available in the country, which is one of the reasons behind the intense floral taste. Secondly, the availability of diverse agro-ecology (environment/terrior) interacting with different varieties could create a wide range of flavour notes in Ethiopia. Most Ethiopian coffees are known for their intense floral aftertaste. In particular, coffees from Yirgacheffe, Guji, Sidama, Gera, and Anfilo are known for their floral/ fruity/spice flavours.
In this video from US roasters Counter Culture, Getu gets into the genotypes of Ethiopian landraces and improved coffee varieties