Ethiopian coffee tree varieties: JARC Vs. Heirloom

Coffee from Ethiopia

Ethiopian coffee isparticularly special to the coffee world. The long history of coffee in Ethiopia dates back to before written records and there is no place in the world where coffee is grown like it is here.

In fact, Ethiopia is the birthplace of the most important type of coffee, Arabica, and likewise many of the Arabica varieties grown around the world today have their genetic roots in coffee growing in the forests of Ethiopia.

The tradition of Ethiopian coffee goes back to the present day. Drinking coffee is a popular activity in a social and cultural context for many people, and it is Ethiopian coffee that, not only because of its variety of flavours, isconsidered one of the best coffees in the world.

It is therefore not surprising that coffee is the main income of up to 25% of the country's population, more than 15 million people grow coffee as their main crop and we find up to one fifth of the world's total coffee farms.

It is not only the population that is dependent on coffee, but also the Ethiopian government, for which coffee contributes between 25% and 35% of total annual export earnings.

Coffee processing in the famous Sidama coffee region, where the Mirado processing station is located. Image source: Mercanta

Heirloom coffee from Ethiopia

The term heirloom was formerly used as a generic name for Arabica coffee plants, the variety of which may not be easy to identify.

The term is particularly widely used in reference toEthiopian coffees, of which there are thousands of varieties. If these coffees cannot be easily categorised with coffees grown in other growing regions, they are often grouped under the term heirloom.

However, this association is not entirely correct, for the reason that there is no recognition of other different varieties and Ethiopian coffee growers are thus deprived of transparency and the possibility of higher earnings.

The mislabeling of coffee varietiesas heirloom leads to various problems, among which is that roasters are unable to distinguish between Ethiopian varieties and consumers are thus deprived of new tastes because it is not clear which variety is currently on offer.

What the Heirloom label means

Heirloom or in English translation heirloom coffee is a way of referring toold varieties of coffee. To be classified as heirloom a varietymust be over 100 years old. Some sources claim that a variety that is older than 50 years is also referred to as heirloom coffee.

Coffees from regions such as Latin America, Asia and even Africa are classified as heirloom. One of the most debated heirloom coffees is those from Ethiopia.

Getu Bekele, supply chain manager for East African coffee at US roaster Counter Culture, says that in Ethiopia, the term heirloom emerged alongside the movement for choice coffee. Selective coffee buyers, not knowing what varieties of Typica and Bourbon they were buying, referred to everything as heirloom.

The criteria that determine if a coffee is heirloom

The term heirloom plant is used not only for coffee but also for other crops such as tomato and pepper. It means a plant that has been cultivated in a particular geographical area for several generations in the same geographical area by the same farming family or group.

For coffee varieties,there is no specific date or age limit to determine when a variety becomes a 'heritage variety'. Rather, it must meet the criterion that it is a plant specific to a region or community that has been cultivated for generations.

Ethiopian varieties

Heirloom therefore includes all coffees from Ethiopia. Ethiopian coffee varieties can be further broadly divided into two types: JARC varieties and other wild coffee plants.

JARC varieties

JARC varieties are varieties that were bred by the Jimma Agricultural Research Centre (JARC), one of Ethiopia's federal agricultural research centres.

A total of 40 varieties of coffee trees have been developed to increase pest resistance and higher yields.

Other coffee trees

This group includes coffee trees that grow wild in Ethiopian forests, and it is reported that there may be more than 10,000 species.

So when you decide to make a coffee from Ethiopia and see a variety labelled as heirloom on the packaging, you already know that this label is inaccurate and that the beans may come from some combination of more than 10,000 varieties.