Ninety Plus is known for impressing baristas around the world with “Gesha”, the world’s best coffee beans. What are the secrets of their coffee production, and what is the best way to enjoy their unique coffee? [First Part]
Ethiopia has a very strong coffee culture, but the coffee they export is very cheap, basically a commodity, so their industrial processes are tooled for high-volume production and export, which has led to people engaged in coffee production suffering from low wages and unpleasant working conditions. My vision was to specialize in a way that had not been done before, to create the finest coffees in the world using small-scale, highly-specialized processes, and I hoped that would change the existing marketing model of the coffee industry.
It has become customary for a single coffee mill to use coffee from thousands of farmers that produce many different varieties of bean, and pay those producers a standard market price. I wanted to take a new approach. I paid above market price for very specialized local farmers to bring me a single variety of coffee bean. I carefully select only the best beans and extract maximum value from them. That was the origin of Ninety Plus.
The Ethiopian coffee workers are very friendly and work very hard. However, I experienced a lot of logistical challenges. Ethiopia has farms that are very far away from each other, so moving between those places by car took a lot of time. It was also very difficult for me as a foreigner to get a permit to take coffee out of the country. I was very stressed because I was making beautiful coffees but couldn't export them to market.
But I spent many years trying to solve those logistical problems. For the first six years in business, I spent a majority of my time in Ethiopia and worked on delivering beans, filing paperwork for export permits, and checking in on the progress of the production and logistics processes. In the end, I did the final tasting and qualification of the coffees by myself. After that I traveled the world with samples and offered tasting experiences of Ninety Plus coffees. Specialty coffee was very new for the market and I was very lucky that people really loved the coffee. I offered a few varieties of single-source coffees from different areas in Ethiopia so they could taste the difference. Those tasting experiences helped excite people’s interest in our coffee.
Ninety Plus uses only beans that were carefully selected from specialized farms, and make their specialty coffees using natural processes controlled to the finest degree. They have been successful at promoting their coffee and Ninety Plus is now known around the world.
Definitely. After I brought our coffees to Nordic countries for the first time, Norway, Denmark and Sweden decided to use our coffees in their Barista Competitions. People were surprised to know that our coffee, which is single origin, had a very fruity taste, and was produced using only natural farming methods, and the decision was made to use it in competitions. Our coffee was also very controversial because we created new unique flavors by applying our original fermentation processes. This got everyone interested and talking about our coffee after each competition was finished.
Since then, little by little, coffee lovers have started to talk about Ninety Plus, and have written about me in countries that I’ve never been to. In the early days, I couldn’t travel much because I was too busy worrying about logistics and finances. But I am now finally starting to visit the countries where Ninety Plus has gained new popularity. Social media was not so big when I started the company, so it wasn’t until I actually visited these new countries that I knew how much they loved our coffee.
What I want to specialize in is not only making coffee farming better, but making the coffee industry as a whole “a little bit better”. It’s not just the processing or selectivity, but also the hospitality, design, and experience of the coffee estate where people can see and taste the process of coffee making.
Consideration for the ecology of coffee making is also very important for me. We have farms in forests and our coffee trees coexist with other trees. Bigger trees play an important role as a sun umbrella for our shade loving coffee trees. In many places tropical forests are being lost in order to make big coffee plantations, but I want to contribute to reforestation by growing coffee trees in a natural way.
It is quite natural that producers try to make better tasting coffee, but I want to go beyond that by spreading our farming methods and values so that everybody involved can be happy; the workers, the visitors and the trees as well. This vision is a part of our core identity.
The first thing that differentiates us from others is that I've invested many years in the production of specialty coffee and currently own three big farms. The farm in Panama has 1000 hectares where specialized Ethiopian heirloom coffee trees are maturing and growing in a forest environment. I don’t think anyone in the world has as many trees grown naturally as I do at this stage. It takes many years to create this level of coffee farming.
Our second strength would be the processing of the beans, especially the fermentation process. During these 15 years since I started Ninety Plus, I've continued working on various fermentation formulas. This accumulated knowledge and the skills we’ve honed have enabled us to create different tastes from a single kind of coffee bean. This has added higher value to our products and caught the attention of many people.
Our high-quality coffee cherries have a very special flavor even before we make coffee from them. We take the raw beans and infuse them with special flavors through fermentation. The variations in flavor expand depending upon the fermentation formula. It’s the same as wine-making. You start with the same grape, but you can make it taste different depending on whether you use only the juice or include the skin, or adjust the amount of oxygen and water, temperature and so on. There are many variables in coffee fermentation as well, and we've worked on it for so many years that we can now reliably create a wide variety of different tastes. We are still continuing to discover new flavors through constant experimentation. There will be more and more new products being created and introduced to the market.
To sum up the story so far, Ninety Plus grows coffee in very special locations, puts extraordinary effort into establishing a production system that is happy for everyone involved, and creates a variety of tastes with their original fermentation formulas. Their farms are forests, with waterfalls, trails and many wild animals. You are welcome to visit their wonderful farms that are rich with nature, and you can enjoy tasting the best coffee flavors extracted through different fermentation styles.
◆In the second part of the interview, we will ask Joseph about the new brew sets that Ninety Plus created in a collaboration with ORIGAMI, and his overall vision.
Ninety Plus /
A new flavor cup from ORIGAMI that changes the taste depending on the cup shape. Developing a new way of enjoying coffee like wine.