The Key to Quality Control in Ethiopia: Meet Lab Manager Sisay

How our lab manager Sisay changed the game for impeccable quality control for Ethiopian specialty coffee

Courtney Smith
April 11, 2023

One of the primary aspects that makes specialty coffee special is quality. There are a multitude of different factors that contribute to quality in specialty coffee—it's not just about the cherry, but also the processing methods, partnerships, communication, sampling, transportation, and more. From the moment the coffee cherry is picked, to roasting and brewing, every step of the process can impact the final product.

With so many touchpoints and various partners and stakeholders throughout the specialty coffee supply chain, it can be increasingly difficult (yet essential) to maintain high standards of quality at every stage. By paying attention to each of these aspects (in great detail) throughout every stage of the supply chain where we have an impact, we can ensure that the coffee we produce is of the highest quality possible. This is why we are dedicated to having (and increasing our) presence at origin, with local offices, labs, and teams who are there day in, day out to implement strict quality control measures and ensure that our partners are meeting our high standards. Thanks to this attention to detail, we are able to consistently produce some of—if we do say so—the best Ethiopian specialty coffees available.

Our team and our partners in Ethiopia have learned that when it comes to Ethiopian specialty coffees (and every aspect that goes into them), next-level quality control has become synonymous with one name: Sisay "Boss Lady" Amanuel.

Sisay (aka “Sis”) has been—at the risk of understating—a game changer for quality control when it comes to our Ethiopian specialty coffees. With almost a decade of experience in the industry and a no-nonsense drive for excellence, she has established herself as an expert who knows exactly what she’s looking for (and settles for nothing less).

I sat down with Sisay and Ethiopia Country Manager Adham to gain insight into Sisay's day-to-day work, how she maintains such high standards of quality (it’s no small feat), and her vision for Tropiq Ethiopia in the years to come. So buckle up, and prepare to be fully impressed.

A little background

Sisay has a background in accounting (hello, attention to detail), but was unable to find a job in that field due to a simple lack of available accounting positions. Instead, she started working in the lab of a coffee exporter (and hasn't looked back since).

After working in export for a bit, she moved on to work for an importer that sourced coffees graded at 90+ points. From there, she transitioned to sourcing single-farm coffees for a green coffee buyer. She acted as the go-to person between 32 single-farm coffee producers and two coffee buyers, overseeing logistics, documents, quality control standards, and more. She played a critical role in the supply chain, and even received an award from one of the buyers for whom she worked.

Single-farm coffee producers started relying on Sisay because of her extensive knowledge of the various parts of the supply chain, necessary documentation, and shipping information that they were less familiar with. When Tropiq Ethiopia opened, it was a natural transition, as she was well on her way to establishing herself as a local legend when it comes to high-quality Ethiopian specialty coffees.

A look at Sisay's day-to-day

Sisay arrives to our Addis Ababa office and lab bright and early—if there are sample arrivals, she gets those ready and if there are coffees that need to be cupped, she roasts and prepares those for the following day. Anything that needs to be shipped is checked and verified to ensure it arrives to DHL in time for shipment.

After preparing the necessary samples in our lab, she checks in with our suppliers to see if they have coffees at their warehouse—if they do, she goes and retrieves those samples. A key part to her job is building a trusted and professional relationship with our suppliers, to ensure that when the coffee arrives for distribution, it’s the same coffee we contracted, cupped, and sampled. She draws samples from various points (top bags, side bags, etc.)  in order to make sure they’re representative of stock lot samples. It’s often that suppliers might put bags in front of you, and if you’re not as diligent, you just take samples from those few bags. But Sis will draw multiple samples from multiple bags and then mark it (what area of the bag she takes the sample from) when retrieving the majority of the coffees that she cups. This ensures coffee that is cupped is the same coffee that’s being processed

Most supplier warehouses are quite far, so this usually becomes a day-long operation. She could ask our suppliers to send samples, but to ensure our standards are met, she prefers to check everything in person. Even when she goes to take stock lot samples, she marks it (what area of the bags she takes the sample from). Mistakes usually aren’t deliberate, but suppliers handle a lot of coffees and like in anything, mistakes can be made. Sis tried to maintain a strong presence, with a set of high standards suppliers now know to prepare for, to help mitigate any mistakes and ensure quality control is properly maintained.

Once she gets the samples to the office, she picks through to make sure the coffees meet our standards of quality (physical analysis), then roasts and cups the coffees (sensory analysis). She handles the data entry for everything coming into our lab (coffee info, moisture, density, water, acidity, etc.).

Biggest quality control challenges

It may seem menial, but one of the key parts of quality control—and the biggest challenge—is making sure the container we’re loading meets our standards. The biggest mistake we can't afford to make is having chemical remnants in a container affecting the entire shipment of coffee. The recent container shortage also meant people were sometimes using (or trying to use) containers they should't have been using. Sisay is extra-diligent in making sure containers are clean, and takes a better-safe-than-sorry approach by being present and ensuring they are cleaned at least once or twice before being loaded. Drivers, knowing they are workinng with Sisay, will make sure they get a clean container so they don't have to drive back and change it out.

A domino effect

It's only natural to assume that Sisay's standards for quality control have created a domino effect with partners and people with him she closely works. Perhaps not seen in every instance, but our Ethiopa team has noticed that the standards of suppliers have gone up. They now know what she wants and what to expect—if we want a pre-shipment sample (PSS), she won’t go to the warehouse without the coffee bagged up, tagged up, and ready to go. Sisay makes sure the coffee is fully processed and finished before drawing samples, and suppliers now know this is the name of the game. As soon as they finish (before sealing up the coffees), they know to get a real, representative PSS sample ready to go.

The future of Tropiq Ethiopia

In addition to continuing to source amazing Ethiopian coffees and develop promising projects and unique coffee profiles, Sisay would love for Tropiq Ethiopia to establish a stronger presence and involvement throughout more aspects of the supply chain. This can be accomplished by renting or owning our own washing station where we can process our own microlots (special lots of coffee selected for their high quality and unique flavor profiles, which can be achieved through  special processes like anaerobic, honey, maceration, etc.). By having full control of the entire process from production to final destination, we can ensure our standards are met and remain high. If we have more control at the station level by preparing our own lots, we can add a lot of value by experimenting and really showcasing the potential of these unique coffees.

Favorite coffees

I couldn't end our chat without, of course, asking about personal coffee preference. Sisay likes to drink washed, clean, and classic Ethiopian coffees. Every year, there’s a new coffee with a unique profile that surprises her—this year, Halo (washed) is the best she’s cupped thus far. Despite personal preferences, Sisay (alongside our specialty green coffee buyers) continuously calibrates her cupping skills to ensure she is able to also cater to the tastes and profile preferences of our customers.
With her drive to perpetually up the game, we just hope we can keep up.

Courtney has 10+ years of experience in creating, building, and scaling strategies, brands, and content.