Ethiopia Diaries: Part I
Irving Farm’s Coffee Director, Dan Streetman, travelled to Ethiopia earlier this year as part of his ongoing coffee journeys. Here is the first installment of his adventures.
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, the only place on Earth where it grows wild. Coffee professionals speak with hushed excitement about traveling to this “mythical” place. Most ordinary people also get fairly excited about the prospect of traveling to Africa as well, a continent best known for its wildlife, home to elephants, giraffes and lions.
I too was swept with excitement at the prospect of traveling to Ethiopia, but at this point in my job, traveling 30-45 days out of the USA per year, I generally love being at the destination, and much less the getting there part. About a week before I left, everyone I talked to was saying “OH! that is so exciting,” and all I could think was, “It is going to be 27 hours on a plane…” However by 5am at the Amsterdam airport I was starting to feel excited, and by the time we landed in Khartoum, Sudan, our last stop before Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it had become a rush.
Two hours later we landed in Addis Ababa, and instantly my travel instincts started kicking in. Getting ready to clear customs, trying to ascertain how things were going to go etc. It turned out to be unnecessary: while looking disorganized, customs ran entirely smoothly, and I was let in without any hassle. My traveling partners and I had to wait for some other guests at the airport before catching the shuttle to the hotel, so we decided to grab a beer. There was only one choice, St. George.
We headed to an export office, early in the morning, to meet our hosts and do some cupping. I was thrilled to bump into a colleague, Bruck, from my Q-cupper certification class. I had anticipated my first cupping in Ethiopia to be completely magical—I was hoping we would find many different coffees and new distinct profiles I had never tasted before. I knew that Ethiopia had several regions with which I was fairly unfamiliar, and was excited to see what these unknown coffees would taste like. It turned out to be less than magical—only the recognized regions delivered on their reputations. Overall, that first table was like many others I have experienced in other coffee-producing countries: even the pre-selected coffees proved to be mostly mediocre, some nice ones and only a few gems. I jotted down some notes, and asked about the rest of our travel itinerary. That afternoon we were going to visit the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX), a confusing and controversial element of the coffee trade in Ethiopia.
The ECX was launched in 2008, and was met with skepticism by specialty coffee roasters in the United States, and around the world. Mostly this was because coffee in the ECX is not traceable, as it is treated as a “commodity”. The idea behind the exchange is to drive transparent price discovery for types/qualities of coffee. Whereas specialty buyers wanted to buy specific lots from specific suppliers, rather than a commoditized regional “type.” The Exchange has several grades for all of its types, the most recognized being “Yirgacheffe,” “Sidamo” and “Harrar”, which are each regions of Ethiopia. We were not allowed to bring cameras into the building, but we were given a tour by an employee and shown the trade floor. Basically a group of buyers and sellers are locked in the octagon to do battle for an allotted time and bid on coffee. Deals are made when a buyer and a seller high-five to agree on the price. Whenever a deal is struck it is posted on a board over the floor for everyone to see the agreed price and quantity. The floor seems fairly calm until the last few minutes before the bell, and people start frantically trying to buy and sell. At this point I had a fairly rosy overview of how the Exchange worked, thanks to the cheerful employees who were very happy to tout its benefits. Although I was still confused about how the real coffee actually came in and then went back out of the Exchange: that confusion would linger until the end of the trip.
The next day we set out for Keffa, a 12-hour drive from Addis Ababa which meant leaving at 6am, as we did not want to drive in the dark. My excitement of being in Ethiopia hadn’t worn off yet, even throughout the 12-hour ride, and even increased as we headed to Keffa, the forest where, the legend goes, coffee originally grew wild. This in spite of the drive being the type you see on National Geographic complete with pot-hole ridden roads, where there were paved roads at all, baboons, and an endless supply of pedestrians and donkey carts willing to play Frogger. The last stretch of the drive was about 50km of red dirt roads, which were so loose you could literally not see the front of the car our the front window due to the dust kicked up.
If wasn’t still excited about being in Ethiopia, I was at least amped by the sheer adrenaline of driving in these conditions. We arrived just before dark, which meant a 2-hour journey to the coffee forest would put us there in almost pitch dark conditions. Combined with the likelihood of seeing almost nothing, and being exhausted from all the traveling meant foregoing the lore, and just enjoying dinner in the hotel courtyard before retiring to bed early.
I got up at 5:30am hoping for a shower before our 6:30 departure, but the water still wasn’t working from the night before. After breakfast we all piled back in the car, and drove about 2 hours to a farm called “LemKeffa” which is one of few plantations in Ethiopia. Less than one percent of farms here are plantations, defined as more than 30 hectares, and only plantations are allowed to sell to exporters directly. LemKeffa is owned by Addisu, a former cab driver in New York City. Addisu and I hit it off immediately, talking about New York, his time as a cab driver, his family in the US, and, ultimately, his farm. He moved back to Ethiopia about 10 years ago to purchase the farm, and hired an Agronomist farm manager about 5 years ago. Addisu’s farm is very representative of what we saw throughout most of Ethiopia, if a little better managed. We spent a good amount of time talking specifically about how farms are managed in Ethiopia, and about how the government encourages farmers to increase production.
Currently Ethiopia produces less than half the coffee per hectare compared to Central America. It is unclear exactly why, though Ethiopian farms have little to no access to fertilizers as they are prohibitively expensive. While most farm visits are fairly straightforward—walk through the trees, look around and take some pictures—walking Addisu’s farm was charged with an unusual energy. My excitement of seeing my first farm in Ethiopia, or even Africa, was part of it, but also my realization that even though I’m pretty good at recognizing the more common varieties of coffee tree, as I looked around the farm nothing looked familiar! Even knowing about the genetic diversity of coffee in Ethiopia, it was quite another thing to actually witness it.
After lunch, one of the ladies on Addisu’s farm demonstrated the Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony for us. (The ceremony involves roasting green coffee beans on a pan over coals, mashing them inside a hollowed out log with a large wooden mallet, and brewing them in a gourd-like vessel with boiling water, before being served.) Further demonstrating that coffee here is an integral part of the social fabric, following every meal, and all social gatherings.
Stay tuned for Part II of Dan’s Ethiopia Diaries!