Irving Farm’s Coffee Director, Dan Streetman, travelled to Ethiopia earlier this year as part of his ongoing coffee journeys. Here is the second installment of his adventures.
Heading back to Addis Ababa, my mind swirled with what we had encountered so far. Ethiopia was proving far more complex than even the nuance I expected to find in a country so steeped in coffee. One thing that struck me was how large the country is and how much road construction crews had laid since we drove out this direction! There must have been 200 miles of freshly paved asphalt on this road (incredible to me as it takes years to lay a few miles in New York City). However it was clear someone was very intent on investing in the infrastructure, as we must have seen 20 pieces of heavy equipment working along the way. While all the driving was drudgery, it was nice to be able to sit and process all we’d seen so far. Though I found my mind crystallizing questions more than it generated answers. Driving in Ethiopia at night proved to be a harrowing adventure—it is very dark, with the only light coming from other cars, and the road is packed with donkey carts, people, and other vehicles and creatures that have no reflective markers or lights. The rest of our drive was like a tense video game, where we were calling out to the driver to watch the donkey cart or animal as we barreled down the road heading for Addis Ababa. We arrived intact, with our knuckles slightly whiter, and agreed to work hard to stay on schedule the rest of the trip to avoid night driving, while reveling in the newly re-found luxuries of running water and pizza.
The next day was another one spent in the car, this time we were heading South, our destination being Hawassa. From Hawassa we would spend the next two days visiting the famed regions of Amaro and Yirgacheffe. Today at least we get to break up the drive with a visit to Ethiopia’s largest farmer’s union: the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union or OCFCU. Farmers who are members of cooperatives can sell their coffee outside of the ECX system, which combined with plantations provide the only two ways to purchase traceable coffees from Ethiopia. Arriving at OCFCU, we are introduced to Tadesi—a legend in Ethiopian coffee. He founded OCFCU, and is its CEO. (He also was featured in the film “Black Gold”.) Tadesi gave us another overview of the entire Ethiopian coffee system. This refresher was helpful, because it is complex enough that working through it again helped clear up the confusion. He also went into detail about the Union. He expounded on the amount of production of the OCFCU and its growth over the past decade. The sheer numbers of producers is daunting, the membership numbering in the tens of thousands.
After Tadesi’s presentation, we toured the dry mill where they prepare coffee for export. We watched the women sort defects out of green coffee. After a bit, I decided to take an empty chair at the end of the sorting table. While I was pondering what it would be like to sort green coffee all day, I noticed one of the women was obviously tickled at the sight of me, sitting there sorting green coffee. I smiled back at her, and tried to sort the coffee a little more efficiently.
We raced the rest of the way to Hawassa, and managed to get to the hotel just as the sun was setting. It was thrilling to run out the back door in attempts to get the photo of the sunset over lake Awasa. (insert photo)
Today was the day I had most looked forward to. We head to the Amaro Gayo Mill. This place had special significance to me, as we had purchased Natural processed coffee from this mill last year and I was planning to do so again this year, especially after we cupped the samples in Addis Ababa on day 1. To call Amaro Gayo a special coffee is an understatement, I think there is not another coffee like it in the world. The prospect of visiting the mill, and the woman responsible for this coffee had me tweaked. We stopped in the town of Yirgacheffe for coffee about 2 hours into driving. It was intriguing to get a glimpse of what we would be visiting the next day, another coffee holy site, as it were. However I was transfixed by Amaro Gayo. As we left Yirgacheffe we ascended over a range, and down into a large desert valley. We traveled another 1.5 hours on a dirt road through the desert, and I kept trying to see where we were headed—coffee does not grow in this climate! As we started to climb, the mountains on the other side of the valley it appeared, things started to get a little greener. Upon arriving at Amaro Gayo mill, I could see we were right at the boundary: everything below us was desert, everything above was green and lush. There was even a small river running down the mountain right next to the mill. We entered and were promptly introduced to Asnakech Thomas, the owner of Amaro Gayo. She in turn introduced us to her staff at the mill and showed us around the mill, while explaining their processes. Asnakech gave us a history of the mill, and the work she has been doing in Amaro, a small zone (think county) of the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples District (think state). Asnakech has a firm conviction that the coffee of Amaro is distinct from coffees of other regions. She explained how she has planted seedlings from other regions, and that they always die, and that “the coffee here must be different, just look at the desert around us.” Asnakech is a woman of force, conviction and passion, an inspiring presence. She is driven by a mission to have the unique coffees of her region by recognized, and I would say she has achieved a fair deal of success with a sizable following for her coffee, and premium prices.