Steve: this morning we have a very, very special guest post from coffee superstar Emily McIntyre, so grab your favorite cup and enjoy! PS: “ferenji” is the Amharic word for “foreigner” and it’s a term of endearment when local kids yell it out as you pass by…
Four months ago, I flew into Addis Ababa for the first time, my daughter a limp weight in my arms and my red-bearded husband by my side. Descending over the great untidy city that is Addis Ababa (good flower), I had no idea what to expect, and the last four months have been a rip-roaring adventure in the heart of Ethiopia’s coffeelands. By the time this piece is published, we’ll be back in our little house in Portland, Oregon, catching up on all the pepperoni pizza and modern coffee we yearned for here, and I know we will be missing the noise and smells and vibrancy of Ethiopia wholeheartedly.
Hey, KCCoffeeGeek readers, I’m Emily McIntyre, founder of coffee marketplace Crema.co, and coffee storyteller. I’m also from the Midwest—I cut my teeth almost a decade ago in Kansas City coffee, worked for a couple years with Caffeine Crawl, and still retain a love for the wide variety and great quality of KC coffee. I now live on the West Coast, where I am deeply involved in the coffee industry, write a lot, and bike whenever I can. I met Steve a few years ago when I was working in operations for Case Study Coffee around the time this blog was just getting started, and we’ve kept in touch over the years. You might have read reviews Steve’s written about Crema.co (he called me a coffee goddess… seriously, what am I supposed to do with that??) and our coffees (which are seriously great). Now, it’s time for me to chime in and share with you a few snapshots from this crazy adventure I’m finishing up.
Ethiopia is widely accepted to be the land where coffee was discovered, growing wild. It still grows wild, on the roadside, in backyards, and in mixed-growth forest. There is a romance to coffee here; driving through historic coffee areas like Yirgacheffe and Harar, the landscape sweeps you up in mystery, and everywhere you look you see the traces of coffee. Not so much tarps spread by the road with a few buckets of cherries drying, like I’ve seen in Peru and Colombia, but baskets of cherries sitting in a yard ready to take to the local market and sell to a broker for a mill, plastic packages of green coffee in shop windows (for the ubiquitous buna ceremony), and trucks of coffee transporting from the far growing regions toward ECX (Ethiopian Coffee Exchange) government warehouses.
Additionally, the implements for coffee drinking are EVERYWHERE, on every street corner and in every home. These include a plastic mat or, for special occasions, the real spiky green grass the mat is meant to simulate, and colorful plastic stools, as well as the frankincense burner, charcoal burner and skillet for roasting coffee, many traditional espresso-size cups (called sini cups), and the graceful djabeni pot, where the coffee is boiled 3-7 times after it has been roasted and ground. Any workday in Ethiopia includes multiple stops for buna, and most meals conclude with anywhere from 1-3 pours of the thick, woody coffee. I wrote more on Crema.co’s blog about this ceremony here, and included photos.
A favorite moment of this trip for me was one of the several visits we made to a very remote growing region in the famed coffee district of Harar. Over the past couple years we’ve been working with a farming community in Gololcha, Arsi (just over the mountain from Sidamo, actually) which is led by a third-generation coffee producer named Abebeyahu Negash. This type of “Direct Trade” work is very complicated and takes a lot of responsibility and communication from both sides to protect everybody and mutually share both the risk, of which there’s a LOT, and the reward, which is often tenuous.
We spent several days with Abebeyahu and the Tiret Cooperative this time (tiret means hard work/best effort). Two weeks before we arrived, heavy rains washed the one road that led toward the farms off the sides of the mountain, and Abebeyahu rallied the farmers and their families to hack a brand-new road out of the mountain with shovels and homemade picks. As we lurched along the road, the people came out of their huts and stood to welcome us, ululating in joy and shouting, clapping, and hopping in to help push when we got stuck, as we inevitably did. We were the first vehicles on this road.
After a while the road ran out and we hopped on donkeys to keep climbing. Now, I’m not a bad rider, but I’ve never before ridden a tubby donkey with the stirrups at two different lengths, while holding a four-year-old, up a very steep mountain, with an audience of fifty plus. We made it to the top of the mountain, where we shared fiyel tebs (goat BBQ) with Abebeyahu at his farm, and then we headed down the mountain and stopped at farm after farm on the way down, all members of the Tiret Cooperative. We met farmers like Tagane, who looks like a Calvin Klein model and who has one of the largest and best-kept farms on the mountainside, and his brother Shimelis, who with gangly grace helped us climb the sheer hills to his farm and proudly showed us his fertilization and farming practices. Abebeyahu carried my daughter on his shoulders whenever the path was too steep for the donkeys: a true mountain man, he navigated the treacherous ways easily, all the while pointing out the sights.
A couple nights later, in the village of Gololcha where we stayed in a pension with no electricity, a hole for a toilet, and a really lovely flowered arbor to sit under and have coffee in the mornings, we celebrated with the farmers, drinking Habesha beer and eating nearly-raw tebs and dancing the shoulder-wiggling, hopping Harari/Oromo blend of traditional dance they taught us to the rhythm of drums made from buckets and the visceral pulse and throb of a capella shouting/singing. Above our heads, undisturbed by city lights or airplane trails, the stars glittered. My daughter slowly sagged to sleep in the arms of Bezawit, Abebeyahu’s wife, while Michael and I danced, shouted, and celebrated til we collapsed.
These four months have been rich. Everywhere I turn, my First-World senses are assaulted: in the mornings all I can smell is the bone fires from the night before, the Sheno butter used in traditional cooking here that has a rancid edge to it, and the backed-up plumbing from the never-sufficient sewage systems. Then there is the wisp of frankincense on the breeze, a visceral, pungent odor I will never forget. And the sounds: traffic is vicious here, with no lanes, stoplights, or crosswalks, and the drivers ignore any rules that might exist. Trucks let out ponderous honks that rattle the windows nearby, people shout and whistle, traffic grinds to a halt while a herd of oxen slowly crosses the road. Everywhere there are the sounds of drills and saws as high-rises stand up from the ground where, a hundred and thirty years ago, there was nothing but clean land and mountain air.
In a land of such possibility, a land still caught in the backwash of discrimination, both inter-tribal and gender, and a land full of natural resources (like coffee), it’s hard not to become both drunk with the opportunities and sobered by the gap between vision and reality. Four months is just long enough to learn how much more I need to learn about coffee in Ethiopia and how much more we can learn about being humans, regardless of where we are.
For now, I’m heading back to the land of (relative) equality and internet that actually works, and diving into development on Crema.co. For the future, I only know it will hold more excitement and more relationships with coffee professionals and drinkers in Ethiopia, at home, and beyond.