Ubuntu: The spirit of coffee

84707813_c888ce86d9.jpgOf all the insights that I have gained into coffee culture on the trail to Ethiopia before returning back to the whirlpool of London life, there is one softly spoken truth that endures. It is a universal truth that runs through the coffee trade and culture like a golden thread, connecting every stage of its complex supply chain from field to cup. It is a philosophy that cannot be fully expressed in books, research papers or from the good intentions of policy-makers.

Its application cannot be taught out of a school textbook. Neither can it be bottled, packaged or commoditised in the interest of profit. It transcends all these things; yet it continues to be a unifying force that touches the hearts of everyone who has a respect for our fellow human being. It is the spirit of Ubuntu. Or to put it another way, it is the celebration of our shared humanity grounded in the common space that is community. By very definition, it means different things to different people but Ubuntu represents a maxim for life that is authentically African: “I relate, therefore I am”.

P1020957.jpgIt is this deep, genuine, sense of human connection that binds the many linkages in the coffee value chain together. Just as the raw green beans are the farmer’s gift to the roaster, the roaster’s gift to the barista is, at the most fundamental level, an alchemy of a kind that completes the circle from soil to sip. Rooted both in a sense of place and time spent in the sharing of company with others, coffee creates long-term connections that live long after the annual harvest or momentary enjoyment of a cup of black gold. The spirit of Ubuntu is expressed in practical terms through the model of direct trade that allows mutually beneficial and respectful trading relationships to form. In essence, coffee communities along the supply chain are brought closer together to ensure better traceability, working and environmental conditions, a fairer price for the producer, and ultimately better quality coffee for the consumer.

01The annual London Coffee Festival based in the beating heart of London’s East End is testament to a renaissance of fruitful connections that are flourishing in the enjoyment of coffee and coffee-based culture. Home to the UK Barista Championship (UKBC), it is a forum for coffee-lovers and those in the industry to come together to appreciate new single origins and blends, trends in brewing techniques and technologies, and to learn more about the provenance behind the wonderful drop of black gold in your cup at home, work or in the local coffee house. It is the brainchild of Jeffrey Young and his team at the Allegra Foundation, who have been researching the coffee market in the UK for fifteen years and helped to predict the ‘third-wave’ boom in small independent coffee shops and roasters trading on artisan-based values in the past decade. He says that the industry has a collective responsibility to promote sustainability at the production-level and for consumers to give something back at the counter. When asked about what coffee means to him, he adds, “I fundamentally believe that café culture and coffee houses are not just there for the product; coffee is a great connector of the human spirit.”

P1030784The profound effect of Ubuntu in coffee culture and how it has the potential to change lives as a real force for social and economic change is central to the story behind the flourishing of the Manchester-based Oromo Coffee Company (OCC). Based on social enterprise principles that ploughs its profits back into creating employment and training opportunities for the Oromo community in the UK, the OCC works to support coffee growers by sourcing beans directly from the smallholder farmer through the Oromia Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative Union in Ethiopia. Aspiring human rights lawyer and director of the social enterprise, Abiyot Shiferaw, explains: “Coffee in our society brings people together; it is important socially, culturally and economically. In Oromo culture, people come together under the Odaa tree to make the coffee ceremony and share stories so that we can teach other and manage our lives better. We are trading and working together so that we can increase the capacity of smallholder farmer. This means he can get a fair price so that he can send his children to school and get an education. That’s why coffee and trade has the power to change lives for the better”.

P1030067The challenges, of course, are many. Increasing unpredictability in extreme weather patterns caused by climate change threatens the sustainability of global coffee production at a time when demand is outstripping supply. But new innovative approaches to diversifying income streams through bee-keeping and inter-cropping, micro finance, less reliance on pesticides and fertilisers, better water management and improved training in agronomic practices are already providing answers to long-term, sustainable solutions that are locally owned. To compound matters, coffee farmers are still unjustly exposed to the volatility of financial markets. In an increasingly interconnected globalised world, however, we can all play our part in raising levels of social capital along the coffee value chain by demanding a fair price for the producer. This is the essence of relationship coffee. If coffee is a connector of the human spirit then it is also a leveller of human the condition; no matter who you are are or where you come from, the enjoyment of coffee transcends geography, cultures or creed. Ever since the reputed discovery of coffee by the Abyssinian goat herder, Kaldi, and his legendary herd of goats, coffee has been coveted by the communities it has touched through the centuries.

Revered for its potential to seduce the senses and invigorate the mind, the transformative power of coffee is a potential change-maker in a cup by aiding the exchange of ideas in a social setting. Throughout history, the consumption of coffee promotes the strengthening of humans bonds that sustain communities. Economically, it is a catalyst for commerce and fuels an industry that is worth more than $100bn a year on which millions depend for their livelihoods globally. Culturally, we only have to look to the rise of the coffee house in 17th century England and the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment to see that it has the potential to change the course of history. It will be interesting to see how the ‘third wave’ boom in coffee culture today will give rise to new sparks of creativity and innovation that will shape the world of tomorrow.

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Trading Seeds of Change

Oromo Coffee CompanyBorn in the Oromia town of Warra Jarso, 175kms north of the capital Addis Ababa, Abiyot Shiferaw was brought up with his two sisters and four brothers in a happy family environment. Like all Ethiopians, they celebrated special occasions by holding a traditional coffee ceremony. From an early age, Abiyot had a strong sense of fairness but saw injustice all around him. He saw how his fellow countrymen and women did not have access to clean water or could not pay for basic medical treatment. He observed how children were denied an education because their parents couldn’t afford to send them to school. He witnessed state-sponsored corruption at the hands of government officials and the police.

And his struggle for human rights, fairness and justice nearly cost him his life.

‘There were political problems in the school’, he says, ‘thirty-seven students including myself were arrested one day for being members of the Maccaa-Tulama Association, a civil society group in the Kuyyu Distinct banned by the Ethiopian government in 2002. The organisation was seen as a threat to the government’s political wishes. We were arrested without any reason or proof that we had done anything wrong’.

Abiyot was imprisoned for three months during which time his family were prevented from visiting him. He was eventually accused of being affiliated to the Oromia Liberation Front (OLF), a rebel group who are still fighting for self-determination.

‘We were investigated but there was no evidence,’ he adds.

After being released, Abiyot studied law in Addis Ababa and was later employed by an Oromo law firm. He says he found it almost impossible to act in the interests of his clients as a result of excessive police pressure or government administrators to exact a favourable verdict: ‘It was very difficult to apply the law independently. In the end, I realised that I couldn’t undertake my duties to represent the people fairly and decided that I could no longer continue’.

But the bloody aftermath of the 2005 national elections where hundreds of people lost their lives in protest was a turning point for Abiyot. He successfully ran as a candidate for the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) and was elected to represent his home town constituency in the federal parliament. The sweet taste of success soon turned sour when the national election results were called early by the incumbent alliance, the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front, and a state of emergency was declared.

In response to the public unrest that followed, public gatherings were outlawed and Prime Minister, Meles Zanawi, assumed direct command of the security forces, replacing the capital city police with Special Forces drawn from elite army units. Reports of massive human rights’ violations across the country were reported by international observers. ‘The election was stolen’, says Abiyot, with the zeal of a political activist; ‘the government was defeated. They did not win one seat in the capital but described themselves as the outright winner. The government should listen to the people’s voice’.

Shortly after the election, plain-clothed security police arrived at Abiyot and his friend’s residence in the dead of night. They were forced into a car and blindfolded. Abioyt tried to stop them by showing his parliamentary identification card, stating that (Article 54) stipulates that no member of the parliament shall be arrested or prosecuted unless his or her immunity is revoked by the legislature. ‘They trashed my identity card and told me to use it as toilet paper’ he recalls. They were driven to an unknown church cemetery out of Addis and told that their graves were already reserved for them. Severely beaten and threatened that they would be executed and buried unless they confessed that they were inciting students in Oromia to rise up against the government, Abiyot says he will never forget the terrifying moment when ‘one of them put the muzzle of his rifle into my mouth while another one poked my stomach with his gun’.

Determined to continue his struggle, he contacted the international media, NGOs and the British embassy to inform them of what had happened. Knowing that his life was in danger, a petition was presented to the federal parliament in a bid to stop the police intimidation; it was rejected. Abiyot could not go anywhere without being followed by the authorities. He could not visit his friends or family because he did not want to put them at risk. He realised that he had no choice but to flee.

It took six months for Abiyot to reach Kenya. He and a friend travelled on foot through the remote forests of the rural highlands in southern Ethiopia to evade the regular police checkpoints on the main highway. ‘Even in Nairobi, we weren’t safe. We were arrested by the security forces, tortured and imprisoned’ he says. With no one else to turn to, he contacted the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and European Parliamentarian, Ana Gomes MEP, for help.

In April 2008, Abiyot arrived safely in Greater Manchester after being granted refugee status. His first few months adjusting to life in the UK came as a shock to him: ‘When you come to a new country, it is the same as being like a new born child again. The impact of a new culture, different language, and different system of employment was a challenge. My qualifications were not accepted in this country’. However, Abiyot did not want to be reliant on welfare benefits and with the support of the pioneering Lorna Young Foundation, his local MP, James Purnell, and assistance from Refugee Action, he established the Oromo Coffee Company (OCC) with other members of the Oromo community in the Northwest.

OCC bagsBased on social enterprise principles that ploughs its profits back into creating employment and training opportunities, OCC works towards direct trade between Oromos in Ethiopia and the UK. All its coffee is sourced through the Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union is organic, Fairtrade certified, and expertly roasted in Huddersfield by Bolling Coffee. From spicy Harar, to floral Yirgacheffe and the darkly roasted after-dinner Limu, the OCC has some of the finest Ethiopian coffees covered:

“The Oromo Coffee Company brings a great concept to the world of Fairtrade and we are proud to be working with them. The coffee tastes great, originating from the birthplace of coffee itself in Ethiopia and the mission of the company is taking Fairtrade to the next level”.

Herriet Lamb, Executive Director the Fairtrade Foundation

Due to graduate in law from Huddersfield University in June this year, the aspiring human rights’ lawyer’s struggle is far from over. He says: ‘Coffee in our society brings people together; it is important socially, culturally and economically. In Oromo culture, people come together under the Odaa tree to make the coffee ceremony and share stories so that we can teach other and manage our lives better. It makes you feel positive and strong. Through the Oromo Coffee Company, we are trading and working together so that we can increase the capacity of the smallholder farmer. This means he can get a fair price so that he can send his children to school and get an education’.

Abiyot passionately believes coffee has the power to change the dire political situation in Ethiopia. More than a commodity, it holds the key to unlocking the vast potential of his country men and women by promoting skills and education through community-to-community trade: ‘If there are no skills or education, we are blind’ he says, ‘only through education can the people know their civic duty to protect and exercise their rights. That’s why coffee and trade has the power to change lives for the better’.

You can be part of that change by supporting the Oromo Coffee Company to help smallholder farmers in Ethiopia earn a decent living here.

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Starbucks gets a Roasting

It was a watershed moment in the rise of corporate coffee in the UK when Starbucks’ global Chief Financial Officer, Troy Alstead, got a roasting at the hands of the Public Accounts Committee in Parliament last week.

The scale of the coffee giant’s fleet-footed accounting arrangements that were laid bare during the hearing is staggering. Starbucks has made a profit of £3bn in the UK since it opened its first outlet in 1998. Since 2009, it has paid no corporation tax on its revenue generated in the UK at all. Not a single bean. Despite benefiting from a labour market where the minimum hourly wage will barely cover the cost of a couple of cappuccinos, that equates to less than one percent of corporate tax paid on its earnings in this country.

Starbucks insist they have done nothing illegal. This may be true. But the question over whether it is ethical to run a business with a UK market share of 31 percent and avoid paying its fair share of tax lingers like the whiff of an Eggnog Latte during festive season.

Last year, the Seattle-based firm filed a loss of £33m to HM Treasury on revenues of nearly £400m. So why was Starbucks telling investors in the US that it is ‘highly profitable’ in Britain when it has consistently reported a loss (with the exception of 2006) to the taxman?

The answer lies at the heart of its complex operating business model where coffee is bought through its sister trading company in Switzerland. It is here that a tax efficient 20 percent mark up is applied before it arrives at its vast roasting operation in another low-tax regime country; the Netherlands. A further six percent patent fee is charged in royalties with a proportion funnelled back to its US headquarters. When pressed by committee member, Austin Mitchell MP, about why it charges a royalty fee off-shore, Alstead replied that it ‘compensates for the development of the brand.’ An interesting disclosure in that it suggests Starbicks’ tax-efficient supply chain is designed to extract the value of the coffee long before it  reaches its franchise outlets on the high street.

At a time when Starbucks is aggressively intensifying its operations in new markets such as China, Asia and the Pacific region – where it saw a healthy rise of ten percent in sales last year against a decline of one percent in Europe – it would appear that this breakneck expansion is being subsidised through sheer economy of scale and tax evasion in the countries that it operates. This, of course, comes as no surprise. In an age of globalisation where international trade transcends geographical borders, tax-loopholes become irresistibly attractive for corporations with only one eye on the bottom line to maximise shareholder return. Even since the economic downturn Starbucks has bucked the trend; enjoying a spike of 130 percent in share value since the economic crash of 2008. No wonder, then, that the company can boldly state that its menu of premium priced coffee-based products remain an ‘affordable luxury’.

But there is another side to this story. It’s the story of millions of struggling coffee farmers worldwide whose livelihoods depend on growing and processing this precious commodity (second only to oil) that has enabled companies like Starbucks to build such a profitable global business empire.

Whilst corporations can insulate themselves from, and even speculate on, the wild fluctuations in the global price in coffee, smallholder farmers continue to be left vulnerable to this volatility. During my time living and working in coffee growing regions in the central and western highlands of Ethiopia last year, I heard repeatedly at first hand how communities (and crops) were laid to waste by dramatic changes in coffee price, as happened with the catastrophic coffee crash of the nineties. When farmers are currently being paid in the region of 10 Ethiopian Birr (35 pence) for a kilo of organic Arabica coffee cherry in countries like Ethiopia, the level of trade injustice between rich consumer countries in the north at the expense of producers in the global south is nothing short of a scandal.

Starbucks CEO Howard SchultzAs news of the Reuters investigation broke, Starbucks’ CEO, Howard Schultz, (who is said to be worth £980m) issued a statement on the company website. He said: ‘We must strike a balance between profitability and social responsibility… and strive to meet our own high ethical standards for how we care for our people, source our coffee, serve communities and operate in the countries where we do business’.

I suspect that for the many independent coffee shop owners and roasters who pay their fair share of tax in this country, Schultz’s lofty words ring hollow.

Meanwhile, the backlash is gathering momentum. Pressure group UK Uncut have announced a day of action on 8th December to turn Starbucks’ stores into refuges, crèches and homeless shelters in a move to highlight the impact of the government’s austerity-driven spending cuts affecting frontline welfare services.

Corporate coffee has never tasted so bitter.

UKBC South East Heat

Inside the cavernous London Newcastle Project Space at 28 Redchurch Street, Shoreditch, entrepreneurial duo Rob Dunne and Victor Frankowski demonstrated their charismatic charm for doing things differently. The proprietors of the Protein coffee shop on Hewett Street – HQ of their creative coffee consultancy DunneFrankowski - had set the stage for two-days of captivating competition. Their trademark collaborative approach resulted in a purpose-built gallery space that was just as much a salute to the explosive growth of speciality café culture in the capital as it was about the event’s main attraction; the professional Barista.

Articulating their vision for the space, they said: ‘By building partitions within the gallery we wanted to create a unique environment for the competition and wider audiences to give them an insight into the speciality coffee industry and the craft which barista’s try to master. Collaborating with Monorex to design unique pieces for the partitions, our aim was to link different sub-genres in the art world which otherwise would no be seen together’.

I arrived early on a cold January morning to meet Vic and Rob carefully arranging a series of panels that detailed the rise of the London coffeehouse ever since the first establishment opened its doors to the public on St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, in 1652.

Meanwhile, the good folk at Union Hand Roasted Coffee were setting up their brew bar. As they arranged their siphons, aeropresses, Hario V60 pour-over’s and adventurous single-origin coffee menu, a huddle of competition judges deliberated in hushed, well-intentioned tones.

One wall featured the playful but perceptive work of artist and cross-county runner, Sarah Peterson, who had been commissioned to create a stylised set of illustrations satirically entitled - Top Ten Tips for Overcoming Coffee Addiction. Brilliant.

Two San Remo Veronas occupied opposing tables in the competition area and a third flagship Roma TCS model was being lovingly set up in pride-of-place to greet visitors at the entrance to the gallery. A cosy café space to accommodate the coffee-loving public partitioned with coffee sacks sewn together provided the final understated flourish to the welcoming atmosphere.

The stage was set. Over two days, twelve Barista’s were to put their craft to the test under the watchful eyes of six UKBC (United Kingdom Barista Championship) judges and a packed out room for a coveted place in the semi-finals due to take place at the London Coffee Festival at the OId Truman Brewery on 28th April, 2012. The following day is the climax of the UK championship and an opportunity to compete in the World Barista Championships in Vienna later this year. Take it through to its most logical conclusion and you have the equivalent of a Saturn V rocket strapped to your reputation in the coffee stratosphere. In short, it’s high stakes stuff.

Organised by the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe, the UKBC rules stipulate that each Barista gets 15 minutes to prep their work area and then 15 minutes to make four of their best espresso’s, cappuccino’s and espresso-based ‘signature’ offerings. It’s a chance for the Barista to showcase their knowledge of coffee, creative flair and split second judgement. Aside from the critical aspects of taste and technicality, the competition is just as much about presentation as it is for the business of pulling a great shot. Their performance is judged under the close scrutiny of two technical and four sensory judges.

Okay, I am no expert but I thought all the competitors set the bar extremely high. The competition is a true testament to the Barista’s creativeness when it comes to approaching hand-crafted signature drinks.

The award for theatricality had to go to Dennis Tutbury, Head Barista at the Canary Wharf branch of Taylor St Baristas, who invited the judges to an Alice in Wonderland-inspired tea party: `Because of the tea notes in the coffee, we thought it would be cool to serve them in vintage tea cups. I wanted do something really interesting – something that I would like to watch as part of the audience. You create the experience, and the environment you set up makes all the difference’, he said.

Prepared in quintessential Mad Hatter attire, Dennis’ signature drink was an ice cube infused with Earl Grey tea added to a single shot espresso. He added: ‘As the coffee is so light and delicate, I thought it would be nice to strip it all back to enhance the flavour with the ice cube cooling down the espresso – I really liked the taste. Serving it in small tea pots just added a really nice touch to it.’

Another stroke of genius was at the experienced hands of Rummy Keshet, who selected an award-winning coffee grown at 900m in Araku Valley, Southern India; a London début? He chose the bean for its savoury flavours, full body, delicate acidity and spicy notes. Shortly before the news of winning third place in the competition, he said this of his signature drink:

‘A Scottish food scientist called Harold McGee wrote twenty years ago that coffee is the most similar flavour profile to corn. I thought that sounds like fun. So I made popcorn, cooked it with milk, filtered it out and there you have it – popcorn-flavoured milk! When I poured it over the coffee, to my surprise, they integrated amazingly well.’

The 24 year-old Barista trainer for Darlington’s went on to describe how the combination of caramel and salted popcorn took him back to his childhood: ‘I added French sea salt to the bottom of the espresso, used a syringe to add the right amount of caramel followed by the steamed popcorn milk, served as a piccolo. The salt is really important because it creates a glue between the coffee and popcorn – it brings out the savoury flavours and mutes the coffee’s acidity. The caramel binds the milk and the coffee together. I like to make mainstream, quirky.’

But it was Sang Ho Park, from South Korea, who swept the board with a polished performance and superlative signature offering that would not be out-of-place in Heston Blumenthal’s kitchen. Despite being the last word in modesty regarding his own performance on the day, his efforts scooped him the number one spot.

The 22 year-old Tapped and Packed Barista commented: `My espresso predominantly has a lot of mango flavour, tropical fruits and honey sweetness – I wanted to accentuate those flavours. The fresh mango and acacia honey went really well together and the pomegranate gave it tropical notes. I experimented with salt to make the sweetness come out which complimented the brightness of my coffee. A small amount of diluted vinegar gave it that ting on the tongue and so I added natural fructose to mellow it out’. His skills clearly won the judges appreciation because Sang Ho went on to score a hat-trick by taking the prize for the best espresso, cappuccino and signature drink.

In spite of the enormous pressure, what struck me was the behind-the-scenes camaraderie amongst the competitors, crew and caffeine-heads who rocked up to support their star Barista. It summed up the friendly, collaborative spirit of the vibrant speciality coffee community perfectly. Over the course of two days, funds were also raised for international NGO Coffee Kids to improve the lives of farmers and their families through community-led initiatives. A worthy cause fit for a worthwhile competition.

Taking the Temperature: Host Victor Frankowski talks to Barista Justyna Stachwa after her set

 

 

The God Shot

If there’s one thing that braces you more than the culture shock of visiting an awe-inspiring country like Ethiopia, it’s the reverse culture shock of returning to the United Kingdom. In the winter. So, after arriving in Southampton dock by ferry from Normandy under the cloak of a moody blighty morning, I proceeded to do what seemed to be the most natural thing by now, and make a brew. A short ride to the pebble beach overlooking the straits separating the mainland from the Isle of White was all that was needed to find the perfect spot in which to prime the stove-top Bialetti. As the dim light of daybreak grew to bursting point over the horizon, I toasted my first British sunrise in ten months with a strong shot of Ethiopian Arabica Harar coffee. The familiar spicy aroma emanating from my camping mug was like the warm embrace of a long-lost friend. I felt at home once again.

Now, the only possible way to reverse the onset of early January culture shock blues is to start as I mean to go on and begin the next phase of this coffee-inspired adventure. Determined to engineer as best a soft landing as I could devise, my entry point into the stratosphere of the London coffee scene had to be no other than a visit to the London School of Coffee.

Under the expert guidance of one of the UK’s leading barista’s, coffee consultant and filmmaker, Daisy Rollo, six of us gathered in the comfortable surroundings of the well-equipped training room for a day of espresso-based discovery. Following a short introduction about the origin of coffee and methods of processing, Daisy moved on to one of the many crucial aspects in pulling the perfect shot for the trained – and uninitiated – barista: The grinder. ‘It’s all about the grind’, Daisy said as she took the Italian-made Mazzer Lugi apart to make sure the ceramic burrs were squeaky clean. Soon, fellow coffee enthusiast and Podiatrist student, Tanya Tunpraset, and I were experimenting with varying degrees of coarse-to-fine grind from a sample of Hove-based Small Batch Coffee’s own delectable espresso House Blend (Brazil/El Salvador/Guatemala) with warm orange and citrus notes. It quickly became apparent how much of an impact the slightest of adjustment to the dial made to the extraction time. `You’re never more than a nudge away from achieving the right grind`, Daisy added encouragingly as I tamped my ground coffee (approximately 9g for a single and 18g for a double) to achieve an even, smooth surface before getting to grips with the brushed stainless steel Rancilio Sylvia espresso machine – a work of art in its own right – to pull some test shots of my very own.

When you consider the extraordinary journey that coffee has gone through from its early days as a cherry on the mother tree just to reach the basket in a group head of an espresso machine, you really don’t want to mess things up in the final moment. An extraction time of less than fifteen seconds means that the coffee is effectively being ‘washed’ and results in a stringent, acidic taste at the front of the mouth. More than thirty seconds of extraction and there’s a serious danger of ‘burning’ the coffee as the machine forces hot water through the coffee at a temperature of between 87-91 degrees centigrade under nine bar pressure, Daisy warned. Over extract and the result is an espresso with a strong ‘bitter’ taste that lingers at the back of the mouth long afterwards. Sound familiar?

I was surprised to learn that even the humidity in the room can have a significant impact on the extraction time and thus the required level of grind. The more moisture in the air, the more resistance. All that remains is a small but critical window of opportunity where the practicalities of good agronomics, scientific endeavour, and the skilled roaster’s gift to the experienced barista conjoin to make the perfect shot of espresso. It is both an art and a science in equal measure. But what exactly does constitute the ‘God Shot’ where the pursuit of perfection becomes the Holy Grail for the dedicated barista? Well, apart from being a subjective question, the answer lies in achieving a good balance of acidity, body and sweetness; the product of the complex array of compound oils that give an espresso its distinctive crèma. `We’re looking for an espresso that is neither acidic, nor bitter; one where a balance of taste sensations should dance all over the tongue`, Daisy hinted yet still leaving much to the imagination. But before we could reach for our stopwatches, she went on to advise that time is only a guide and we should really be looking for visual clues in the changes to the colour and consistency of the coffee during extraction.

By early afternoon, my heart was racing. The copious amount of caffeine ingested throughout the morning’s experimentation was coursing through my veins like a raging bull and it was high time to take a break. A discussion over lunch revealed that some of the coffee disciples in the group were, unsurprisingly, looking to move into the coffee business; others wanted to hone their barista skills; another wanted to make better coffee in the kitchen. And why not? Good coffee surely begins at home.

After lunch, we turned our attention to the practice of mastering the art of making microfoam; minute pockets of air that give the milk its silky texture, shiny surface, deliciously smooth consistency and ever-so-sweet taste. Again, time becomes a key differentiating factor. A mere 3-4 second change to the initial texturising stage can mean the difference between pouring the perfect latte or cappuccino. Interestingly too, it is the protein content of the milk that helps to make the micro-foam, and not the fat. This means that – in theory at least – you should be able to get just as good foam from semi-skimmed or skimmed milk than you can with the full, calorific equivalent.

After Daisy gave us a skillful demonstration of her own latte art with ridiculous ease that I am sure belies years of training, the senses took the driving seat again and we all set out to have a go ourselves by experimenting with a small dairy’s worth of milk over the course of the afternoon. We were encouraged to listen to the subtle changes in sound as the milk was first texturised and heated up in the jug. Finishing up with a display of our own best attempts at producing a presentable (and drinkable) latte and cappuccino, my ticker was back in the outside lane again.

My admiration for the humble barista has taken a quantum leap. Within a matter of split-second timing, their approach can potentially make – or break – a good coffee. That’s a huge responsibility for one person to carry on their shoulders when you consider that it is estimated more than 400 hours of labour can go into the production of one pound of the good stuff before it even reaches the grinder. Daisy tells us that the secret of success is all about achieving consistency. A fitting mantra for the day. Pulling that illusive God Shot – or well-balanced espresso – might not be obtainable on every occasion, but it’s worth spending the time and effort trying. Judgement, I suspect, follows shortly afterwards…

Respect to the Barista.

Road to Lalibela

You can understand why King Lalibela wanted to establish his ‘New Jerusulem’ in the back of beyond. Reaching the holy town is a journey in itself. Nearing the final leg of my ‘Tour de Ethiopique’, I set off at daybreak from the junction village of Gashana to get some kilometres behind me before reaching the fabled ‘pista’ that I knew lay in wait before me. Affectionately termed by Ethiopians as a road without tarmac, the ‘pista’ is by all intents and purposes a ‘road’ surface consisting of rubble, volcanic detritus and infinite quantities of dust. Riding it on two wheels is little like skiing without poles; it’s a controlled fall, even uphill. For the first few kilometres, the going was good until the inevitable ‘roughstuff’ kicked in with gusto. Zig-zagging my way through the scree, I went for a tumble a couple of times. The biggest effort of all was trying to keep my eyes on the road whilst the breathtaking table-top escarpments continually vie for your attention.

After an impromptu espresso stop (100% sun dried Harar Arabica) shared with a young shepherd and his two sisters on their way to school, I realised that I had run out of water. Never a good idea when you’re in the middle of nowhere and the oppressive midday sun is beating down on the rocks like a solar-charged anvil. So, I pressed on in the hope that I would reach a village with a water pump, that works. My map of Ethiopia that I had, by now, become so accustomed to its jaw-dropping inaccuracies (which has led me on wild goose chases in search of ‘ghost towns’ that did not exist on more than one occasion) pointed me in the direction of a river. For once, the map was right. And there was running water; a double bonus. Pulling up, three young shepherds and their father gathered to inspect the bike and proceeded to search for the absent engine as I unpacked the stove for a long-overdue brew.

I was in luck. The father’s fields bestriding the river were ripe with garlic, onion and capsicum peppers: Time for lunch. As I cooked up a slap up pasta over the MSR, the workmen that I had passed further back turned up in their rusting water tanker to refill, bathe and wash their clothes. ‘I’m the grading technician, how do you like the road?’ said one with beaming pride. ‘Smooth’, I replied, daring not to look up from stirring my spaghetti for fear that he would see a glint of untruth in my eyes. ‘In fact, the stretch of pista back there was surfaced with some of the best graded gravel I have experienced in a while’, I added, omitting the fact that my bum had turned completely numb for hours. Gobez! (great), he replied and stripped down to his birthday suit before plunging in to the cool, clear rushing water. As I ate, the three young shepherds came to watch. Not having the heart to continue my lunch, I offered them my concoction which they wolfed down with speed.

The next few moments proved to be surreal as I went on to brew an espresso with my trusty Bialetti for each of the gravel technicians. They lazed in the sun-kissed running waters enjoying their brew, without a thread between them; another of those priceless, unscripted, moments that occurs on the road.

Accounts of shiftas (bandits) started to creep into my mind as the sun banked low in the warm afternoon shimmer. I still had more than half way to go if I was to reach Lalibela by nightfall. Sure enough, the ascents got steadily steeper as I winded my way back up the twists and turns from the valley floor. This also meant that the descents got more treacherous. The gravel technicians clearly have a job on their hands if they’re going to grade this lot, I thought to myself, as the Sherpa bounced and shuddered from loose stone to stone of varying shape and size. The sun continued its inexorable course towards the horizon and by now, hung low in the deep spectrum of the African sky. Flat-topped acacias cast their long shadows across the naturally formed chimneys and minarets that had been carved out of the looming escarpment walls by nature’s hand. They grew with each minute as my leg muscles began to tire. Embracing the hopelessness of my situation, I stopped to watch the sun set in a last final burst of golden light before it sank behind the silhouetted teeth of a fold of mountains that faded into the growing darkness. Night began to close in and Lalibela seemed further away than ever.

One-by-one, pinpricks of starlight began to appear in the celestial firmament above and I was now being guided by the reassuring glow the Sherpa’s Schmidt front beam. Outlines of young shepherds returning their cattle to the safety of their home ducked and dived in and out of the roadside gloom as I kept my wheels steadfastly turning. Their enthusiastic greetings were an encouragement to redouble my efforts and keep on pedaling. The spectre of shiftas (bandits) which I had been informed by the local police ‘sometimes’ ply their unwelcome trade at night became however an ever-present, intimidating thought. Just as my exhaustion levels and paranoia reached an all time high, the ‘pista’ – by some stroke of luck – gave way to asphalt again, and, buoyed on by my change in fortunes, I pushed on. The distant flickering of fires could be seen burning high up on the escarpment as farmers retreated into the warmth and safety of their mud and straw Tukus for the night. The occasional haunting whoop of the Hyena call echoed across the vast, empty expanse.

Eventually, I reached another village and stopped to pour the last remaining drops of water that I had filtered from the river earlier in the day down the back of my dry, dusty throat. With one last steep climb to tackle, I set off again with one final surge of determination. No sooner had I negotiated my way round the last territorial dog when a voice cried salem! (peace) from behind a row of thorns. ‘Please come inside,’ said the welcoming voice. Too exhausted to enquire further, I took off my cycling mitts, rested the Sherpa against the hedge and followed the voice into the Tuku. In the middle of the candle-lit circular space covered with goat skins was a young woman and her broad-smiling husband who was coaxing their one year-old daughter to sleep. ‘Please, stay and eat’, Endalitch said, offering me a tray of injera and helva (staple Ethiopian food), and a glass full of tella (an alcoholic home-brewed drink made from teff and maize). She returned to the fire at the back of the hut and soon enough, the aromatic smell of roasting coffee emanated from the tray that was placed on the embers. Endalitch stirred the beans gently to the percussive sound of popping and crackling. As I ate, the beans received a forceful pounding into a coarse grind and were placed into the earthenware jabana (coffee pot) which was being licked by the open flames as it rested on the fire. Her husband, Desal, rocked his six-month old daughter lovingly who had now woken to observe the pale-faced visitor with a short wail followed by a long yawn, before falling back asleep. Finally, some etan (incense) was placed on the burning charcoal. The Tuku infused with a warm spicy fragrance as we chatted and drank coffee. After the beureuka (blessing) – or third cup – I could stay awake no longer and retired to my tent, counting my lucky stars. Traditional Ethiopian hospitality, the incredible generosity of the human spirit, and a yeu buna a feulal (coffee ceremony) had, yet again, saved the day.

Eat Sleep Cycle

Once the circadian rhythms of cycle touring fully set in, it’s the simple things that take on a special significance:

The honey-dew light of daybreak as the early morning sun spreads its golden wings over a jagged table-top horizon; an aromatic stove-brewed espresso with the restorative power to clear the mist of a dream-state mind; the perceptible physical gear change of aching leg muscles as they burst back into life again; encounters with sprightly, giggling groups of children as they make the long walk to school; starbursts of luminous green aloe lining the roadside verge; the faltering flight of butterflies that pass miraculously through a blur of spokes in a dance with death or the soaring of arcs of buzzards as they warm their wings high above in the rising thermals; cooling quenches of (filtered) fresh stream water at the back of a dry, dusty throat; warm smiles and whoops of encouragement from passing drivers; exhilarating downhills that reward the punishing uphill with kilometre-after-kilometre of glorious freewheeling; pastel-coloured brushstrokes of wheat and barley clinging tenaciously to the terraced hillside; a deep endless blue African sky stroked by fingers of wispy white cloud; pit stops of freshly-picked, sweet, energy-giving bananas; the medicinal fragrance of eucalyptus and pine scenting the mountain air; or the staccato call of young shepherds carousing their wayward herd back to the safety of the homestead before the last precious rays of the day fade to a reveal the bright constellations of a starlit night sky.

It’s the heady kaleidoscope of sight, sound, and smells that make cycle touring so addictive.

Eat. Sleep. Cycle… (and drink coffee).

On Her Majesty’s Disservice

It took three attempts to face the stonewall of ambiguity at the Sudanese Embassy to realise that there is more chance of a camel passing through the eye of a needle than getting a transit visa cleared by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA). I don’t know whether they suspected that I was some kind of spy-on-two-wheels but I wouldn’t make a very good one considering my predictability for frequent coffee stops. The one saving grace is that the Sudanese authorities had the courtesy of being consistent in their ambiguity which is more than be said of their British counterparts. After liberating me of fifty beans sterling for the privilege of a cut and paste supporting letter onto FCO watermarked paper (politely folded into a ‘On her Majesty’s Service’ envelope), I was later informed that the embassy in Khartoum could not possibly put a kind word into the MFA on my behalf because of my lack of diplomatic credentials. Surely all nationals are effectively in the diplomatic service of their own country when they are traveling overseas? I maintained; the amiable civil servant behind the desk just shrugged his shoulders in response. I left the embassy in Addis feeling more like a crestfallen cash cow than a British national in need of some minor diplomatic assistance. At least I can now sleep well at night knowing that my contribution to consular coffers has gone towards the upkeep of the Ambassador’s golf course.

It seems that my Egyptian visa will have to go unstamped, for now.

Travel plans revised and some much-needed repairs to the Sherpa (bottom bracket went after 5000km of sterling service), I’m now on a final tour of the northern historical circuit before taking the silver bird back to Europa.

Next stop: The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela; Ethiopia’s very own ‘Jerusalem’.

 

The Hyena Man of Harar

The first sign of their arrival is the brilliant, luminous green orbs that beam back at you in the dead of night. Blinking and darting in the darkness, they come steadily closer in the feint light of a hand torch. At first, their steps are tentative, nervous even. But as the fetid smell of raw meat fills the night-time breeze they grow in confidence – and numbers. Holding a woven basket containing strips of sinew from the local butcher, the wide-eyed man sitting before us calls to them in a high pitched tone. He falls into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Consumed in a momentary state of hysteria, he calls again: ‘Hyeeeeeena!’

One-by-one they approach with care, retreating into the safety of the shadows at the slightest movement or noise. Hunger drives them back into the dim light and they cautiously advance with the odd, peculiar gait of a quadruped whose front legs are twice as long as their hind pair. Feral tufts of hair bristling down his strong arched back, the dominant male of the group creeps within striking distance and sits down patiently in the dust. He licks his lips in anticipation like a dog waiting to be given a bone. Composing himself from his momentary bout of hysteria the Hyena Man casually reclines in a gesture of submission. Keeping eye contact to a minimum, he holds up a strip of meat draped over a short stick. The beast inches closer. Meanwhile, the youngsters yelp and snap at each other in the shadows behind as they vie for their turn to feed. It is difficult to be sure, but I could count nine of them in total.

The air is charged, almost reverential, as we stand in awe of this powerful predator that has travelled more than 50kms through the hot sands and scrub of the lowlands just to be here. The five of us (who have paid to watch) are transfixed by the spectacle as human and hyena become locked in a slow dance of trust where a wrong move could mean a painful ending… for the Hyena Man that is. Suddenly, the muscular haunches of the beast tense up and with a forceful thrust of its large pockmarked neck, he lunges for the meat with jaws wide open. The morsel is snapped up and gulped down in a split second.

The Hyena Man beckons me to sit down next to him. I can feel the beast sizing me up as I walk over and tentatively crouch down. Hyena Man gives me a stick and instructs me to put it in my mouth – which I do – with some reticence. He then pulls out a long strip of meat from the basket and carefully wraps it around the other end. I realise that I’m now inches away from a collision course with a ravenous hyena. The Hyena Man pulls back and in the same moment, the hyena lunges straight towards my face with gaping jaw. Rows of large sharp incisors flash in the light of my head torch before snapping shut with a rush of air. I flinch. The stick breaks. The flesh falls to the ground. The smell of halitosis and raw meat fills my nostrils as I take a deep life-affirming breath.

In a hushed voice, the Hyena Man reassures me with the words chigger yellum (no problem), as he prepares a new stick for the showtime feed. In a moment of self-deception, I pretend to think that I’m just feeding a very, very big dog in a futile attempt to stem the rush of adrenalin that has now exploded into my bloodstream. I clasp the stick with my own miniature (by comparison) incisors and hold it aloft, presenting the meat to the beast with eyes wide open, determined not to let the hyena smell my fear. He lunges again, this time with deadly accuracy and snatches the meat cleanly off the stick with the same rush of air and whiff of halitosis. Relieved and unscathed, I return to the shadows again as the Hyena Man throws the remaining scraps of flesh over his shoulder for the youngsters to fight over. Settling her head onto her two outstretched paws, the mother of the pack yawns a big sardonic yawn; as if to give one final lasting reminder of what damage those jaws can do. The youngsters – buoyed by their first taste of flesh of the night – roll around in a play of rough-and-tumble familial affection. As we leave, they settle down for a nap. In a few hours, they will enter the city to help out with the municipal duties of waste management. I touch my nose just to check that it is still there.

Hyena Man tells me that the nightly ritual of feeding the hyenas outside the walls of the old Islamic city of Harar has been going on for more than twenty years. Every year, the pack are treated to a lavish feast of traditional Ethiopian food to honour the special symbiotic relationship that hyena and human have developed over the last two decades. ‘Humans and hyena are one family… but only in Harar’, he states as we accelerate up the narrow street towards one of the five gates to the Old City, Assum Gate, in his 1960′s vintage Peugeot 404 taxi (affectionately referred to as the ‘blue donkey’). ‘If the humans ever leave Harar’, he adds hitting the brakes, ‘it will be the hyenas who will inherit the city.’ I get out and head to the nearest Buna Bet (coffee house) for a drop of spicy mocha-flavoured Harar coffee to contemplate my own mortality in the face of such a formidable animal, and the Hyena Man’s words.

And you know what? I believe him.

Farewell Coffee Ceremony

The Coffee Ceremony is so deeply woven into the cultural fabric of Ethiopian life that it unites the country, even more than football does. In Ethiopia, coffee is the ‘great leveller’. It binds the many different ethnic groups together like glue; Christian or Muslim, rich or poor. More than a coffee break, the event can last for hours as an opportunity for people to come together and share news in a relaxed setting. The traditional custom is an expression of respect to elders or guests, and a holiday or special occasion is never complete without one. An elaborate extension to Ethiopia’s warm sense of hospitality, the coffee ceremony is a daily social ritual to honour the importance of the bean, and strengthen human bonds.

‘Bunafi naga hinabina’

(May you not lack coffee and peace)
- Oromo saying

Strong bonds: Demesse and his five year-old grandson, 'Little Lule'

It was a moment that I had been looking forward to ever since I had arrived in Ethiopia, but had yet to experience without Birr crossing palms. That is, until my last day at the Bulbulo wet mill Station. With the Sherpa packed and ready to go, we all sat down to an emotional farewell yeu buna a-falafal (coffee ceremony). Buzio first prepared the coffee by washing the beans and roasting them over the fire until they were a deep brown, coated with a smooth sheen as the bean’s complex elixir of oils oozed to the surface. After receiving a resolute pounding using a wooden zezana (mortar) and mogatcha (pestle), the ground beans were then transferred to be brewed in a jebana (clay coffee pot). Demesse’s son, Solomon, went out collecting blades of grass. In a symbolic gesture to invite the freshness of nature into the room, he scattered them over the floor. To one side, billows of smoke from the etan (incense) rose from the yekasal mandeja (small charcoal burner), scenting the room with a sweet, spicy smell.

As the coffee settled in the steaming jebana, the host of the ceremony, Buzio, (the host is always the woman of the house) passed the fendisha (popcorn) around in a large colourful round woven basket. Just as the Ottoman’s made an art out of the preparation and drinking of coffee, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is an aromatic delight to the senses. Sitting on a three-legged berchuma (stool) wearing traditional clothes, Buzio poured the coffee expertly from a height. The third cup is of special importance and bestows a berekha (blessing). I didn’t want it to finish.

A final round of reluctant farewells and I was waved off wearing an ‘I Love Ethiopia’ headscarf, a gift from the cooperative’s quick-witted accountant, Bilay. My pannier was carrying a generous kilo of fine organic coffee Arabica beans and a bag of sweet Choche honey. A present from those at the mill to keep me sustained on the road ahead, with the message ‘don’t forget us.’ (I never will). A bunch of flowers colourfully adorned the handlebars. Overwhelmed by the moment and sad to leave, the reluctant 50km pedal back to Jimma was perfumed all the way with the fresh fragrance of Choche wild meadow flowers.

‘Akka dama mia, akka buna urga’

(As sweet as honey, as savoury as coffee)
- Oromo saying