Tour de Ethiopique

When the day of departure finally came, the early morning sun was shining brightly in a big, blue African sky without a threatening storm cloud in sight – the first time in a month. A sign that Kareumt (the long rainy season from June – September) was finally coming to an end as the warm rays bathed the Friary garden with the promise of an Ethiopian spring.

Brother Lucas helps out with some essential bike maintenance to get the Sherpa ready for the (off) road

After bidding farewell to the Brothers over a simple breakfast of honey and bread, washed down with copious amounts of freshly prepared coffee, I took a deep breath and started to turn my wheels once more.

If the truth be told, I had mixed emotions; elated to be back on my trusty steed again, sad to leave the company of the St Francis Capuchin community that had been my home for a nearly a month, and a little nervous about the prospect of encountering the battalions of stone throwing children that I have heard so much about. Whether there is any substance to this myth or not, their reputation certainly precedes them. Either way,  I was soon going to find out en-route to the southern Ethiopian coffee growing highlands of Yirga Cheffe. My mission? To help out with the agricultural activities on a Oromia cooperative farm in preparation for the coming harvest. The only thing that stood in my way was 500kms of winding Ethiopian asphalt through fertile farmland and the Lake Abiata-Shala National Park where tales of highway bandits that lie in wait on the roadside abound. Putting this last thought out of my mind, I pressed foot firmly to pedal and pushed on. There was no turning back now.

The pan-African colours of the national flag to mark the recent passing of the Ethiopian New Year (in the Coptic calendar the year is 2004) fluttered in the breeze as I free-wheeled the gentle downhill into Addis city centre. A quick detour to say goodbye to the good people at Tomoca Café and to stock up with half-a-kilo of their fine freshly roasted Longberry Harrar Coffee – a perfect primer for the Bialetti and calf muscles – and I was on my way: A five-day ride south beckoned. At least.

Leaving the smudge of the smoggy city skyline behind me, I felt like I was cycling out of a high altitude portal of relative modernity into a completely different world. The harsh glint of the, by now, hot midday sun reflected by the corrugated iron roofs of Addis’ suburban tin shacks soon softened into a rural pastiche straight out of a scene from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Nestled amongst the fields of maize, shady enset (false banana), teff, avocado and papaya, are the impressive Tukus – traditional round huts with thatched conical roofs – that stand like large pepper pots made of mud and straw. Oxen, goats, an occasional forlorn looking mule tethered to a wooden cart, and chickens scratching around in the undergrowth completed the sensation of being teleported to the pastoral idyl of the Shire. High above, vultures slowly rode the thermals in long circular arcs, like the undead Nazgul of the skies, scouting for the next road kill on the menu far below.

In terms of geographical phenomena, the Great Rift Valley is a masterwork of Mother Nature in progress. Riding a small part of this massive tectonic fissure in the Earth’s crust that stretches from the Arabian Peninsula all the way down to Mozambique is truly a sight to behold. Scarred, gaping mouths of extinct volcanoes dot the landscape like giant eroded cones rising of out of the expanse of the vast valley floor. Tree-clad tabletop ridges flank the horizon on each side whilst ancient igneous debris is strewn everywhere. A fine red dust of the African earth coats everything; clothes, hair, brakes, chain and, no doubt, the lungs.  Once the primal forces that are literally tearing this part of the African continent in two have finished their subterranean work in another million years (give or take a few), this 4000km long valley connected by a string of lakes will be reclaimed by the deep waters of the Red Sea.

Marvelling at this dramatic story of almost biblical proportions being played out over geological time only added to the drama on the road. Despite being regularly enveloped in the thick black soot that belches out of the back of the ubiquitous Isuzu trucks (often stacked at an gravity-defying angle or crammed full with a dozen-or-so windswept camels) that zoom passed with clockwork predictability (and cringing proximity), I was coming to terms with a force to be reckoned with of a different kind.

With more regularity than an Isuzu, my journey so far has become increasingly accompanied by an entertaining roadside repertoire of call and response. The exchange goes something like this:

Habasha (Ethiopian): Faranj, faranji, faranj, faranji!
Faranji (Foreigner) on a bike:
You, you, you, you, you…
: Hey you, how are you?!
Where you go?

[Interchangeable with any other destination you care to mention. Recent port of calls have been the Sea of Tranquillity; Dagobah; Utopia; the fourth dimension; Birmingham; Buna ersha (coffee farm); or just plain and simple – but to the point; as far as my legs will carry me…]

Habasha: Money, money, where’s my money!
Sorry, no money!
Good, good, very good. One Birr, give me one Birr!
Sorry, no Birr!
Caramello, give me one caramello!
Sorry, no caramello!
Pen, pen, give me pen!
Sorry, no pen!
I love you!
I love you too!
Thank you!
You, you, you, you, you, you…!”

[Repeat as desired]

And my all time favourite so far….

Habasha: Never mind.

 [Spoken by a young girl who was herding her wayward band of goats off the road as she nonchalantly glanced at my bike with pity as I laboured up a hill] 

At first, it is easy to feel a little besieged by the attention that a ‘faranji’ on a bicycle appears to attract. But once you start to peel away the vocal layers of this roadside choir, the essence is one of pure excitement. In fact, it becomes more endearing as each day passes. I’ll try to explain.

The choral ensemble is usually marshalled by an eagle-eyed child, sometimes up to a hundred yards away. Raising the ‘faranji alarm’, said child begins to run at full pelt towards the road as fast as their legs will carry them. This in turn alerts other children in the vicinity to the faranji pedalling in their midst. Within a matter of moments, a growing number of nimble-footed ‘faranji alarms’ are now running in hot pursuit. To the staccato cries of ‘you, you you, you!’ they reach the roadside in such a fever pitch that their voices are cracking by the sheer exertion of their little lungs. All you can do is wave and smile with equal enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the adults look on watchfully and either give a bemused wave or join in with the collective ensemble. As you can imagine, any prospect of wild camping has been on a sliding scale between nil and zero.

The question poses, how do you deal with these wide-eyed, adorable, excitable, energetic, vocal scamps of the road? My strategy to date is two-fold. Firstly, I promised to pimp my ride a while back in Lebanon. So I did with the national flag.

Indeed, this only adds to the hysteria but as a mere guest in their country, the least I can do is proudly fly the colours of this enchanting, beautiful, diverse, life reaffirming land of wide, beaming smiles.

The second method I’ve tried to employ is to engage in the good-natured banter as much as humanly possible. I’ve saluted, waved, bowed, grinned, pulled faces, and laughed – sometimes to the point where I have had to hit the brakes for fear of falling off my bike from laughing too hard – at the sheer surreal nature of the whole situation. Okay, I admit that I’m not going to start trying to perform some kind of two-wheeled circus act anytime soon, but my desire to interact in a sincere but humorous way is just as strong, even if it does shave a few kilometres off my daily average. Their speed and stamina is astounding too. It really does come as no surprise that Ethiopia is home to some of the world’s finest long-distance runners when entire classrooms of young Haile Gabrselassie’s have given chase for well over a kilometre without any visible signs of fatigue.  My own fitness levels have truly been put to shame.

The ride has not been without its fair share of perils either. Any food strapped to the back of the bike is, par the course, fair game. I’ve heard (and felt) the crack of a whip split the air just a little too close for comfort by curious young shepherds who have turned their attention away from their grazing cattle to see how a pedalling ‘faranji’ responds, if subjected to similar treatment. Likewise, small mischievous hands have tried (unsuccessfully to my huge relief) to poke a stick into the Sherpa’s wheels in a bid to force me to screech to a stop. Yes, I’ve had countless children climb onto the back of the bike in an attempt to hitch a ride home. Yes, stones and other missiles such as the discarded remains of a chewed husk of maize have been flung my way with varying degrees of accuracy. And yes, I’m keeping count. (Please see the right hand column for a running tally – currently the ‘habasha home team’ have the lead by a narrow margin).

This is not to mention the uninvited amoebas that had taken up residence in my gut, forcing an unscripted few days’ recovery whilst I nuked my system with an arsenal of strong antibiotics in the lovely lakeside town of Awasa.

A small price to pay for an unforgettable experience so far… Just.

People often ask me why on earth I am travelling alone. The truth of the matter is that in Ethiopia, you never are actually ‘alone’. Well, not for long anyway. Kids of all ages sporting brightly coloured Chinese-made bikes festooned with reflectors have often joined me for a stretch to the next village, only to ‘pass on the baton’ to another budding young gang of cyclists. Safe in the knowledge that there will always be a crowd of cheering children waiting round the next corner, I can’t help but sometimes feel like I’m completing a never-ending final stage of ‘Le Tour de Ethiopique’.

It’s as energizing as it is exhausting.

No yellow jersey or finishing line in this ‘race’ though; only a sure, steady ‘sprint’ towards the birthplace of the bean.

Next stop: The primary coffee cooperative of Killenso Mokonisa to stay on a family run farm where I will be temporarily trading my cycling mits for gardening gloves. A daily routine of weeding, seed bed preparation, clearing diseased crops, collecting water from the river, and cutting back the overgrown shade trees awaits just as the uniquely floral-tasting Yirga Cheffe variety of coffee berries are now beginning to ripen on the branch. Magic.

A Family Affair

Eleven years ago, a man with a visionary idea walked into the Government office of Ato Tadele Dargie to seek his advice. The idea was so bold, so ambitious, that Tadele was prepared to do everything he could do to help turn this idea into reality. Many years of little contact passed between the two men after their encounter on that auspicious day. Then, early one morning, Tadele received an unexpected phone call. He knew exactly what was being asked of him when the voice at the other end of the line said the words: ‘The day has arrived, I need you now’.

That man was Ato Tadesse Meskela.

Fast forward more than a decade and I’m standing on the steps to the entrance of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union’s (OCFCU) new offices, 30kms south of Addis Ababa. Tadele, electrical engineer by trade, and brains behind the design of the state-of-the-art coffee processing facility is retelling the story of how he and Tadesse first met.

Opened at the start of this year, the bright, airy four-story office building overlooks a factory with a cavernous warehouse adjoined at one side. At full capacity, the facility can process a staggering six tons of coffee an hour. This is no mean feat when you consider that the raw green beans are separated in three stages; by size, density and colour. The facility is surprisingly devoid of dust too, courtesy of a powerful – and ingenious – reverse suction system. A whistle-stop tour of the plant reveals the mechanised complexity of the entire process; siphons, hoppers, destoners, and a high-tech Cimbria photosensitive grading machine are all connected by a spaghetti junction of pipes and pulley systems. To the rhythmic rattle and hum of mechanical noise, the vast majority (95%) of foreign matter and defect beans are removed. The last stage is done by a keen eye and dexterity of the hand. Over one hundred women workers are seated at a long line of conveyor belts to perform the final stage of quality control, bean-by-bean, before it finds its way into 60kg sacks ready for shipment.

You can see them at work here.

Tadesse Meskela, General Manager and Founder of the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU), emerges from behind the polished glass front doors beaming with the same shared sense of pride. With a brotherly camaraderie, they exchange a fond farewell and quickly pose for a snap next to the union’s elegantly sculptured bronze coffee farmer which stands in pride of place outside the entrance.

So who is Tadesse Meskela? From a loyal family man with a wife and five children; astute businessman to his contemporaries in the coffee sector; paternalistic leader with boundless levels of energy to his Union colleagues and cooperative members; driving force behind the award-winning film about coffee and trade Black Gold; staunch humanitarian and fair trade campaigner; Tadesse is many things to many people. Yet his unfailing determination to improve the economic and social livelihoods of tens of thousands of Ethiopian coffee farmers is an inspiration to all.

Born into a family of twelve siblings with three sisters and eight brothers, some of his earliest memories are of helping his father tend to the livestock and crops on the family farm in the central highlands. Like many of his fellow countrymen and women, his upbringing was dominated by the rhythms of the land and farming life from an early age. This continued all the way through his school years, despite having to make the two-and-a-half hour trek on foot each way to attend secondary school. It was during these formative years that he observed how the odds were stacked against farmers as they struggled to fetch a fair price for their crop in the marketplace. He remembers how it was his mathematics teacher who enlightened him about modern agricultural practices at college and inspired him to bring about change to the agricultural conditions of the country. A pivotal moment in his life, Tadesse was spurred on to study for a BSc in Agricultural Economics at university.

As we drive through twists and turns of the suburbs outside Addis, he tells me: ‘After my studies, I worked to organise grain farmers into cooperatives during the time of the socialist era. What I saw were farmers producing coffee but not benefiting from the coffee sector. That is how I came to know that the beneficiaries were the traders, collectors, suppliers, exporters. It is they who were benefiting from the producer. The only way for farmers to overcome their problems was to bring them closer to the buyers abroad – the roasters and consumers – so that the farmers could get a good price for their coffee’.

The seed of the OCFCU was first planted during the crash in the global coffee price of the early nineties, in part due to the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) in 1989. Without a stabilizing mechanism in place to regulate world prices between major producer and consumer counties, the cost of coffee was subject to the ‘hidden hand’ of  market forces and went into free fall. Within three years, the international coffee price had crashed by 70% to an all time low of $0.49 per pound. Fuelled by a new creed of unchecked export-led development enthusiastically embraced by world development banks, and multinationals such as the ‘Big Four’ – Nestlé, Proctor & Gamble, Kraft, Sara Lee – who encouraged increased production of the bitter-tasting (and considered lower quality) Robusta variety in countries such as Vietnam, a glut of oversupply exasperated the slump. For Ethiopian farmers, this was in effect a ‘double whammy’ to their livelihoods as they struggled to bounce back from the decade-long Coffee Crisis. Communities were devastated, farmers were forced to abandon their homes in search of work elsewhere (or switched to growing more lucrative cash crops such as the leafy narcotic chat), whilst levels of child malnutrition rose.

When you consider that one-quarter of Ethiopian households are directly or indirectly dependent on the coffee sector – contributing more than sixty percent to Ethiopia’s foreign exchange – it was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster that deepened the vicious cycle of poverty for millions.

‘The price of coffee is decided without considering the lives of the producers, the cost of production, and the cost of living. During that time, farmers were losing a lot of money. People were getting hungry because of the low price of coffee. By empowering cooperatives to come together, they would have greater bargaining powers to sell their produce for a better price by bypassing the middle men.’ Tadesse added.

The seed began to take root in 1994 when he visited Japan for two months to study the development of agricultural cooperatives in Asia. Seeing the direct benefit to producers for himself, he decided to bring the model of forming a privately owned, democratically run coffee cooperative union back and apply it in his own country.

The task ahead was huge. As ninety-five percent of Ethiopia’s coffee production comes from smallholder farms – who are extremely vulnerable to the wild fluctuations of the international foreign exchange markets in financial centres such as New York and London – he needed to achieve the economies of scale to engage effectively with a global free market economy. Although most people would be resigned to begrudgingly accept the seemingly insurmountable downward pressures of the global marketplace and unpredictability of the country’s traditional ‘auction house’ system (now replaced by the booming Ethiopian Commodities Exchange where commodities are still bought and sold on the trading floor with a ‘high five’), Tadesse was undeterred and ploughed on. After seeking agreement from the 34 primary coffee cooperatives that they would be willing to work together in union, Tadesse proceeded to lobby the lawmakers in Parliament. His powers of negotiation evidently worked because in 1998, the Council of Ministers approved an amendment to resolution 147 to allow for the formation of cooperative unions.

With no time to waste, he set out to establish the Oromia’s Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union in June the following year with four clear goals:

  • To improve farmers income by selling their coffee for a higher price
  • To improve and maintain quality, productivity and sustainability of coffee production
  • To regulate and stabilize the local market
  • To assist coffee communities in providing social services such as schools, health centres and clean water

Its mission serves to make small holder farmers economically self-sufficient (as opposed to aid dependent) and their households’ food secure through the mobilisation of individual coffee cooperatives into an organised union. By forging a direct link between farmers and international markets, the union can promote its member’s coffee – for a better price. In just over a decade, the OCFCU has expanded from 34 to 197 primary cooperatives representing nearly 200,000 household farmers across the Oromia region today.

Geographically, the federal state is as vast as it is culturally, linguistically and ecologically diverse. One of eleven regions that make up the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia; Oromia stretches from the Sudanese border in the west, the Kenyan border in the south, to Harar in the east, with Addis Ababa at its centre. It is the widely differing characteristics of the union’s single-origin coffee that reflects these contrasts so perfectly: From the floral richness of Yirgacheffe to sweet Sidamo, the long finish of Lekempti to the winey Limu, crowned by the spicy, mocha infusion of Harar; there is variation to suit every palate – or time of day.

Coffee Farmers' training workshop in Jimma

The secret to the OCFCU’s success is the participation of its members and central role that training plays, something which Tadesse regards as a vital tool for development. ‘We help farmers to work together to increase the quality of their product through better training in good agronomic practices, processing coffee, machinery maintenance and management’, he says with a clear, resonant voice that is amplified by his broad frame. In economic terms, it’s a blindingly obvious motive and a shrewd business move rolled into one. By focusing their priorities on producing quality beans over quantity, the cooperatives are responding to the speciality coffee market which is currently enjoying sustained growth. This year alone, the union has already invested 1m Ethiopian Birr (ETB) to roll out training programmes across the length and breadth of the region. More than 200 ‘trainer’ farmers have participated so far. Through a method of ‘cascading,’ skills and expertise are imparted to other cooperative members, increasing the impact exponentially.

When it comes to the quality of Ethiopian coffee on the international stage, Tadesse is unequivocal in his conviction: `The world recognises that Ethiopia is the birthplace of Arabica coffee – you don’t get the quality of coffee like you get in Ethiopia. Other coffees may fetch a higher price not because of quality but because of promotion; when it comes to coffee, Ethiopian coffee is the best in the world,’ Tadesse says as he gestures to our driver to pull into the roadside. A group of excited children gather at the window, each holding up half-a-dozen startled looking chickens. Joyfully, he leaps out of the car to barter the price for three birds to take home to the family for the impending Ethiopia New Year festivities. As we drive on, he applauds their entrepreneurship: ‘They’re involved in direct sales, a fair trade between seller and buyer.’ Why should coffee be any different?

One of his achievements that he speaks of most proudly is his effort to raise the issue of one of the underlying causes of poverty; unfair trade. With the help of international partners such as Oxfam and Global Exchange, he has travelled the world to talk to audiences about the realities of the coffee farmer in his country. The catalyst to his ceaseless campaign work arrived in 2006 with the release of the critically acclaimed film, Black Gold. Filmed, directed and produced by brothers Nick and Marc Francis, its worldwide impact catapulted the 53 year-old and his powerful message into the limelight. The feature-length documentary went on to take the film festivals and cinemas around the world by storm with its hard-hitting exposé on the inequities of a rigged global trade system in favour of rich countries. It still continues to resonate with audiences today, illustrated by the recently launched Black Gold Foundation, a partnership with the Lorna Young Foundation and the filmmakers.

Increasing year-on-year demand for the OCFCU’s fairtrade, organic (certified by bodies such as FLO, UTZ and Oko Garanite) coffee – and the premium it receives from this – has done much to finance a whole host of social and public works. In addition, the union augments the premium with a dividend (70% of net profit) which is paid back to its member cooperative societies based on their level of participation each year. Since 2003, sixteen primary schools, six junior, and six high schools have been either refurbished or built from scratch. Eight health clinics offering life-saving medical treatment as well as family planning services have been established. More than sixty clean water points have been funded for its members. This is in addition to a number of infrastructure projects such as the construction of bridges and flour mills.

Whilst its conventional coffee is still traceable right back down the value chain to the producer, just over one-in-ten of the union’s beans are certified organic (13%); and fairtrade (12%) respectively. This is partly due to the volume of paperwork and strict criteria that accreditation bodies require for full endorsement – a huge challenge when the illiteracy rate in Ethiopia hovers around 50 percent in rural areas. The irony is that due to economic restraints in obtaining pesticides and other toxic agricultural chemicals, approximately 95% of Ethiopian coffee is actually organic.

In terms of production potential, the union stands on solid foundations. Currently, its member cooperatives own 60 pulperies, 26 hullers, and 75 warehouses across the region. The combined effort yields and annual coffee production potential of 234,970 tons per year from an area under cultivation of more than 300,000 hectares. At the annual General Assembly meeting in a few weeks’ time, there are already twenty new cooperative applications pending approval. Tadesse mentions that in line with the Government’s plan to double the nation’s coffee production in the next five years, its members are aiming to upscale their annual yield potential to 400,000 tonnes.

With the assistance of Dutch-based NGO Solidaridad, honey exports are now well within his sights. A plot of land has just been secured for a new facility that will start processing organic Ethiopian Highland Honey for domestic and international consumers next year. As a means to diversify farmers’ income, modern beekeeping methods encourage the conservation of the forests that offer the ideal shade growing conditions for the coffee Arabica tree to thrive. The by-product is honey: A perfect symbiosis of sustainable development, ecological management and agricultural economics. ‘This is how you fight poverty,’ he says with deep resolve as a large herd of goats being hurried to market blurs passed.

But the expansion doesn’t stop there. Tadesse continues: ‘We have plans to roast our own fine beans for the benefit of coffee drinkers in Ethiopia and neighbouring countries.’ Meanwhile, the plump golden-crested cockerel perched on the back seat of the car chimes in with a resounding cry, as if to underscore the statement of intent, yet blissfully unaware of his own fate.

It could be said that the seed of the Oromia Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative Union that was planted many years ago is now bearing the fruit of one man’s passion and full-throttle determination. But it would be wide of the mark. ‘We work together as a family’, Tadesse conjectures, ‘a family that is genuine, positive-thinking and has respect for the human being’

When you buy Oromia, you’re buying into more than coffee – from tree to cup.

Let the Cupping Commence

An inviting aromatic smell of freshly roasted beans was our cue to enter the laboratory. The air of anticipation was almost palpable as we reverently filed into the spotlessly clean room. To one end stood a German manufactured Probat double chambered micro roaster elegantly fashioned out of copper and steel that continued to radiate heat from the morning’s batch. Two beady eyes in the form of analogue temperature gauges perched on top gazed out over the proceedings that were about to take place. Heading up the investigation team, Coffee Quality Section Head and expert Licensed Grader (cupper), Ato Tilahun Mekonen, assumed the air of a seasoned detective looking for the first vital clues of the day as he studied the evidence carefully laid out before him.

On the white counter, ten random samples of Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union’s (OCFCU) export-quality coffee were arranged in a line of blue trays. There were two dishes for each sample; one containing 100g of green coffee, the other freshly – and evenly – roasted. Senior Cupping Expert, Ato Dayne Chomen, who wore the lab coat of a scrupulous scientist about to evaluate his finely honed hypothesis, started to jot down his observations. Also in attendance was the Union’s resident expert on crop diseases, Ato Getachen Zeleke; a Senior Agronomist who advises the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and teaches at the Addis Ababa University in his spare time… Then there was me; an uninitiated novice with only an innate desire to educate my illiterate taste buds and learn from the master tasters in what was to be my first ever experience of cupping.

The art – and science – of coffee cupping essentially boils down (no pun intended) to the practice of evaluating the distinctive characteristics inherent in the bean, according to its origin. Through a series of observations, tasting trials and by a method of like-for-like comparison, the experienced cupper can accurately assess and gain a deeper understanding of a coffee’s unique character.

In front of each numbered sample, five cups of medium coarse ground coffee were arranged. In turn, we cupped – with both hands – each vessel before raising its heavenly contents to our noses in order to allow the aroma to entice our nostrils. This was followed by a close inspection of the samples to look for any potential defects (over-dryed, under-dryed, immature berry, coated, fungus damage, insect damage, cracks etc) and to ascertain an appreciation of its odour, colour, shape and size. To my untrained eye, it was clear that each sample varied in these specific characteristics. Some samples contained a more pointed bean with a deep central fissure (Harrar), whilst others were more rounded and compact (Djimmah). The subtle hues varied too. From bluish to grayish, greenish – sometimes with a silver skin – to a faded white; the clues to the morning’s detective story were just starting to be revealed.

Armed with an enormous kettle of boiling water that had been allowed to settle for a couple of minutes, Getachen stepped forward and proceeded to wet each cup to the brim. All the while gently stirring the grounds with a smooth circular motion as he poured. Allowing time for the coffee to infuse, the room was filled with an even greater complexity of aroma as the coffee’s chemical compounds react with the hot water’s excited hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Eagerly waiting for the opportunity to sample my first infusion, I thought about the various stages that the coffee berry has been through just to reach this crucial cupping stage. If you consider that the process of roasting itself is somewhat of a ‘baptism of fire’ for the bean, we were now collectively witnessing the blossoming of each coffee’s individual character; the product of a whole host of combined genetic, agronomic, processing and environmental factors. Indeed, the coffee had come long way from its early days as immature green cherries clustered together on the kindergarten of the Arabica mother tree branch to be here.

Before the slurping got under way, the ‘crust’ was ceremoniously broken and any remaining grind removed by scooping the viscous surface with spoons. Tilahun inaugurated the tasting session with a powerful inhalation of such force that at first I thought the roasting machine had miraculously sprung back into life. Gingerly filling a cupping spoon with my own first infusion of the morning, I discarded any feelings of self-consciousness and attempted to follow suit in a similar forceful fashion. To some embarrassment, this merely left me reeling as I coughed and spluttered to fight back the coffee that had continued its journey southerly down my windpipe. Hardly the most composed start to my own coffee tasting journey, but a start nonetheless.

The rationale behind the intense slurping is twofold, explained Dayne: Firstly, the powerful inhalation helps to vaporise the coffee so that is drawn to the roof of the mouth before reaching the back of the throat. Although this appears to enhance our sense of taste, it is in an actual fact our sense of smell that is doing the heavy lifting as the aroma of the vapour stimulates the nasal cavities. Secondly, the action aids an even spread of infusion to tickle and tantalize the range of sweet, sour, salty and bitter sensitive taste buds that cover the different zones of the tongue. It is from this information that the cupper can ‘read’ the level of acidity and intensity of flavour. The coffee is then turned around the mouth to detect any lingering after notes before being ejected into a waist height industrial-sized spittoon on wheels.

Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia Coffee describes the exercise as ‘there is no mystery to cupping, only endless intrigue.’ I now fully understand what he means. The sensations that are revealed through the cupping are a precursor to a torrent of descriptors that flash up in the mind like a series of numbers being called from the bingo floor. The exception is, the adjectives are far from random. The whole sensory exercise is subjective to the individual taster concerned however. For example, I have my own notion of what a lemon tastes like compared to, say, a lime – but I can bet my bottom Ethiopian Birr on it not being exactly the same as anyone else’s interpretation of one citrus fruit to another. Throughout the cupping session, Tilahun encouraged me draw on my own reference points to describe the flavour and verbalise what was popping into my mind.

And what a detective journey it was! From the bright, floral flavours of washed Yirgacheffe and the sharp, spicy overtones of Sidamo, to the full-bodied mocha taste of Harar-origin coffee, each region had a distinctly unique characteristic of its own. A good few slurps later and my head was spinning with the sudden peak in levels of caffeine in my system. Taking a backseat (literally), I watched the master detectives go on to combine two coffees of differing grades from the Limu region to bring out the best balance in flavour, body and acidity before quality assuring it for export.

Cupping, like any appreciation of good food or drink is not only a celebration of the senses but a veritable feast for the curious mind and a fertile imagination.



On the Coffee Trail to Constantinople

I like taking detours. It’s the liberating, unscripted sense of seizing the moment and flying in the face of a predetermined itinerary. After all, I’ve committed myself to follow the bean wherever it will take me and this was to be no exception…

So when I took the short boat trip from Europe (Lesvos, Greece) to Asia Minor (Ayvalik, Turkey), my original plan was to push on south to the Mediterranean coast; until I reached the historic town of Bergama – or Pergamon as it was known in Ancient Greece – that is. Waking up at daybreak in a campsite-come-car-park to the sound of the call to prayer rising from the ruins of the Basilica opposite, now a Mosque, the words ‘Coffee’ and ‘Constantinople’ drifted across my caffeine-starved brain. My decision was made. Soon after a timid attempt at preparing my first Turkish coffee (with dubious success) on the stove for the two helpful boys who ran the car wash opposite, I packed up the gear and turned my wheels in the opposite direction towards Istanbul, and back into Europe.

Three days later and 300 kms through rolling hills, pine forests, more dramatic electric storms, remote villages and the occasional feral dog giving a half-hearted chase, I made it to the harbour town of Bandirma. Acting on the advice of fellow cycle tourers not to enter Istanbul by bike unless you have a death wish, I opted to take the boat. Soon enough, the sight of the soaring 17th century spires of the imperial Sultenhamet Mosque – or the Blue Mosque as it is often referred to – emerged from the haze of the Marmara Denizi (Sea of Mamara) horizon. Hardly able to contain my excitement at reaching the shores of this thriving megalopolis that has been a geographical and cultural ‘bridge’ between the East and West for so long, I completely forgot my fear of the chaotic traffic and hopped onto the bike to join the cacophony of car horns. My mission? To better understand the introduction of coffee to the city and its ‘conquest’ of the Ottoman Empire, many centuries ago. Oh, and to learn how to make a decent cup of Turkish Coffee.

The Wine of the Islamic World

Istanbul – formerly Constantinople – can lay claim to some pretty special world firsts as far as coffee is concerned. Evidence suggests that coffee was first brought to the  city by the Arabs from Yemen around the 14th century where the coffee’s dried hulls and beans were roasted using metal or earthenware dishes heated over an open fire. By the 15th century, there were so many people drinking coffee in the city that the world’s first kahveh kane (coffee house), Kiva Han, opened its doors in 1475. In the same year, it was made legal for a woman to divorce her husband if he failed to provide her with her daily quota of coffee. In fact, Ottoman enthusiasm for the custom of drinking coffee was such that in 1511, Khair Bey, the corrupt governor of Mecca, prohibited coffee consumption fearing that its mysterious power might ferment public resistance to his rule. The fatwa effectively shut down the coffee trade in Constantinople. After a week-long ‘reign of terror’ by the merchants, the Sultan of Cairo decided that coffee was a blessed drink and had the governor subsequently executed. It seems that with the spread of Islam, the bean soon followed in hot pursuit and nothing – or nobody – could stand in its way.

Here’s an early account of coffee in Constantinople by Francis Bacon in 1627:

‘They have in Turkey, a Drinke called Coffa, made of a Berry of the same Name, as Blacke as Soot, and of a strong Sent, but not Aromaticall;
Which they take, beaten into Powder, in Water, as Hot as they can Drinke it;
And they take it, and sit in their Coffa-Houses, which are like our Tavernes.
This Drinke comforteth the Braine, and Heart, and helpeth Digestion’.

Coffee had indeed become the ‘wine’ of Islam.

A vital clue as to how much coffee is now ingrained in the life of Turkish culture can be found in the language. For example, the word for ‘breakfast’ (khvalti) literally means ‘before coffee’ whilst the word for ‘brown’ (kahverengi) refers to ‘the colour of coffee’. Even in matrimonial matters, the bride will prepare Turkish Coffee for her guests and will use salt instead of sugar to season the groom’s ceremonial beverage. If he drinks the coffee without sign of displeasure or complaint, then he is regarded as a husband of good nature and temperament. Husbands-to-be, beware!

Now herein lies the paradox: Whilst fresh coffee still holds an exceptional place in Turkish culture and custom, the reality is that instant coffee is fast becoming a popular caffeinated beverage of choice for the younger generation especially, after çay (tea). Looking to buy some Turkish Coffee for my newly purchased cesve (coffee pot), It’s not uncommon to see the instant variety (sorry, but I just can’t bring myself to call it coffee!) in pride-of-place next to the counter. Yet there is no ground coffee in sight. Scanning the shelves a little closer, I’ve even discovered it relegated to the bottom shelf next to the Ajax and toilet cleaner. It was such a sight for sore eyes that I almost wept. Sadly, convenience (and big marketing budgets) yet again triumphs over taste and tradition.

Keeping the Coffee House flame Alive

To find a good coffee house, you only have to follow your nose. My first lead was a recommendation from an American whom I had met whilst we enjoyed a tasty roadside kebap. Early next day, I headed across the Bosphorus in search of the one of the few speciality micro-roasters in town. Despite becoming hopelessly lost in the side streets and back alleys of the bohemian area around the Galata Tower and Taksim, it was actually the warm inviting smell of freshly roasted beans that eve ntually guided me in. Finally, my tired legs were at the threshold of Cherrybean Coffees. Inside, traditional cezves and other coffee-related paraphernalia were decoratively arranged along one side of the cafe. Behind the jelly beans, almond dragee, assorted chocolates and homemade cake-laden counter stood a gleaming 10kg Toper coffee roasting machine ready for the next batch. Rhythmic blues and rock n’roll was the soundtrack to two middle-aged women locked in a fierce game of Scrabble, whilst books and magazines were strewn across the small round tables. The atmosphere was relaxed and easy-going; the perfect setting to while away the time with a good novel or engage in conversation, and drink coffee. On the side of each cup is the motto ‘şehirde taze kahve var…’ (there’s fresh coffee in the city). This was my kind of place.

Ali and Efe were the two expert, friendly Baristas running the establishment, owned by Ali’s sister Sehriban. We soon struck up conversation after I had managed to fend off my fatigue with a slice of their delicious cinnamon and vanilla homemade cake washed down with a rich double macchiato of their ‘Fancy’ blend (South American and Kenyan AA). Having opened for busines two years ago, Cherrybean Coffees is at the vanguard of the fledgling speciality coffee scene in Istanbul and is one of the few independent coffee houses that roasts its beans on-site; according to demand so as to ensure it is always served fresh.

In addition to the variety of blends for filter coffee and espresso, they also prepare their own special blends of Turkish Coffee in two varieties: the Keyif (medium) and the full, high-octane, roasted Tiryaki – Turkish for ‘addictive’. Judging from the aroma alone, it’s easy to see why. Sworn to secrecy not to disclose the secret of the blend’s origins, Efe patiently went through the stages of how to make a good Turkish coffee with me before dashing behind the counter to prepare a brew of his own. Eager to taste, I reached straight for the coffee as soon as he had set the cup and saucer onto the table. This prompted both of them to cry out for me to ‘Stop!’ as if I was just about to commit a cardinal sin. Lesson number one: Turkish coffee is always taken with a glass of water and the first rite of coffee drinking in Turkey is to clear the palate with a small sip. Only then can the full and wholesome flavour of the bean be appreciated. It was accompanied with a piece of their own homemade pistachio double roasted Turkish Delight. The combination was an epiphany for the taste buds! But as the sun hung low over the Bosphorus it was time to reluctantly cross the choppy straights once more. Before saying our farewells, I stocked up on a fresh bag of the nutty ‘Fancy’ blend with which to prime the Bialetti. In a gesture of typical Turkish generosity that I’m starting to become humbly accustomed to, Ali offered me a gift of Keyif Turkish Coffee to savour and help hone my Turkish Coffee making skills on the road.

Turkish Coffee: From the Palace to the Bazaar

To fully appreciate the significance of coffee in Turkish culture, I think you would have to travel back in time to the days of the Ottoman Empire. Falling short of procuring a time machine or a chance encounter with The Doctor, the next best thing was to visit the Palace Collections Museum that houses historical items from the Dolmabahçe Palace. Like a jewel bestriding the Bosphorus rivaling Versailles for its opulence and fusion of Rococo, Baroque and Neoclassical styles blended with Ottoman architecture, the grande gates of the palace were firmly closed shut. Yet, despite all warnings to the contrary at the information desk, my luck held out and sure enough, the Art Gallery was not only open but did not charge a tourist tax in the form of an admission fee either. The exhibition, wistfully entitled, Sarayda Bir Fincan Kahve (A Cup of Coffee in the Palace in Memory of Old Times), displays objects that were used in coffee ceremonies during the reign of the Sultans until the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924.

Studying the objects on display, it becomes clear that the Turks gave coffee a unique identity all of its own by their distinctive means of preparation, serving and the rituals surrounding the beverage’s consumption. Coffee culture had clearly reached a stage of supreme development during this era. In the palaces, harems and kiosks of the well healed, the experience of drinking coffee had evolved into a visual feast to complement and tantalize the rest of the senses. During the Ottoman period, coffee became one of the most important rituals in daily life and special occasions. The serving of coffee often started with sweets such as Turkish delight and sherbet. This was followed by the smoking of a water pipe with fragrant apple or cherry-infused tobacco. The beverage itself was served by the brazier (sili), cups and cup holders (zarl) which were some of the best works of art to survive from that period. The chief Coffee Master (khaveci başi) responsible for serving the coffee also had to take care of the ornate paraphernalia associated with the ceremony. This included the coffee cups, holders, sili sets, sumptuous ceremonial coffee clothes and ornate ibriks (vessels) for serving rosewater. The drink was served on an exquisitely embroided circular cloth (puşide) that was detailed with gold or silver flowers and pearls. The exhibition also displays some stunning sets of coffee cups and holders crafted from finely cut crystal that catch the eye with a bright sparkle under the dim glow of the halogen lights. Unfortunately, taking photographs in the exhibition was prohibited so you’ll just have to take my word for it!

For centuries, coffee was purchased as a green bean and taken home to be roasted in pans and grinded in mortars or hand-operated mills. It was not until 1871 when Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi (Kurukahveci means ‘dealer in roasted coffee beans and ground coffee’) first established his enterprise of commercially mass-producing ground, roasted coffee. The family business is now run by his grandsons and has become such a success that Mehmet Efendi is now synonymous with Turkish Coffee.

Egyptian Spice Market in the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

A venture through the bustling labyrinth of streets in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is an unforgettable assault on the senses. One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, the vast, sprawling roofed complex provides shelter and storage for sellers of jewellery, antiquities, leather, clothes and spices amongst other goods. The persistence of the salesmen and their sales skills are such that I am seriously convinced they could sell ice to an Eskimo. Again, I only had to follow my nose though the spice market to find the historic Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi coffee shop. The establishment was obviously doing a roaring trade and the queue stretched far into the distant throng of shoppers. It is an incredible sight to behold. Nine or so teenaged young men form a conveyor belt along the window-fronted shop. From the weighing of the ground Brazilian (unwashed) Arabica bean, to the various stages of packing and final transaction with the customer, each is responsible for a specific task whilst the only legally aged adult in the shop keeps a watchful eye over the whole frantically paced process. The speed and dexterity in which the boys’ hands packaging the coffee into their respective weights (40g, 100g, 250, 500g and 1kg) is truly astonishing. You’ll see what I mean if you view the short clip here. Meanwhile, three large floor-mounted grinders hum continually in the background, fed by three large metal chutes from the ceiling above. The specialization, division of labour and industrial speed in which the coffee is packaged is a fascinating scene to watch. I am sure it would have made Adam Smith smile with pride if it were not for his concern with pins.

This, sadly, is where the coffee trail in Istanbul ends (for now) and I’m taking the detour back into Asia Minor once again. But the rich history of the city during the days of the Ottamans it has given me a richer, deeper understanding of the important role that coffee plays in establishing and strengthening the bonds of friendship in Turkish culture.

A paragraph from the exhibition’s brochure sums it up for me perfectly. It reads:

‘Coffee once shared has implications that outlive the coffee itself: its suggests peace, friendship, love and respect. This sentiment is crystallised in the Turkish expression which says ‘the memory of a single cup of coffee lasts forty years’.

I’ll drink (Turkish Coffee) to that.

Water is Life

Let’s face it, coffee is a thirsty business. Along with cocoa, cotton, palm oil, soya, maize and rice, coffee is one of the most water-intensive commodities traded globally today.

The huge amounts of water required to ‘de-pulp’ the coffee berry depends heavily on the specific washing process employed after the harvesting of the fruit. The wet fully washed processing method, widely preferred to prepare the coffee Arabica bean for export, is the most intensive by far.

Although washing techniques have improved over the years with greater use of water reuse, up to one to six cubic metres per tonne of fresh coffee cherry is still needed. Without reuse, nearly a staggering 20 cubic metres per tonne is required. To put it another way, on average 140 litres of clean water is required in the production of coffee for every cup.

And it is a sad but inescapable fact that coffee production takes place in some of the most water stressed regions in the world, namely Africa and Asia.

In total, it is estimated that the world’s population currently requires about 110 billion cubic metres of water per year to satisfy our unquenchable thirst for coffee. This is the equivalent to one and a half times the amount of the Rhine’s annual runoff.

Now, I’m not suggesting we should all stop drinking coffee (far from it) as there are more sustainable and less water intensive alternatives available such as the dry or semi-washed method; but what if our need for a daily fresh cup of the black stuff was replaced by a much more pressing – and life saving – concern?

Last week, on Tuesday 22nd March, World Water Day was a crucial moment in the fight against the global sanitation and water crisis.

In recognition of one of the most pressing global issues in the 21st century, the theme for this year is Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge. For the first time in human history, we now inhabit a world where the majority of the world’s population live in cities – 3.3 billion people – and the urban landscape continues to grow. Exponentially.

Compounded by the impacts of climate change, conflict and lack of economic opportunity, the migration from rural to urban areas is gathering pace. Ninety five percent of urban growth will take place in the developing world over the coming decades. By 2030 around 60% of all the people in the world will be urban dwellers; of which many are living in slums conditions lacking the basic services that we in more developed countries take for granted.

This explosion in population and urban growth all points to one overriding factor; increasing demand for clean drinking water and safe sanitation.

Did you know that?

  • More people have mobile phones than a toilet
  • The urban poor pay up to 50 times more for a litre of water than their richer neighbours, since they often have to buy their water from private vendors
  • 828 million people live in slum conditions, lacking basic services. This number grows by 6 million each year
  • Households in rural Africa spend about a quarter of their working day collecting water
  • Pakistan spends 47 times more on the military than on water and sanitation – it is not alone; many countries spend more on guns than on water taps
  • Just one flush of a toilet uses more water than most Africans have to use in a day
  • Half of all hospital beds in the developing world are full with people suffering from water and sanitation related diseases such as malaria, cholera and diarrhoea
  • Diarrhoea caused by unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and insufficient hygiene needlessly kills 4,000 children every day

Of course, it is easy to feel depressed and at times helpless in the face of these stark statistics but the crucial point is that this global crisis can be tackled through practical, sustainable solutions. One international NGO leading the fight to provide clean water, safe sanitation and hygiene education to the world’s poorest people is Water Aid.

Today, you can help to save lives in tackling this global crisis by either visiting the Virgin Money Giving sponsorship page or going to the Water Aid website to find out more about their work, and how to get involved.

There is an old African proverb which says that – unlike the coffee berry – ‘water cannot be washed’. Enough said.

Brewing up the Perfect Storm

The price of coffee is soaring.

Price Index (US cents/lb) from 4th Jan'10 - 7th Feb'11 Source: International Coffee Organization (ICO)

When you consider that coffee is second in value only to oil as a source of foreign exchange in terms of world trade and provides employment for hundreds of millions of people worldwide, the ramifications on a domestic and global scale are huge.

In the past eight months alone, the cost of high-quality washed Arabica beans has increased by more than 80 percent on the London and New York exchanges, representing a 13-year high.

Unpredictable weather patterns and a fragile supply/demand balance are largely cited as being responsible for this surge.

Colombia, the world’s second largest producer of hand-picked Arabica beans after Brazil, has been hit particularly hard. Extreme shifts in climatic conditions have devastated once reliable harvests. Successive years of drought and heavy rainfall have resulted in a steep drop in production from its peak production of 17m bags in 1992 to 8.9m last year.

Rising humidity is also having an impact with crop diseases such as Coffee Leaf Rust and insect infestations like the Broca Beetle reaching epidemic levels. As a result, family growers who have been in the business for generations are now diversifying into farming plantain, avocados and oranges from the rich volcanic soils of their plantations to soften the blow, and ensure their future sustainability.

It is of course true that growers will always welcome a high price for their lucrative cash crop. In India, where unseasonably heavy monsoons have reduced coffee yields in recent years, a BBC report highlights that smaller harvests do not necessarily have to translate into less profit when coffee fetches a premium. However, pressure to produce high quality Arabica beans in the face of climatic change and hyper-volatility of the markets continues to be a concern for growers.

The Fairtrade Foundation are already introducing measures to help mitigate the impact of climate change affecting small scale co-operatives like those in the Mbale region of Uganda. It is feared that the increase in average temperature could cease Arabica bean production entirely within the next decade. When more than half of the country’s GDP is derived from coffee production, the devastation to the economy and livelihoods of millions of Ugandans’ would be nothing short of a catastrophe.

Elsewhere, production is on the up. In Nepal, a relative newcomer as an emerging exporter of Arabica beans, the quantity of  coffee parchments has jumped four-fold in the last five years; partly due to the increase of farmers establishing plantations in the high altitude pastures of the Himalaya. The vast majority of Nepali coffee is also organically grown which is increasingly in demand. Realising this economic potential, the government has introduced measures to further double production in the next three years. Whether this will be fairly traded or not remains to be seen.

As global demand for coffee consumption increases at a steady one to two percent every year without any sign of abating, there is no reason to see why prices will fall anytime soon. The latest forecast in last month’s International Coffee Organization’s (ICO) report estimates a 9.5 percent increase in global production this year (2010/11). Strong exports from countries like Brazil and emerging markets have helped to reverse the 1.2 percent drop in production from the year previously, which means that global stocks will remain low for the foreseeable future. Ominously, the report goes on to conclude that ‘unfavourable weather conditions in major coffee producing regions continue to increase uncertainties.

So what does all this mean for the retailer and customer at the other end of the supply chain?

For specialist independent coffee retailers who are dedicated to selling honestly priced freshly roasted coffee, this could spell difficult times ahead as they struggle to absorb the rising cost of the bean.

'Anyone for a litre of coffee?'

For global coffee chain giants such as the Seattle-based Starbucks – who recently announced a 44 percent increase in profits in the last quarter from a year-ago – the upward trend in the cost of coffee is, relatively speaking, small beer.

Just don’t be surprised when the price of their super-sized 31oz Trenta portion of skinny-latte soon goes up to inflict further damage to the wallet, and the bladder.

The price of coffee may be at a thirteen year high but right from the soil to the sip, it appears that a ‘perfect storm’ is brewing.

A Shining Light for Generations of Coffee Lovers

Cafés El Magnífico
Carrer de l’Argenteria
Beans on the Menu: More than forty different varieties and blends worldwide to suit the most discerning of palettes plus a wide variety of speciality tea
Crutch Compatibility:
Sins muletas, con cojera (without crutches, with limp)
Caffeine delivery method:
Freshly roasted Tunki filter coffee. Also purchased: 250g Espresso Virtuoso Mezcla (Brazil, Nicaragua, Colombia, India), 250g Ethiopian Harrar Boldgrain
Hit to the wallet:
Music Playing: No jukebox required

Señor Salvador Sans is a fast-talking Catalan who is serious about coffee. You could say that it runs through the veins. Well it certainly has been running in the bloodline for generations since his grandfather first started to roast coffee on the streets of the Barrio El Born district back in 1919. But during the three decades of Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975), coffee was sadly a luxury only enjoyed by the extremely wealthy and the business of roasting and selling coffee was banned under the regime. Yet, the time-honoured skills and knowledge were defiantly – and bravely – passed down from one generation to the next. Now the third and current owner, Salvador, who inherited the business from his father in the early nineties, is faithfully keeping this family tradition alive.

From these humble beginnings that began on the corner of the narrow Carrer d’en Rosic almost a century ago, the family business has grown beyond recognition. Cafés El Magnífico now trades behind the warm glow of its stained glass window which delicately frames the shop front on the bustling L’Agenteria. Located near the magnificent lofty columns of the medieval Basilica Santa Maria del Mar, this welcoming boutique-like coffee shop serves and sells some of the – if not the – best beans in town.

“You want to see some coffee being roasted?” Salvador asks without giving a moment’s pause for a response. “Let me show you where it all first started,” he says before leading the way at a brisk enough pace for my, now crutch-unaided ankle, to just about keep up with. Within a few moments we arrive at the worn wooden doors of the old premises and he leads me down into the basement to introduce me to the Vittoria roasting machine which still bares the scars of a fire just three years-ago. Operated by roastmaster Iván from Cuba, it was just finishing off a morning batch of Arabica coffee beans from Timor. “They’re not ready yet,” said Salvador as he inspected the bag of newly roasted beans, “they need at least another 48 hours for the aroma to fully come through.”

Within a matter of minutes, we were on the street again and back on the pace towards the distribution ‘nerve-centre’ of the business. It is a spacious half-cum warehouse, half-cum art gallery with framed coffee sacks from all over the world hanging on the walls; each printed with the distinct ‘coffee art’ of the grower. Sacks from Papua New Guinea, India, Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama are just some of the artworks on display. The aroma inside the high-ceiling storehouse is infused with a heavenly mix of coffee and speciality teas that are carefully being hand packed and sealed, ready for delivery to the 200 plus – and growing – book of clients.

Without any diversion, Salvador heads straight to his favourite roasting machine; the 30 kilo Roure, dating back to 1960. As a testament to the unique character of any roaster, this gleaming behemoth with a cast-iron chamber at its heart is at its best when roasting Brazilian beans, he proudly maintains. The controls that can be programmed with multiple ‘profiles’ to exact the roaster’s requirements looked more befitting of a British Nuclear Fuels reactor instrument panel (circa-1989) than a coffee roasting machine; but that’s the science of roasting.

Yet beneath the evident pride in running a successful family coffee business that supplies a ton-and-a-half of freshly roasted coffee to cafes and restaurants in and around Barcelona each week, there is an underlying frustration. The reason, he laments, is that despite the prodigious amount of bars in the city (a staggering 15,000), that serve coffee, very few have the “loyalty, faithfulness, and professionalism” that is essential if coffee-across-the-counter is to achieve its full flavoursome potential. His startling but insightful analogy of an espresso machine being likened to a fruit gambler where the “owner doesn’t care what comes out the other end as long as it makes him money” immediately shatters my over-romanticised vision of the deft and meticulously trained Spanish (or Catalan) Barista in a single retort. “It is nothing short of a crime,” he sighs.

But Salvador and his dedicated team of 24 employees continue to keep this history-steeped family flame alive to ensure that excellent coffee remains a reality in Barcelona for years to come. For him, the essence underpinning the success of Cafés El Magnífico is the refrain of coffee-enthusiasts everywhere. Simply put: ‘Adoro Café’ (I love Coffee). Once the bills are paid, profit comes only after good coffee, he insists. And I believe him.

“I want coffee to shine, as a product and as a drink” he says passionately, as we enjoy a cup of the silky award-winning and organically certified Tunki (Peru) coffee with two customers in the back of the shop. Asked if he expects either of his two children to take over the business when he retires, he pauses for the first time since we met earlier that morning. Thoughtfully, he explains that his ten year-old son currently has only a passion for FC Barcelona. His sixteen-year old daughter however seems to be following assuredly in her father’s footsteps and already works in the shop at the weekend and during holidays.

“We’ll see, who knows what the future will hold,” he responds with a philosophical, paternal beam. If the past – and present – is anything to go by, I don’t think Salvador has much to worry about.

Bean on a Limp rating: 5/5 stars

Caffeine on the Brain

It is estimated that more than two billion cups of coffee worldwide are drank everyday. Add the delightfully restorative drink ‘tea’ into the equation and no other mood-altering stimulant is consumed on such a potentially global jitter-inducing scale.

So, what exactly is caffeine?

Firstly, caffeine comes from an organic family of nitrogenous compounds called xanthine alkaloids that, when consumed, give rise to marked physiological – and psychoactive – effects on the human body. Other sources known to contain this powerful compound include the Gurana berry, Cocao bean, Kola nut, Yaupon Holly tree, and South American Yerba mate, amongst many others (so far, up to 60 plants are known to contain the compound caffeine).

But for the purposes of this post, I trust that you will forgive me if we stick to coffee.

The 'Father' of Caffeine? Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge

In 1820, caffeine was first isolated from coffee by the German chemist Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge, apparently at the behest of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. The following year, the French chemist Pierre Joseph Pelletier, coined the word ‘cafeine’ after the French derivation for the word coffee; café. However, it was not until the end of the 19th century that its complete chemical structure was discovered by Hermann Ermil Fischer, who was the first person to achieve its total synthesis. Fishcher was later awarded the Nobel Prize in 1902 for his work in this field of organic chemistry.

Pure Caffeine Powder

Caffeine, or to use its laboratory name – 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine – manifests itself in its purist from as a white crystalline solid. Yet to the human brain, it is one of the most effective ‘cuckoo’ compounds in the chemical world.

Here’s why…

Throughout the day, the neurotransmitter adenosine is naturally created in the brain and builds up to a level that eventually helps to bring about the onset of that deep, regenerative state we know as sleep. It binds to the receptors resulting in a feeling of drowsiness by slowing down nerve cell activity whilst the blood cells dilate to allow more oxygen to the brain.

Caffeine: The primary antagonist of adenosine receptors in the brain

Now, as far as your average nerve cell is concerned, caffeine, with its chemical structure – C8H10N4O2 – looks suspiciously like adenosine – C10H13N5O4 – thereby allowing this chemical ‘master of disguise’ to bind to the adenosine receptors. But the psychoactive result is the exact opposite. Instead of inducing a feeling of drowsiness, the chemical composition of caffeine encourages the nerve impulses to speed up.

This build up of chemical mimicry prevents the real adenosine from binding to its own receptors. Consequently, the brain is kick-started into a state of arousal and becomes more alert. The stimulating effects of caffeine on the central nervous system also dramatically increases the amount of the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter dopamine to be produced. These heightened levels are coupled with feelings of well-being and improved mood. It is in fact the psychoactive effect of dopamine that makes caffeine so addictive.

Now things start to get really interesting.

As the brain experiences a speeding up of nerve cell activity caused by the neuro-pathways firing on all cylinders, the body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. It is at this juncture that the pituitary gland steps into the proceedings, and sensing an emergency, sends a signal to the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormone epinephrine, also known as adrenaline.

We all know what happens next.

With the body now in a state of heightened alert, the all-too-familiar symptoms of increased heart rate; raised blood pressure; sweaty palms; a ‘spike’ in levels of blood sugar produced by the liver to provide extra energy; dilated pupils; suppressed appetite; and a tensing of the muscles; are just some of the side-effects of this biological ‘code red’. Once the perceived ’emergency’ is over, the body’s adrenaline and dopamine levels start to return back to normal, coupled with a slowing of nerve cell activity as the adenosine begins to bind to the receptors once again. It takes approximately ten hours for caffeine to fully leave the system.

Caffeinated Spiderweb

Like anything consumed in excess, too much caffeine can prove fatal. Just 10g is considered a lethal dose. Fortunately, an average espresso contains a mere 100-150mg so seriously herculean quantities of the stuff would have to be consumed in a single sitting to bring on death.

This cannot be said of spiders…

In the final analysis, we all have to make our own personal judgement about the pros and cons of caffeine consumption, once in full possession of the facts.

But before you reach for the decaf (which still contains caffeine – just a reduced amount), stop and spare a moment to consider this mysterious but potent ‘cuckoo’ of the chemical world, and its powerful effects.

For good or for bad, it is without equivocation that caffeine on the brain changes the body’s chemistry.

In more ways than one.

The Science (and Art) of Roasting Coffee

It is said that coffee roasting is ‘part science, part art, and part magic.’ This indeed is true. In fact, the science involved in the process of roasting coffee beans is nothing short of astonishing.

Witnessing the process for the very first time, this is my personal account of what happens. Now, I do have a confession to make. In no way do I claim to be knowledgeable or experienced in this fascinating field (far from it) but the following description is a humble attempt to record my observations and what I have learned so far. So here goes…

“It takes 400 man hours for every pound of unroasted beans to reach this point. Now is not the time to get it wrong”, said artisan roaster, Ian, as he excitedly fires up the trusty 14lb (in old money) capacity Uno. With a ‘pop’ and a ‘whoosh’, the blue flame from its DNA-like helical gas burner breathes into life. Allowing time for the post-war roasting machine to warm up, he methodically inspects the six kilo batch of hard, tasteless Ethiopian Yirgacheffe (produced in the lush, deep soils of the high-rolling mountains of the Sidamo region, southern Ethiopia) for any ‘offenders’ that do not make the grade and could potentially spoil the entire process.

To the nose, the beans give off a delicate profusion of freshly mown hay or the smell of the earth just when the first raindrops fall on the dry, sun-kissed ground in summer. Only when the roaster is completely satisfied with the overall consistency in quality and size, does the Uno’s vintage belt-driven motor hum into action. The beans are then carefully poured into its horizontal-axis chamber. To a soft percussive rhythm, the lightly green and blue-hued beans become a blur as they brush the insides of the rotating drum.

As each second passes, the unhurried alchemy of extracting the delightful flavour from the coffee gradually reveals itself.

In a seeming state of perpetual free fall, the – as yet – unroasted beans begin to absorb the heat from the Uno’s centrifugal fire. Five-or-so expectant minutes pass. Nothing much of note happens to the untrained eye during this preliminary ‘drying off’ phase. And then, the first wisp of a feint smoky aroma, like the smell of toast, begins to emanate; a sensory prologue to the action that is to follow.

At this point the core temperature inside the coffee bean has broken through the threshold of 150-160 degrees centigrade, and is steadily climbing. At the molecular level, this magical moment is coupled with an explosion of cellular activity as the bean’s very chemical composition starts to dramatically change in a series of volatile runaway reactions. In physical terms, this metamorphosis is the transition from an endothermic (to take in heat energy) state to becoming exothermic (to give out heat energy).

It is shortly after this stage when the first ‘crack’ – not dissimilar to the sound of the popping or splitting of popcorn – of the coffee bean occurs and the effects of the increased energy inside the bean becomes visible. By now, they are starting to release their hidden aromatic oils that have been conspicuously concealed so well since their early days of infancy as an unripened green berry on the bush. In the following minutes, the temperature rises further to approximately 220 degrees. The pressure increases too; creating the optimum conditions for the necessary exogenous chemical reactions to take place.

Cascading inside the Uno’s spinning drum, the beans take on a yellow-orange colour as they start to give up their locked-in moisture. Water vapour and carbon dioxide is released in extraordinary quantities through the ‘fissure’ which  runs through the centre line of the bean. This leads to a rapid expansion in volume (up to twice the bean’s original size), accompanied by a marked loss in weight and density. In the parlance of the chemistry class, it is known as the Maillard Reaction. From a personal perspective, it is as though the beans are bursting back into life after a suspended period of deep hibernation.

The temperature still rising, further complex chemical reactions occur between the amino acids, carbohydrate and sucrose compounds (more than 800 hundred have been identified so far). By now, the beans have turned to a light brown colour signaling the ‘carimalisation’ of the natural oils and sugars that give the coffee bean its distinctive colour and rich flavour.

The skill – or ‘art’ to be more exact – of the speciality roaster is the intuitive use of his or her senses. Without a temperature gauge or timer in sight, the roaster falls into a spell of intense concentration as the final critical moments approach. Like a Michelin-starred chef or master wine blender, he is using all his senses to bring out and enhance the best characteristics that the Yirgacheffe has to offer. Meanwhile, the beans take on a dark chestnut colour as the premises of J. Atkinson & Co. fill with their delicious, almost floral, nutty aroma.

Asked if he is ever afraid of the beans catching fire, Ian enigmatically responds, “every roaster is christened with his first fire at some stage, I decided to get mine in early”.

It only takes a mesmerising 12 minutes from start to finish. With a final flourish of the roaster’s hand to bring the Uno’s rhythmic mechanical overture to a close; the drum comes to a stop, the helix flame is extinguished and the roasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans spill out into the perforated cooling tray below. Lightly coated with their natural coffee-flavoured oils, they glisten in the low mid-afternoon sun, as they are patiently stirred to bring their temperature back down to an ambient level.

Stages of Roast

Depending on the specific roast desired (low, medium, high; full roast, double roast), the bean can go through a further two or three ‘cracks’ until the roaster decides to terminate the process. Done with expert split-second timing, this is to ensure that the balance of flavour, complexity of taste and acidity levels all add up to the holy grail of the experienced Roastmaster: Perfection.

Coffee roasting is a centuries-old craft. In today’s age of impressive scientific discovery, we still do not fully understand the massive thermodynamic changes that roasting brings about inside the bean. One thing is for sure however, I now understand why its is affectionately referred to as an ‘art’.

And what about the ‘magic’ I hear you ask?

Well, all I can say is that you only have to taste the sublime Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee for yourself to discover the answer.

A Cup Above the Rest

In many respects, this journey did not start in London. It began in Lancaster. And where better than to embark on a coffee-inspired bike ride to Ethiopia other than the historic premises of master tea blenders and coffee roasters, J. Atkinson & Co.?

Established in 1837 as the Grasshopper Tea Warehouse, J. Atkinson & Co. has traded from its China Street premises since 1901 and is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the city’s illustrious heritage. Walk into the welcoming premises of this family-run business and the first thing that greets you is the warm, enticing aroma of the artisan roasted coffee bean.

Pause for a moment, and the delicate fragrance of expertly blended tea complements the sensory experience.

Inside, every aspect has been lovingly restored back to its former glory. In one corner stands the ‘Uno’, the stalwart coffee roasting machine which dates back to 1945 and continues to fill the street outside with its delicious aroma – as it has done for generations. The mouth-watering menu of more 80 different varieties of coffee and blends spanning the globe, each with a unique provinence of their own, are all carefully ground to your own requirements; if that is what you prefer. Similarly, bell jars of blended tea from the subtle to the exotic adorn the shelves; just waiting to release their heavenly infusion. It is clear to see that trade is brisk but the pace behind the old vintage counter is measured, almost reverential, in respect of a special kind of alchemy that takes place on these premises daily.

Prior to being waved off by artisan roaster, Ian, on a bitingly cold December afternoon with my gift of unroasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans concealed in the bike frame, I was privileged to be given the opportunity to familiarise myself with the time-honoured art of the Roaster and Barista. A debt of gratitude is owed to proprietors Ian and Sue Steel for their generosity of knowledge and who effortlessly accommodated my endless questions on that busy, but special day.

A further highlight was the chance to spend some time with Barista-par-excellence, Caspar, who has taken out a Gap Year to run the contemporary Music Room Cafe. Like an expert craftsman or artist who’s smooth and precise movements belie years’ of training, creativity and dedication, he introduced me to the sublime profession of Latte Art. Respect.

A truly inspiring, humbling and unforgettable experience.

In an age of rampant globalisation, outstanding establishments like J.Atkinson & Co. – who play their play their part in the wider global community by ethically sourcing the very highest quality of tea and coffee – are hard to come by.

In a word? Passion.