Of 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”.
It 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.
The 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.”
The 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”.
The 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.
Born 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.
Based 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.
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.
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.
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
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
Determined to get to the bottom of the legend concerning Kaldi and his Dancing Goats, the coffee trail pointed me in the direction of the hallowed ground of Keta Muduga; conveniently situated just a few kilometres away from Choche village. It is said that all those centuries ago, the Abyssinian goat herder took his flock there to graze. The ‘proof’ of the matter can be found in the earth said my guide, Ahmed, who agreed to show me the Arabic ‘inscriptions’ carved into the rock surface that I had heard so much about. He told me how the history of Kaldi had been transmitted down the generations by his forefathers.
Joined by the stoic Bulbulo wet mill foreman, Jerbose, who battled the heat in a lambswool three-piece suit, we strolled passed the patchwork of deep red hues from the coffee cherries that had been left out to dry on tables before taking a detour to visit to the Choche Primary School’s very own coffee farm. Under the shade trees, kids were enthusiastically helping out with the harvest. Their small fingers were nimbly adept at picking the red coffee cherries. The familiar cry of ‘Choche buna bureadu!’ (beautiful Choche coffee!) could be heard over the excitable hubbub of children playing. In Choche, coffee runs in the blood. Children are expected to take part in the harvesting activities on the family farm from an early age. Now they were engaged in picking their very own fine organic Choche Primary School coffee cherry, to be later sold to the cooperative. The profits are then returned back to the school to fund the provision of educational materials.
‘It’s a good example of how trade can have a direct and positive impact in the community’, explained the Director of the school, Sisay Akassa, who had kindly given up his afternoon to help translate for me. ‘Most of our students are the children of coffee farmers. Fairtrade helps those farmers get a fair payment for their coffee so that they can improve their living conditions’, he added.
After a steep climb amongst the coffee trees, ducking and diving under branches bursting with red and green cherries, the path eventually led to an open clearing. Tufts of golden grass swayed in the breeze. A natural vantage point, tree-clad hills were set against a hazy horizon all around us. The early afternoon sun beat down mercilessly on the red rocks. A concrete shell of a half constructed guard-house and the octoganel skeleton of a museum (that has remained uncompleted for more than a year due to funds drying up) were the only blight on the scenery. They looked more like crumbling coastline WWII gun batteries than a celebration of coffee. A plaque at the top of the hill reads:
With a spring in his step, Ahmed led us to the start of our story; Kaldi’s very own spot in which to recline and while away the sunny afternoon hours in his chair. I have to say that it really was quite comfortable… for a stone chair. Reclined in Kaldi’s seat, Ahmed, proudly unfolded the events that are believed to have taken place here. He described how Kaldi, a man of artistic pursuasion, had hewn messages into the rocks to remind the world of his important discovery. We next moved to another spot of exposed rock, eroded by the elements. Partly covered by lichen, grass and dry leaves, there are some truly fascinating features to be found, and one-by-one, Ahmed related the significance of each. Here was the evidence presented:
He said there were many more examples but they needed help to fully uncover and conserve the ‘handiwork’ of Kaldi for future generations. Now, here’s the rub… I’m not in the business of stealing anybody’s thunder, such as Ahmed’s was, but I have my reservations. To me, these distinctive features are the work of nature’s hand, not that of a legendary goat herder. Although some of the ‘inscriptions’ do have a striking resemblance, they are to my eyes, forged through unimaginable metamorphic forces in the melting pot that was Ethiopia millions of years ago.
But where were the Arabic inscriptions?
Anticipating this moment for a while now, I somehow expected to find ancient Arabic script that had been carved into the rocks containing early references to coffee and the trade links that the old Ethiopian kingdoms enjoyed with the Persians and Arabs. This was to be the defining moment I had been waiting for – to see for my own eyes a a small piece in the great jigsaw puzzle that is the history of the bean and how it went on to conquer the world. But, like life itself, what you look for isn’t necessarily what you find. For one, my own expectations were far to literal. In fact, what I found at Keta Muduga was evidence of something deeper, far richer, and much more profound. In that special clearing surrounded by miles of coffee forest, I had been privileged to witness a proud and passionate claim that this was the work of Kaldi and hence the birthplace of coffee, just as the coffee forest that surrounded us is. Surveying the landscape, I felt like I was standing on a giant, elaborate storyboard that connected Ahmed like an umbilical cord through the past to his ancestral heritage.
Surely this was also an example of early ‘coffee culture’ long before the macchiato or tall-skinny latte was ever dreamed up? In those sun-kissed rocks was a communities’ burning desire to tell their story to a wider world about the origin of coffee, and their place in it. And the overriding message rang loud and clear; coffee is as old as time memorial.
Winding our way back, we stopped to speak to Kalifa and Rida who were collecting the fruit in handwoven straw baskets. Two of them were brimming full of bright red berries already. A few kilometres further and we came across the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation (Choche Coffee Field Gene Bank), a government body dedicated to protecting the country’s biodiversity. Inside its 41 hectares it houses – at the last count – 4898 different strains of the coffee Arabica genus discovered in Ethiopia alone. The Manager of the Field Gene Bank, Jara Negash, had this to say: ‘More strains are being found each year. Genetically speaking, Ethiopia has the most diversified varieties of coffee types to be found anywhere in the world. We have only just scratched the surface.’
A tour of the carefully tended nursery beds revealed the marked difference in the foliage and fruit of each strain (there are largely two main groups in Ethiopia; Bourbon and Typica varieties). Planted in neat rows, the beds contain samples of the bean in various stages of development from young sapling through to mature tree. It was like walking through a living open-air museum; breathing, fruiting proof of the incredible genetic diversity of the genus coffea Arabica. Heart warming also to see the important role that the gene bank plays in conserving a unique part of Ethiopia’s rich national heritage – and indeed the world – for generations to come.
Energy levels flagging, Ahmed, Jerbose, Sisay and I headed off in search of a brew of the Choche nectar in one of its many Buna Bets (coffee houses). As we sipped and savoured a refreshing cup of coffee, Ahmed turned to me and said: `We have the evidence that explains the origin of coffee but we don’t have the support or materials in which to tell our story. Kaldi was a learned person who wanted to show how Choche gave coffee to the world. Go back to your country and help us to tell the history of the origin of coffee. This is coffee Arabica. Ethiopia’s gift to the world’.
Disclaimer: It is important to mention at this point that another place rivals Choche as the birthplace of coffee. Found in the vast wild coffee forests that characterise the Kaffa region just 150kms away, it is claimed that Mankira village near the town of Bonga is the true origin. A manifestation of the growing regional rivalry (Choche is in the state of Oromiya whilst Mankira lies just across the border in Kaffa. Both were considered to be in the same region of Kaffa until forty years ago when the boundaries were redrawn) is that both states are now locked in a cultural arms-race to build their own respective coffee museums, evidently with questionable progress so far. Of course I would not wish to offend anyone’s sensibilities, pride or rightful sense of heritage. There is validity to both claims, because they are both right. When you boil it right down, it is Ethiopia that is undisputedly the world’s cradle of coffee, and that’s good enough for me.
In Ethiopia, the origin of coffee depends on who you speak to, and where they come from. The legend of its discovery that still endures today is that of Kaldi. For such an important find, the story has an unlikely cast of characters that include a goatherder, his wife, a monastery of monks, and a troupe of dancing goats. Here is just one version of that story:
A young Abyssinian goatherder named Kaldi – or Kalid as he was known locally – who lived around the year AD850 noticed to his amazement, that after chewing the bright red berries from a certain tree, his goats pranced around in an unusually exuberant manner. Curiosity got the better him and he tried a handful of the berries that were growing on the bushes nearby. Feeling a novel sense of elation, Kaldi realised that there was something out of the ordinary about this fruit and, filling his pockets, rushed back to his wife to share his discovery. ‘They are heaven sent!’ she declared, ‘you must take them to the monastery.’ Kaldi then presented the cherries to the chief monk, relating the miraculous effect they had on him, and his goats.
On hearing the story and the cherries’ extraordinary properties, the monk threw them onto the fire denouncing them to be the work of the devil. Within minutes, the monastery began to fill up with the heavenly smell of roasting beans and the other monks gathered to investigate. Raking the spitting and popping beans from the embers, they were placed in a ewer and covered with hot water to preserve their freshness.
That night, the monks sat up drinking the rich and fragrant brew and vowed that they should drink it daily to help with their nightly prayers. Word of the cherries’ magical properties spread far and wide. It was not long before the monastic folk across the realm became accustomed to drinking the invigorating beverage as an accompaniment to their nocturnal devotions…
But don’t take my word for it. Here is an early account of the origin of coffee retold by an Italian historian of coffee, Faustus Naironi, in 1671:
“A certain person that look’d after camels, or, as others report it, goats, [this is the common tradition amongst the Eastern people] complained to the religious of a certain Monastery in the Kingdom of Ayaman [Yemen], that is Arabia Felix, that his herds twice or thrice a week, not only kept awake all night long, but spent it in frisking and dancing in an unusual manner.
The Prior of the Monastery, led by his curiosity, and weighing the matter, believ’d this must happen from the food of the creatures: Marking, therefore, diligently, that every night, in company with one of the monks, the very place where the goats or camels pastured, when they danc’d, found there certain shrubs or bushes, on the fruit or rather berries of which they fed.
He resolv’d to try the virtues of these berries himself; thereupon, boiling them in water, and drinking thereof, he found by experience, it kept him awake in the night. Hence it happen’d, that he enjoin’d his Monastery the daily use of it, for this procuring watchfulness made them more readily and surely attend their devotions which they were obliged to perform in the night.
When, by this frequent use of it, they daily experienced its wholesomeness, and how effectually it conduced to the preserving them in perfect health, the drink grew in request throughout the whole Kingdom, and in progress of time, other nations and provinces of the East fell into the use of it. Thus by a mere accident, and the great and wonderful providence of the Almighty, the fame of its wholesomeness spread itself more and more, even to the Western parts, more especially those of Europe”.
There is now a consensus amongst historians and botanists that coffee – especially the genus Coffea Arabica – is indigenous to Ethiopia where it still continues to grow wild in the Bale Mountains, Gamo Gofa, Ilubabor and Kaffa Forest regions. Many etymologists interpret ‘coffee’ from the name of the ancient Ethiopian kingdom, ‘Kaffa’. Others assert it comes from ‘qahwah’ (meaning ‘wine’) as it came to be known in the Arabian peninsula , especially Yemen, where there is evidence of coffee roasting as early as the 13th century. (It’s not by accident or sheer coincidence that Yemen has a sea port called Mocha). But if I were a betting man? My money’s on Kaffa.
Whether there is any basis to the story of Kaldi and his dancing goats or not, the undeniable fact is that the legend of Kaldi is a masterstroke in public relations. (Whenever has PR allowed the facts get in the way of a good story?). In an attempt to separate reality from myth, I spoke to a number of people who said that coffee was first used by the Oromo tribes people. By way of preparation, the ground beans were mixed with butter or fat to form a ‘chewing gum’ that could be carried easily. It was then taken to help sustain them in covering long distances on foot to graze their cattle and no doubt, on the battlefield. This was the portable precursor to the Oromiya speciality – Buna Quala – arguably the world’s first ever energy drink.
In many respects, I think it’s a good thing that Kaldi’s reputed discovery continues to remain shrouded in the mists of antiquity. It’s all part of the bean’s magic. Chasing ghosts? Chasing goats more like… Long live Kaldi!
Shortly after nightfall, the relaxed tempo suddenly stepped up a gear, or two. The prelude to this was the arrival of the co-operative’s rusting Toyota pick-up truck as it barrelled up the slope with just enough momentum to reach the top. The sense of the excitement in the air was palpable. With its suspension groaning under the weight of the precious load, a dozen or so co-operative members jumped out of the back and – one by one – carried the queshas (hessian sacks) of red cherry on their shoulders to be weighed in on an antique floor-standing set of scales. When you consider that some of the sacks weighed in at over 100kg, this was far easier said than done.
Under the dim glow of two 40 watt bulbs, the cherries were inspected (most of the time) and the weight recorded before the contents emptied into a large metal siphon at the end of a concrete ramp. The sweet, slightly fermented smell of the cherries perfumed the air as the thirty-year-old engine was cranked into life, filling the engine room momentarily with a thick plumb of diesel smoke. Next, the valve that connected a large water tank situated high up the hill to the rotary milling apparatus was opened and the various stages of the washing process sprang into life with a cascade of rushing water towards the large spinning hulling plates. This was all connected by a series of well-greased metal and leather exposed belt drives that would occasionally whip and snap the air with a loud crack over the rhythmic, deafening sound of mechanical noise. Once everything was working in tandem as it should do, Jerbose’s son, Jamal, who was perched at the head of the rotary eight-foot long miller, was given the ‘thumb’s up’ to open the siphon chute and allow the day’s batch of red cherries to begin the next stage in their long and arduous journey towards the coffee cup.
The process of washing coffee is seriously labour intensive, and every second counts. There is no time to lose valuable coffee at this stage once the milling machine is in full operation. As the cherries reach the first three large milling plates, the ‘flesh’ is removed under the pressure of their grinding action and the mucilage – the waste product – becomes separated from the beans by a large rotating eight-foot long funnel angled under a sprinkler system (by sprinkler system, I mean a copper pipe with holes drilled into it at regular intervals). With a sense of urgency, we climbed back and forth like yo-yos over the exposed drive belts to keep the turning chamber free of any build-up or blockage. It was a constant effort to keep the steady progress of the de-hulled cherries moving down towards the washing channel outside. Moving from the engine shed, I grabbed what I can only describe as a wooden-headed broom stick and helped to coax the bean’s steady advance towards their eventual resting place for 36 hours. In bare feet, six of us would work on alternating channels at a time, slowly driving milky wave-upon-wave of washed cherries towards the tanks for fermentation. Occasionally, the light-footed sprightly Temesgen who negotiated the two parallel washing channels with ease opened up another valve to give the cherries a secondary soaking under the dim row of light bulbs overhead. Working in the shadows, water was everywhere, and the going underfoot fast became treacherous. One step out-of-place and it could spell a six-foot fall into a fermentation tank, or worse. Meanwhile, the separated mucilage was being hurriedly cleared down another sloped channel for further filtration (in theory) whereby the waste enters a separate collection chamber and the water finds its way back to the watercourse from which it was originally drawn.
With the combined effort of eight of us, it took a couple of hours to process just over 2000 kilos of red cherry. At the height of the harvest, the washing facility has the potential to process 30,000 kilos. That equates to a twelve hour night for the guys tasked with the labour-intensive process of hulling and washing.
Eventually, the rotary huller and water pump engines were cut and silence prevailed over the hillside once again. Returning to my tent that night, I felt elated by the adrenalin of the experience, yet exhausted and shocked at the conditions the guys have to work in, night after night. They are nothing short of heroes and I take my hat off to each and every one of them. By the end of the week, the volume of red cherry had rocketed – largely due to some much-needed heavy showers on the last successive two nights that helped the green cherries to ripen further – and we were washing more 7000 kilos of organic, 100 percent Choche Arabica red cherry. A promising sign for a good harvest this year. Just a little more rain is all it requires for the ‘second and third phase’ green cherries (according to the time of flowering around Feb-March each year) to fully ripen.
Now, I knew that the process of washing coffee is water intensive but I never realised just how intensive it really is until I saw it with my eyes at firsthand. Despite numerous efforts to get close to a definitive figure, nobody seems to know for sure how much water is used. But I did get a little closer to the answer. Currently, the water tank on the wet mill station has a capacity of 50,000 litres and is refilled every day. There are two of them (although one of them has been decommissioned because of a leak). Combine this with the fact that there are 52 washing stations (privately and co-operative owned) on the 45km stretch from Jimma to Choche alone – and I’m not going to insult anyone’s intelligence here by doing the math – but it is patently evident that rivers of the stuff is used in the wet processing. This is the same water that people use to drink, wash and bathe in.
The organically certified Choche Coffee Farmers Cooperative and its 844 members collectively own two wet milling stations and one dry huller. With a huge debt of gratitude, I was invited to spend a week on one of them. Nestled on the side of a sloping southeast-facing aspect with a gurgling brook at the bottom, the wet milling station is perfectly situated to catch the best of the daytime sun. I arrived just before nightfall and erected the tent with the help of the burly site guardsman, Demesse, and his son, Solomon, on high ground to catch the view of the sunrise over the numerous rows of drying beds that fanned out below. By a stroke of luck, they had only just started processing the red cherries a week ago; I had made it just in time for the early buna (coffee) harvest.
Unzipping the tent porch to a dawn chorus the next day, hundreds of beads of morning dew hung from the chicken wire of the trestle tables, sparkling like diamonds in the early golden light. In the shade trees, deep red flowers appeared to burn brightly as if they had been ignited by the sun’s first rays. In contrast to the scorched landscape of the south, everything was a fertile shade of verdant green. On the hillside opposite, crowds of people wrapped in white shawls gathered at a natural spring to collect water and bathe the sick (It is widely believed that the spring water has the power to heal the mentally ill). The soothing melody of women singing in unison completed the enchanted setting. A group of white Egrets flew noisily overhead, snapping me out of my spellbound, drowsy trance.
It didn’t take long before I was invited for a morning brew. This was no ‘ordinary’ coffee – if such a thing exists. Painstakingly prepared by Demesse’s daughter Buzio, it was to be the daily ritual that I, and my taste buds, looked forward to with relish each morning. From green bean to coffee cup, the parchment (the remaining white, silvery skin that encases the bean) was first removed; then roasted on a metal plate over the gentle licking flames of an open fire. Afterwards, Buzio pounded the roasted beans into a coarse grind by means of sheer brute force using a mogatcha (Amharic for a large wooden mortar and pestle). She finally brewed the coffee in a large earthen jabana (coffee pot); a process that overall, took well over an hour. The aromatic coffee was then poured into small cups and taken with either salt or sugar. Served with a simple but wholesome breakfast of cooked maize, it was well worth the wait because the coffee was – and I am not exaggerating here – to die for; the combined result of an organic product that had been locally grown, washed, dried, prepared and consumed all within a few square kilometres of each other. The coffee was so fresh (good body, balanced taste with sharp acidity and winey, citrus notes) that the complex array of oils floated on its silky surface, refracting the morning light into tiny, miniature rainbow-coloured islands.
The rhythms of the day on the wet mill station soon became a familiar ebb and flow of activity, and I found that I quickly settled into the daily routine. Above all, I did not wish to be treated like a ‘faranji’ (foreigner) or receive any special treatment. I was there to work; pitch in, and help out where needed. Most mornings were spent amongst the rows of fifty-odd foot long trestle tables where the washed coffee was left out to dry in the baking hot sun. Under the shade of our rustic peaked straw hats, a dozen of us worked along each side of the drying beds, chatting and joking – often about the ups and downs of Premier League football which could be considered in many respects a matter of religious importance in the country. The process of sifting by hand through the drying beans still encased in their protective skin of parchment for defects that did not make the grade was a relaxed, unhurried affair. Nothing went to waste and the defect beans were subsequently separated and destined for domestic consumption. There was a genuine shared sense of pride in the work and in classic moments of spontaneity, we all burst into a chorus of Choche Buna Bureadu! (Orominya for ‘beautiful Choche coffee’).
The afternoons were a relatively lazy affair. It was too hot to work under the intense heat of the sun so it was a good time to test the coffee. Each day the wet mill foreman, Jerbose, and milling station manager, Galy, would produce two old but lovingly maintained contraptions: The first was a bulky British-made steel ‘mini huller’ (manufactured in a time when the UK used to actually make things; so it must have been well over half a century old. How it got there is anyone’s guess…) to remove the parchment. The other device, a Danish 1960’s analogue ‘coffee tester’ was used density to measure the moisture content of each batch of processed coffee. Once the measurements were recorded, a small quantity was sent to the cupping laboratory in Jimma for grading. Like rabbits out of a hat, bags of the leafy narcotic, chat, were then produced and the late-afternoon hours were whiled away chewing and erm, chatting, accompanied by another round of fresh coffee.