Landscape of Hararghe area, East Ethiopia
One turns away ... Orthodox Ethiopia Church
Why the big group? the buses? After all, I was here in Dire Dawa alone 6 months before and it was such a relief not to be in a group. Well, the Harar Roundtable seemed to pull them out of the woodwork. Maybe it was the few days of hotel paid by USAID, or the free (yet grueling) bus trip from Addis to Dire Dawa to Harar and back. Maybe it was just the comfort of group travel for first-timers to Ethiopia.
For me, I wanted to follow up on what I started months before; was it possible to produce better coffee in the Hararghe area? Or was it hopelessly mired in a "collector system," in which coffee is traded from the farm at the end of the road to the collector station where the dirt road meets the pavement, and then traded again to the dry mill, and maybe even again to export? Can you possibly work at the farm-level to improve quality in such a system?
As it turns out, the conference was not a fluffy, insubstantial exchange that might go something like, "do we have the finest coffee in the world?" and we reply, "yes, you have the finest coffee in the world." Such love fests happen, and in fact it doesn't matter what your reply is, that is all some producers want to hear, and they WILL hear it no matter what you say. (Flash back to the Peru competition from late last year).
Ken Davids started it off with an incisive introduction to the faded reputation of Harar coffe. Willem Boot made strategic comments along the way to keep the discussion relevant and dialectical in nature. Jaime Duque from Colombia presented a model of research and improvement from the Qindio area that must have made the Harari exporters feel completely medieval. And the "guy from the Exchange," the new Ethiopia coffee trading system that has the entire country, nay the entire coffee trade, all knotted up with anxiety, tried to present the logic of the new platform. More on that later.
Hulling the whole coffee cherry, by pounding
Winnowing the already-pounded coffee
Hyena pack hive mind
friendly faces in harar, ethiopia
Ol' redbeard of Hirna, Ethiopia
In August I had an idea, to buy coffee in discrete lots by cupping the arrivals of each Izusu truck as they queue up at the Harar auction house, the Coffee Liquoring Unit. Cupping those lots alongside the CLU cuppers, I had found wildly different levels of quality, since each truck represents a unique collection point in East or West Hararghe. In general, the better, higher-grown, true longberry coffees come from the East.
(Ironically, there is no coffee grown in Harar itself, nor in the direct area of Harar ... nor is any coffee traded or milled in Harar. Dire Dawa is where all the mills are.) Cupping the "trucks lots" isn't much of a quality improvement program, but it seemed do-able. Little did I know that Rashid was already thinking of implementing a raised-bed drying program, something that certainly does improve quality at the farm level.
Max at Royal Coffee suggested the idea, but Rashid got the ball rolling. Paired with instructions to the farmers to harvest only ripe, red coffee cherry, this could mean a serious attempt to control the inconsistency problem with Harar coffees, and realize the potential of this great dry-processed origin. Raised beds use both sun and air to dry coffee, and provided they are well-made, and the coffee cherry is spread in a thin layer, they decrease drying time and dry more evenly than laying coffee on the ground.
More miniature Harari
I jumped in to feed the Hyena
Mesela shopkeeper and his fabric
Rashid is pragmatic, so he chose a small area for the pilot project, a valley and town called Choma. It is a fairly remote location in East Hararghe, where you depart from the main paved road near Hirna, descend to the Galeta River, climb the other side until you see the coffee trees stop (at around 2050 meters) and climb a little more to the town of Mesela.
I have been here once before, eaten wonderful fried breads made by the local Ogsadey collector, Mr Muhammed, and his Yemeni wife, and sampled the local honey (fantastic!) Mesela is very high, above the coffee line at 2500 meters or so, with its nearby peak reaching 3000 meters.
Phil, Thompson, Wendy ... and all of Choma
Serving buna (coffee) in harar, Ethiopia
Gathering under a tree, were offered some chat (the mildly stimulating leafy shrub, which makes you feel more like a goat than in any way 'mind-altered"), and of course some coffee. The amazing thing about traditional pan-roasted Ethiopian coffee, at least in these rural settings, is that it tastes quite good! That may sound obvious, but the more you travel in coffee the more you realize this fact: if you want a truly awful cup of coffee, go to a place where they grow it. Why? The worst coffee is held back from export for local consumption. Remember, coffee is a cash crop. The garden vegetables, fruits, spices, those are all fantastic in producing regions. But the coffee is the pits. Add to that the pan-roasting dynamic; pure conduction roasting (not ideal) on a charcoal stove with some coffee entering the previously theoretical "third crack" while others lag behind and barely hit first crack. It makes a fussy coffee roaster person squirm to see it.
But the cup is actually quite good! I could come up with reasons why that is (varied levels of roast form a melange of flavors etc), but I can think of many more reasons it should be awful. Then again, there's always "traveler's tongue", the same distortion that makes you think Kraft Mac and Cheese is Manna from Heaven if you are backpacking in the Sierras for a week. This same principle might also be at work when you woke up at 5:30am, banged your head a few dozen times on the roll cage of a Dirtcruiser 4x4 on the bumpy ride to Choma, Hararghe, Ethiopia.
I had but one Sweet Maria's Soccer Ball left, but of course it had to go to the school at Choma, with it's bumpy dirt pitch and crooked Eucalyptus goal posts bound together by sisal fibers. I imagined their current soccer ball couldn't be much better. Or at least now they can play 2 games at once.
A long and hurried drive back to Dire Dawa to catch the flight to Addis ensued, but the Brazilian wonder that got us to Choma and back in great time was not up for the trip ... the brakes were not working well. Thankfully, Rashid failed to mention that on the steep decent we took from 3000 meters at Mesela back down to the basin at the Galeti river bed. Knowing wouldn't have helped.
So we bid farewell to Rashid and hopped in the car of his local mill manager for a 4 hour ride back. We did it in 3, and like last time I was here, the monkeys at the airport were there to meet and greet, although they looked oddly drunk to me. Is this not an Islamic place? Were the monkeys fermenting their own bananas around back? This mystery would need to wait. There was a plane to catch.
Part 2: South of Addis: Sidama, Yirga Cheffe
Redneck Kids hanging at
So you want to go see the coffee in Southern Ethiopia? Just hop in a car and take ET 4 out of Addis headed Southwest. Take care not to miss the right turn onto ET 6 at Mojo. Note that you are descending from the highest capital city in Africa, averaging around 2600 meters, into the basin in which Ethiopia is being torn in half, geologically, that is. Proceed past Lake K'o K'a, the first of a series of lakes in the Rift Valley you will pass, making a mental note that when Ethiopia and all points south in the Rift Valley are indeed divided in two, you will be driving along the floor of a narrow sea, something akin to the Sea of Cortez separating Baja California from mainland Mexico. Passing Gogetti, and skirting Lake Ziway to the left, you will split Lake Abiyata and Lake Langano down the middle. Be sure to stay on the 6 at the crossroads town of Shashemene.
Hailat Berhane Berhane was along, a man with intimate knowledge of the area (he was a founding employee of the Sidama Coffee Farmers Co-operative Union, SCFCU), now working for Trabocca BV, the exporter we use. I was with a small group of roasters, including Phil from Flying Goat Coffee, Scott Merle from Batdorf, Larry the owner of Batdorf, Jim from Muddy Dog, Mike from Coffee Klatch, Sherry and Mikami from Taiwan. We stopped at Fero Co-operative in Sidama first.
(Sidamo is the coffee origin; Sidama is the geographic area, and the language; and Oromia is the political district. Spelling is a fluid and mutable thing here, especially since it is all phonetically translated, sometimes from Sidama to English, Sidama to Amharic to English, Oromiya to Sidama to Ahmaric ... you get the idea).
Our "Special Selection" dry process Sidamo has been from Fero Co-op for 2 years, but I was very stumped to find they had bought a mechanical dryer for their coffee. These are not uncommon in Central America, for periods where you cannot patio dry due to rains. But in Ethiopia? And for dry-process coffee? What was the fuel source? Chop down the woods around us? Has anyone ever used a mechanical dryer for DP coffees before? I have never heard of it, not even in Brazil, the Mt. Olympus of coffee mechanization. Was I just misunderstanding them? We did not get to see the beast, because it was still packed in a shipping container across the road from the mill, but I will be keeping a watchful eye on Fero DP coffees with this in mind.
Hailat Berhane Berhane and the drying beds at Fero Co-operative
Interesting used US clothing.
Coffee ceremony at Aregash Lodge. Popcorn is traditional
Traditional Sidama lodgings at Aregash Lodge
Sorting parchment coffee at Fero Co-operative Union, Sidamo
Bobby, the 3-legged Aregash dog
My nightmare night - locked in the room
At Belekara, sorting parchment
Koke Primary Coffee Co-op, Yirga Cheffe
Whole coffee cherry pods on the drying beds at Koke
Sick as a dog, I refused to stay in bed.
We transferred luggage to the Aregash, sweet Aregash, and headed out to Yirga Cheffe. I got the front seat all day (some say the illness was a deception - hah!) We saw the wet-process parchment coffee on the drying beds at Belekara Co-operative, then headed along to Harfusa Primary Co-op, a member of the Yirga Cheffe Union.
They are using a new Pinhalense demucilage machine, what they call an "eco-pulper" here because it uses about 6% of the water that a traditional pulper needs. Pollution on the local watersheds, all feeders to Lake Awassa, is a big issue. In Central America, water pollution from coffee mill effluent has largely been addressed through strict enforcement, and because the coffee buyers in the US and Europe demanded it. Mills there have ponds to capture the water that is tainted with fermented coffee fruit, and most recycle water for the fermentation tanks. But they use so much water to begin with ... and with heavy rains those filter ponds can overflow. So an "eco-pulper" is a great thing, but its effect on the very refined flavors of wet-processed Yirga Cheffe coffees remains to be seen.
Our next stop was Koke Co-operative, where they were hand-sorting the parchment coffee, and still had dry-process cherry pods on the raised beds. The jenfel (pods) had a good clean smell, rose-like, which hints at effective drying. It's definitely a coffee I would like to cup.
The next stop on the Yirga Cheffe junket was Konga Co-op, where they had set up a small cupping, very small. It was 2 coffees, I believe. But it was a great chance for the local cuppers to talk with roasters from the US and share thoughts on the coffees. I made sure to give them each a Sweet Maria's cupping spoon. (NB: more crass commercial product placement from Sweet Maria's! No, seriously, one of the main reasons we make this schwag is to give it to those who can truly use it, and feel honored to receive it. It's an acknowledgment of what they do, what we (cuppers) do, whether it is Oakland or Oromia. These guys were stoked ...as we say in California.)
A few more KMs down the road and many more gruesome road signs later, we were at Chelba. Chelba, oh Chelba. Raggedy old Chelba. This is a private mill that is now owned by the largest coffee exporter from Ethiopia, Abdullah Bagersh. It was a little shocking, the equipment in a poor state, the workers awkwardly shy. It had transferred ownership not too long ago, and maybe in time it will improve. I noticed at some of the Unions (which are nearly all organic and fair trade certified) conditions were nearly as shabby as some of the private mills, so I don't feel any conclusions can be drawn.
After a day of fasting (to calm my stomach) and much-needed rest at Aregash, we hit the road early to visit the Jimma Coffee Research Station, not in Jimma, but the local branch in Awada.
It is a demonstration farm, not like the central research facility which truly is out west, in Djimma. (Djimma, Jima, Jimma, see what I mean?). One interesting feature of the relation between research, plant husbandry and the small farmers in Ethiopia is the cultivar selections. Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR) and Coffee Berry Disease (CBD) are real problems here, but unlike Kenya, chemical treatment is not used, but rather the planting of disease-resistant cultivars.
Now, considering that some of the world's worst coffee mistakes have been committed by researchers enforcing the cultivation of bad-tasting disease-resistant plants, this makes the hair on any coffee taster's back stand on end (oh, and we DO have hairy backs you know). But early on they had trouble with coffee types they transplanted from Djimma to Harar, Keffa (Kaffa), Sidama, Gedio, etc. So, as the story goes, they decided to create local coffee gardens, which select local plant types to find those most resistant to CLR and CBD. In this way, they also preserve the amazing diversity of the spontaneous Ethiopian coffee genotype. So all the plants here are local selections, and most of what is demonstrated is pruning techniques to increase yield. The fact is that many Ethiopian farmers in the East and South just don't prune, and their native, rangy, tall Typica plants simply fail to produce as much as they could. There is a lot to improve in Ethiopia, and still the coffees are so damn good.
Jimma Coffee Research Center, Awada Garden
Komato Coffee Mill Nursery, with type 74110 cultivar
Pre. Barak Obama, Komato Coffee Mill, Ethiopia
Hooray for us!!!
The members of Shilcho Union
Women at Adem Bedane Shilcho mill.
We continued to Kebado town (near where our nice wet-process lot came from, the Almaz Zeleke mill). This area is called Daarate, the Darra (Dara) Woreda. From here you can see the Haile Selassie mill as well, where some really nice lots are coming from.
We headed to Shilcho Co-operative Union, part of SCFCU. They were ready for us. All the co-operative officers were there, armed with pads of paper, and lots to say. I love co-ops, but I admit, whenever I hear someone start to say, "The structure of the co-operative is ..." I glaze over. I am not an administrator or bureaucrat ... let's go look at the coffee, folks. What I did learn is that their fair trade premiums had been wisely invested toward improvements at the mill, that they had built 3 primary schools in member communities, provided electricity for 50% of member's homes, and bought 3 cereal grain mills so members could mill their homegrown crops. Great stuff.
We moved on the Adem Bedane mill at Shilcho, near Tefri Kela town. It's a private facility that has had good quality, and our Bonko dry-processed coffee comes from a hill across the way (sharing the area with the aforementioned Haile Selassie). At lunch at the pleasantly named Zereabruck Hotel in Aleta Wondo (Aleti Wondo), I couldn't help but feel like the luckiest guy with a camera ever. Just outside town as we crossed a river, these kids who had been swimming in the pond, ran up to the car in their skivvies, and I had my camera ready to capture the amazing ingenuity of one, who strapped the door of a cassette deck to his face with rubber bands, as a diving mask. Amazing. It made me feel better that I missed the photo a moment before of the role-reversing teenager aping the tourists by snapping a picture of us with a large, well-ripened avocado held up to his face, camera-like. Can't get them all.
We hit Titira co-operative union with more energy than before, a place where they had also installed a new eco-pulper, with the monetary aid of Trabocca BV, and had done quite a tidy job putting it in too. You can't argue with the environmental principals. And in other countries (Costa Rica, namely) the results are proven. We'll see how they play out in terms of the cup.
Amazing ingenuity ...near Aleta Wondo
New Pinhalense demucilager at Titira Primary Co-operative
The After Word: Thoughts on Travelogues. Word!
So here I am in Oakland, jet-lag subsiding rapidly, typing another travelogue, thinking of all the pitfalls of this genre. I remember in Sulawesi we visited a mill, and they proudly had a Starbucks Black Apron coffee bag on the wall, their supposed top-of-the-line selections. On the back was the one-paragraph travel note about bumping down dirt roads, stopping in small towns where children gather round excitedly, and, in a moment of extreme Chutzpah, the "coffee taster" remarks that the 4x4 driver turned to him and said, "You know, this is as far as the National Geographic people went." Wow, what a load of BS. But the joke in my mind ever since has been along those lines, as if the National Geographic people had gone all about and made chalk lines in the road with the note "this is as far as we went." The gauntlet has been thrown I guess, (at least in some people's minds.)
I am reminded too of the godawful book ironically titled "God in a Cup", that romances the traveling ways of 3 "coffee guys" as they gallop around meeting coffee farmers and living the life extreme. I paraphrase, but the "groupie-like" voice of the author writes about "how the coffee guys will do anything for great coffee, riding 6 hours down dirt roads, and then sleeping in a hammock." At that point the book went into the recycle bin. But admittedly, romancing the story is so easy to do ... and you know it's what (some) readers want. But lordy how ABSOLUTELY BORING it is to fall victim to such cliches, and it begs the question ... why even take a trip if you are just going to fulfill all your ridiculous pre-conceptions of what a trip to coffee origins "should be"? Why not stay home and download all the typical photos from Google Images or Flickr or something.
Remember so many years back the Kodak photo spots, where they painted the footprints at the exact location (say, at a vista in the Grand Canyon) where you should stand and take the picture with your Kodak camera? So everyone ends up with the same shot, and remarkably it looks just like the postcard you can buy at the gift shop. I am not speaking just of images, but of the "story we tell ourselves" about what we do, as travelers, as coffee buyers. I don't believe that, simply as a matter of will, you can cast aside all preconceptions and ideologies and "see the world as it is."
Actually, I believe the opposite, that you cannot do so, period. But I suppose a compromise result is to take off the Fedora and Indiana Jones jacket, try to be aware of the usual crud (going to exotic locales, sleeping in hammocks, suffering a bumpy road, going beyond the N.G. people) and keeping your eyes and ears open for the unexpected. That, after all, is the joy of travel. Not some egotistic, self-fulfilling mission, but to encounter something unanticipated and new, or at least "new to you", and enjoy it. I suppose that is where all my photos of signs and products and plastic mannequins and other totally unrelated stuff come from. It's the pleasure of difference, of acknowledging that you are somewhere different, appreciating that difference, even in the small and mundane (or crass and commercial) of the workaday world.
I also like the fact that, as an out-of-towner, I must look like a buffoon to the locals, taking pictures of ___what? What is that crazy Faranj doing? Still, I can read what I write and see how it teeters on the brink of being everything I dislike about travel narratives. I am not above the nature photo, the "purrty" coffee flowers, a few birds here and there, and an occasional poser picture of myself. Nonetheless, what I write usually seems too boring to rise to the level of "adventure", unless your idea of adventure is locking yourself in an Ethiopian college dorm room and being sick all night.
I hate that team too!
Bio 2000 Mash from Lady 2000
Ice cream closeup.
Word up! Addis Ababa
Super Lovely Makers
Word after the After Word:
One thing is clear, that the crop is small in all areas. And the new Coffee Exchange that replaces the Auctions, called the ECX, has everyone confused. (http://www.ecx.com.et/) I am not even going to try to explain it here, but the consequence is that the entire coffee supply chain is constipated. Nothing is moving; co-operatives and private mills aren't delivering coffee, the Addis Ababa dry mills are not running, and nothing is shipping. That's not good for the coffee either, to sit in parchment when it is ready for hulling, sorting, and export. So we'll see how it plays out in the next couple weeks, which are critical. The exchange was designed for grains more than Specialty coffee. In fact, the ECX directors claimed that Specialty levels of coffee make up only 2% of Ethiopia coffee exports and did not merit their own trading system. But that is improbable; 2%? It's at least 20%, perhaps more toward 40%. Their basis is dead wrong in my opinion. What was wrong with the old auction system? Well, it was full of tacit agreements between bidders that, if a coffee lot "belonged" to a particular exporter, others would not bid. But most often, this meant that the exporter was working directly with a source, had made investments on the farm level, or in the least had a long relationship with the producer, was probably helping with wet-milling, was transporting the coffee in their own trucks, and was probably dry-milling the coffee at their own facility. So they had a "right" to ownership. If these illicit non-compete "agreements" were an issue, they should have been formalized by the new system with an above-the-table mechanism to pass coffee around the auction. With the new system, only co-operative Unions and direct farm-to-client sales can bypass the auction, leaving all these new hybrid private mills / private co-ops and all the aforementioned "exporters who source at or near farm level" screwed. These are the people who are transforming the landscape of Ethiopian coffee exports by allowing buyers to form solid direct relationships with growers, to have new transparent pricing schemes, to work toward new levels of quality improvement with repeatable results year to year. The ECX benefits old-style exporters who simply trade coffee, who buy and sell container-load lots and don't ever need to leave Addis to do their business. That is "coffee as commodity" and no matter how you dress it up, it does not suit the way most quality-oriented coffee buyers do business these days. So for now we are crossing our fingers that there is some way for private mills and others to bypass the Exchange, and quickly, or all our projects in Ethiopia coffee (including the Choma raised-beds in Harar) are doomed to be. -Tom 3/11/09
So you want to see all the photos? Well, you can't. But I did select a mere 450 or so, with captions, and here they are:
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