Travel Log: Ethiopia

by Trish Skeie, Zoka’s Director of Coffee

My second morning in Ethiopia, I woke not remembering where I was. As my eyes began to focus themselves, I saw intricately woven bamboo above and to all sides of me. Through a window, I could see the sun had just come up. The jungle was alive with monkeys running and jumping from tree to tree, rustling the leaves and shaking the branches where vultures sat waiting.

Africa! Oh, yes, I was in Ethiopia! The bamboo that surrounded me was a typical Sidamo style house at the Aragesh Lodge. There were about eight of these structures on the lodge’s grounds surrounded by nature preserves. I rolled out of bed and made my way to the dining house for breakfast. There was a lot of work to be done and we’d better get a move on.

The Coffee Quality Institute had sent Kelly Peltier, (of Canopy Coffee) and me to Ethiopia to train some cooperatives basic cupping protocol and coffee laboratory operations. After spending a week in the field we would head back to Addis Ababa to facilitate examinations for the Star Cupper program with a select group of senior cuppers. We were on our way to two coffee growing regions in the south. These would be none other that the famous coffee-producing areas of Sidamo and Yirgacheffe. That morning, I had the same light and giddy feeling you get when you’re about to meet up with your lifelong crush. After all these years of dreaming about the African countryside, I was finally going to see the birthplace of coffee. I’d seen that Meryl Streep movie a hundred times, and I’d been mumbling her lines under my breath for weeks, “I had a faaaahrm in Africa”.

After breakfast, we piled in the truck with the guide and agronomist, Tesfaye, and traveled another hour south until we reached the town of Aleta Wondo in Sidama. This small town is home to the Wottona Bulituma Cooperative. The lab station was almost bare when we arrived. They had a few tables, two dozen cupping cups, a sample roaster, and not much else to work with. Kelly pulled out a spanking new kettle and we set the water to boil even before we had fully assessed the situation. Uyassu, the main lab tech, was parked next to a single electric sample-roasting machine, busily checking his wristwatch for clues to his roast. He was doing a remarkable job with almost nothing to guide him; this roaster had no temperature gauge.

Tesfaye was there to translate as I showed him how to try the roast with a long spoon and look for signs in the coffee’s development. We made a baked roast and a burnt roast as well, and decided to taste them along with the defects we graded out for the next day. We set to work cupping and scoring table after table, roasting samples and grading green coffee for defects.

Our last night in town, we were invited to tour the sight of a new school, orphanage, and coffee training center just outside Aleta Wondo. As we drove past the crowded and muddy streets of the town, the jungle opened up again to lush greenery interspersed with banana and mango trees. Green Zebra tomatoes grew wild by the roadside, just like blackberries do in Seattle. People ducked out of their mud and bamboo homes to see us pass, and children pointed and yelled, “Ferengie! Ferengie!!” (From “Frenchie”, since the first white people in Ethiopia were French).

We met the community’s leaders in a huge field where cows were grazing and coffee grew on a few surrounding elevations. They pointed out where the buildings would eventually stand as gradually the crowd got larger – more farmers, more mothers, more children, babies, and teenagers began to follow our every move. Our parade grew to include what felt like the whole town and we just continued walking. Kelly and I were guided gently by this enormous crowd to the road again and up a small path to a farm house next a large clearing. We sat on a bench under a tree next to four of the town’s most revered and honored elders. They sat almost motionless watching us as we were welcomed and introduced to the entire crowd. The mayor of the town addressed the congregation and introduced us as coffee buyers from America.

We heard first from farmers who asked us how they could realize a better price for their endless and arduous work. I replied that the prospect of a coffee training center, where children would learn about coffee from age eleven, was the beginning of something truly revolutionary. Children could learn at this early age all of the things we had just begun with Uyassu and his staff at the coop’s laboratory. Within a decade, we could have an entire community of people who understand the language and needs of the specialty buyer. The better they understood what the quality market would bear and what people like me could pay, the higher the prices will go. I had goose bumps just imagining the possibilities for these farmers and their families.

After we consumed a delicacy of minced plantain heavily laden with rich fresh butter, we made our way back to the truck and to the small hotel in town. When you hear people say that an origin trip was a life-changing experience, I suspect that it might have something to do with a profound exchange they’ve had with the people there. That evening was such an experience for me. The people of Aleto Wondo have changed me, forever.

We were on to Yirgacheffe and the Konga Cooperative early the next day. When we arrived, I saw Habtambu, Konga’s main lab tech, in the same position that I’d seen Uyassu in a few days before. He was sitting next to his sample roaster intently watching his roast. We ran into some problems at the Konga lab due to a few lengthy power outages, but the trainees had a lot of time to grade green samples and use the Nez du Cafe olfactory kit of coffee smells.

Occasionally I found myself gazing out the window of the tiny lab towards a coffee farm that was situated right up against it. A lady farmer was working this plot nearest the lab during our two-day visit in Yirgacheffe. I watched her clear the long weeds that threatened the coffee’s root base, inspect the trees branches and just generally tend to her chores. It struck me that I don’t really have the opportunity to see this day-to-day coffee work on my usual assignments. Most of the time I see a farm, and the producer will show me the crop from a pickup truck. Again, I felt lucky to be in Ethiopia, seeing this work happen in real time and firsthand.

Five hours on bumpy roads got us back to Addis Ababa just a day before we were to begin Star Cupper training and exams. We had about 25 cuppers show up to the small IPS laboratory in the heart of the city. These exams helped us select a group of senior and novice cuppers who would go on to participate in the first Q Grader program for Africa. The group was curious about the need for a Q Program and what it might mean for specialty prices in Ethiopia. They listened with interest as we explained the importance of a common language for cuppers worldwide. Senior cuppers were encouraged by the idea that they were being enlisted to help develop this language that would help the rest of the world better appreciate Ethiopian coffees.

Over the course of three days, we administered the Sensory Skills Test, Olfactory exams, triangulations and an assortment of traditional cupping tables. We scored, tasted, sniffed and spit through the rigorous schedule of events. The senior cuppers, and even some of the junior cuppers, were entirely relaxed and skillful during the exams. More than a few came away with perfect scores, and Kelly and I learned some interesting points as well. The Ethiopian schedule of green defects varies slightly from the SCAA system, for example. Even more reason for African cuppers to participate in the program; soon they will have a hand in tweaking it so we can get closer to the truth about coffee.

I was still dreaming about Africa some weeks after my return to Seattle. Each dream was some combination of these things: in a room made of intricately woven bamboo, I am drinking coffee and eating minced plantain from a small clay pot. A lot of people are with me. We are all talking and I soon realize that the exchange is made up entirely of “thank you, thank you, thank you”. Thank you, Ethiopia. I can’t wait to see you again!

(Check out the single origin offerings- we have a remarkable Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, washed, Organic, and another truly unique Ethiopia, natural, Aricha Selection 7. Coming soon- A new crop Ethiopia Harrar, natural)

Drink it up!