Chasing the Harvest East African Style
Jambo (greetings) from Kenya! As I write this I’m sitting at the bar in Ibis Hotel in Karatina, a sub region of the fabled Nyeri coffee-growing region. This town is a bit like one from the Wild West with no paved streets, wood front buildings in the style of saloons and the overwhelming sense of lawlessness abounding around me. I love it. It’s sunset now, beautiful. Mt. Kenya is peaking through the clouds off in the distance and looks as lovely as ever. I’ve been encouraged to take shelter before sundown though, since that’s when the ‘packing boys’ take control of the streets and it ain’t safe for folks who ain’t one of ‘em. I’ve decided to heed the advice.
As I sip my Tusker I’m going to recount the last 2 weeks of travel spent rambling through the Ethiopian coffee interior. It was an arduous trip and each zone deserves its own segment so this particular story will be divided into 3 chapters. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as enjoyed living it.
THE KAFFA KINGDOM: BIRTHPLACE OF COFFEE
If there was one single origin trip that has held any other in limbo for me, it’s the journey to Kaffa where coffee was is repeatedly reported to have been first discovered. We flew to Jimma, in southwestern Ethiopia and began our week’s travels in the neighboring region of Limu. Our friends in that area told us that the coffees from this region were the coffees that were reserved for the Kings. It’s a special thought that contains images of Halie Selassie and King Menolik taking in part in the ritual Ethiopian coffee ceremony and thinking of just how sacred the ritual still is in today’s culture. Hearing it first hand from an 80-something year old Ethiopian coffee farmer makes it even more special. Sometimes I wait for someone to pinch me and wake me up from this dream.
Day 2 in the region led us towards Bonga, Kaffa and the site of our Tega & Tula coffee. I’d been waiting for this particular visit since I started at the Stumptown. When Duane tells you to buckle up and get ready for a source trip you know it’s going to be something special. The ride out of Jimma town towards Kaffa was an amazing one. We passed Baboons crossing the road, Columbus monkeys deftly swinging from tree to tree and terrain ranging from greenly deciduous to dry, rocky and completely unwelcoming. It was more than I hoped it was going to be.
We arrived 5 hours later in Bonga and met our friend Membratu from Tega & Tula. He’s a quiet man with a stoic personality. He’s reading everybody all the time, digesting the information and becoming all the wiser for it. What a fantastic man! Upon arrival to the farm we took a look at his nursery where seven different varietals are being cultivated separately and are to be planted on several plots of land after the harvest. This is quite unique, as tradition has not allowed for any understanding of pure varietals in Ethiopia. We’re all going to be twiddling our thumbs in anticipation for the next few years waiting for the first production. Patience is a what? How does that go again?
After a typically Ethiopian lunch of Injera, yebeg tibs (roasted lamb), tibs with green chilies, messir (spicy red lentils and what happens to be my favorite dish) and a spicy chicken dish we darted off through the coffees fields to the processing station.
Dunh, dunh, dunh……reality sets in. The picking of coffee cherry was less than spectacular. We can’t have anything less than spectacular and you all know that. After a serious heart to heart with Membratu and a solid hour sorting cherry with the pickers we had the price of ripe cherry raised. The Stumptown has plans for more education at this farm and others for next year but I think we’ve already made it over the hump at Tega & Tula. Considering the rainfall isn’t as heavy (which is a detriment to perfect ripening and knocks cherry off of branches to the ground creating an earthy flavor) as it was during last year’s crop, and considering that the picking issue is on it’s way to being resolved, we are expecting quality for next year that is going to blow minds. Stay tuned……
‘YOU, YOU, YOU, YOU, YOU, I LOVE YOU!’
Is it just me or is the power of children, their genuine smiles and interest simply overpowering at times? Yes, that was rhetorical. I will tell you this though, if you can’t handle that kind of stuff, then you should stay away from Southern Ethiopia. It’ll eat ya alive. Sure, they want your empty bottle of water or even 1 birr, roughly the equivalent of $0.12, but they do love the forenji (foreigners) cruising through their towns and a simple wave or thumbs up will make their week. They’ll run next to the car for a mile with no shoes on, because they don’t own any, just to get it. We’re too powerful and for nothing more than the fair complexion of our skin. It’s awkward but just the motivation needed to maintain perspective. We’re there to bring change.
Dilla is a weird town. You come across too many people buried in the qat (pronounced chat) trance. They’re lost and potentially aggressive. It’s been the home to many a meeting for the Stumptown over the past 2 months and I’m never lackadaisical about getting out of there as soon they’re finished. Dilla is only really important to the coffee industry because it’s the capital of the Gedeo province, home to maybe the most famous coffee town in the entire world, Yirgacheffe. Although the rains have pushed peak harvest time back a couple of weeks we were still able to tour the region at prime time. We saw virtually every cooperative under the Yirgacheffe Union umbrella and were promised by the hierarchy that the problems we faced with defaults and deliveries last year would be avoided this year. We’re offering a nice little premium just for on-time shipment so you’d think the incentive is there. We still have our fingers crossed.
Getting to learn process at the coops was, of course, educational but I was itching to get out to the Worka sub-region of Yirgacheffe to see our Wondo operation. This was the best washed Yirgacheffe I have tasted in years and seeing the land from which it comes was #1 on my Ethiopia harvest tour must-do list. Although we had good meetings with the Wondo group in September we weren’t able to get out to Worka due to rains inundating the roads. The 17km dirt, or should I say mud, road out to the area is infamous for being impassable for most of the year. So much so that half of the Ethiopian coffee crew we were traveling with had never made it out there before in their lives. So D-Day arrives. The day before was sunny and dry, that particular morning was sunny and dry so I wasn’t in the mood to hear excuses as to why we couldn’t make it out there. Of course about an hour before we were to head out it began raining down like a good, old-fashioned Portland style November shower. ‘Ahh no, no, it’s going to rain this afternoon and we’ll be stuck out there for days.’ ‘Oxfam has Land Rovers and they only made it halfway yesterday.’ ’It’s Yirgacheffe all the same, let’s wait until tomorrow and head out in the early morning.’ I snapped. ‘Stop crying and let’s get in the damned cars! We have landcruisers after all and much bigger balls than Oxfam!’ After a couple of stone cold glares, from maybe y’all can guess who if you’ve read the last Ethiopian trip report, we jumped in the rig and headed south. Worka or bust!
I wish my photos came out better but trying to snap good ones while spinning out in the mud proved to be an impossible task. That 30 minute off-road trip was one of the gnarliest 4-wheeling experiences I’ve ever had. We did make it to Wondo though, and we were greeted by Ipaphra, the processing station manager for the group. Although processing was just in the advent for the season, we took a good look around at the processing equipment. It was in phenomenal condition. Ipaphra promised to follow through with the cherry receiving station separation, which will give us an in-depth look at the sub-regions within the Worka sub-region of Yirgacheffe. This puts us one step closer to learning where, how and who is producing the gems we’re constantly hunting for in Yirgacheffe. As the drizzle began dropping the Union car was gone before we even got out of the processing area. We hopped back in our truck and got the F out of dodge. 30 silent minutes later we reached the main road! It was totally worth it and not just because the Stumptown made it to Worka. I had never seen the Union guys smile before.
Our last day in Yirgacheffe culminated with a visit to our good friend Solomon’s private washing station in the Koke sub-region. Opening the bags of cherry at his siphon was an epiphany. It was everything we asked him for and more; 95+ percent ripe cherry at least! Although we’ve yet to receive any of his coffee I’m already pumped about this relationship. We asked him in September to focus on perfectly ripe cherry. He has. We asked him to consider building parabolic drying beds to ensure even, clean drying. He built them within weeks of the conversation. We’re asking him now to build a roof over his fermentation tanks to protect his vulnerable coffee from the elements as well as to tile out the fermentation tanks to make for a cleaner process. I have no doubt he’s already gotten to work on both. Producers are rarely this proactive when it comes to fulfilling our requests, so I had to ask Solomon why. He replied by saying that I was the first to teach him about quality in a training 2 years ago and now he wants to prove to the Stumptown that he has learned how to make it happen. If a tear ran down from my eye at that moment I wouldn’t tell you guys about it.
We hiked up the muddy road from his station towards the car entranced in conversation. Kids with gargantuan smiles, eyes bright enough to light up this particular evening at dusk and, of course, no shoes, followed behind. I thought to myself; with producers like Solomon taking root in the industry, taking pride in their own country’s national pride, change truly is on the horizon.
OPERATION: CHERRY RED
This theme of mature cherry, getting paid the most for their goods and turning out the best quality coffee possible was a reoccurring one between us and the farmers. By the time we hit the Sidamo region, and the Bensa sub-region in particular, the words were flowing with robotic nature. Verbatim, however, can be a powerful thing. Finding the balance between stern and loving is even more powerful when it comes to waking the necessary minds integral to making change.
Our Hache coffee is to me one of the most subtly elegant coffees I’ve tasted this year and maybe in years. That could be because I like limesicles and champagne though. Seeing the cherry at Hache made me realize that we’re barely scratching the surface. This coffee could be even better than it already is. That thought is almost unfathomable to me.
Regardless, I got down on my hands and knees and got back to work. I don’t even remember how long I was down there, shoulder to shoulder with our producers, going through bag after bag of cherry sorting out the lusciously ripe from the sour tasting semi ripe, and astringent tasting under ripe cherries. When it was all said and done, we had 3 distinctively different piles of coffee cherry. Our producers got it after we spoke to them about the difference in flavor each pile represented. They’re going to take to it after we raised the price for ripe cherry right there on the spot. Stumptown Coffee Roasters = ‘Affirmative Action’ at source.
Drink it if you get it!