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On the Road

Ethiopia 2007


Ethiopia is its own universe. It has its own language, own time, own calendar, own Church, and as we all know, its very own unique coffees.

As with all travel, you bring some pre-conceived baggage along with you. Along the way, you shed what you expect, and see what is really there, picking up experiences that are always amazing. The conjunction of you, the place, and that time, come together in a way that the photographs that you take can at best only serve as a flash card to spark you memory to say, “oh yea, we were . . . .”

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On this trip, this was even more so, so I will split this travelogue into two parts. In a country that is claimed to be both the birthplace of man and coffee, it is easy to be swept away with superlatives. The first will focus on the coffees lands of Sidamo and Yirgacheffee, and the second on the trip.

The Coffees Lands

After spending two days at the East African Fine Coffee Association 4th annual meeting (Café Imports attended last year, and has joined EAFCA as a member) we set out from Addis to head south to Sidamo and Yirgacheffee. Leaving Addis through its construction sprawl and lack of stop lights (and stop signs) was a bit of a trip. Once outside of the city heading south, it’s a dry greyish plain. Off in the distance you can see high ridges, as we are driving in the valley of the Rift Valley, and that was too cool. To make it bit more exciting than already was, seeing baboons playing in the distance added that “I’m in Africa” feeling that is so intoxicating. Oh well, okay, back to the coffee.

After a many hour drive, we start to arrive in Sidamo coffee growing region. We have driven up for a long way, and are in a green world unlike the valley floor behind us. The altimeter says it’s about 1800 meters and the landscape is truly a wave of green. Big buckles of land that slowly wave up, and down, in gentle rolling hills. Along side the road and out in the fields you can see the familiar round Sidamo huts.

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We stop a coops along the way where we have purchased coffee before, or cupped their samples. The coffees have been spectacular and finally in the specialty market, you are finding roasters who respect Sidamo for itself, as a region, and not just a “lesser” Yirgacheffee. Many of the washed coffees have that fine citrus Ethiopian characteristic running through them, and in some, that apricot flavor that seems to be unique to this area. One of our very top coffees that we imported last year was a naturally processed Sidamo. Wow, it was amazing.

The varietals of coffee in Ethiopia are mind blowing, as you would expect in the origin of coffee. (Theoretical one, though, as this has not been proven beyond all reasonable doubt, and I heard a very strong and logical argument about Yemen being the birthplace of coffee while I was in EAFCA.) Most people are familiar with typica, bourbon, caturra, caturri, mundo novo, and a few other, but Ethiopia might have hundreds of varietals. The much sought after geisha, well, I have now seen three different very distinct geisha now, and who knows what this valley, or that valley holds in terms of varietals to be sought out. It’s like the quest for the Holy Grail. The search itself might be the very purpose. (Another aside, I have seen seven yemen varietals now too!)

All is not great, in coffee land, however, as many (read all) of the coops we visit have not received their pre-financing from the larger coops. This is a real surprise, as you always assume that pre-financing goes against specific contracts, and of course the actual coops must receive the money. The coop managers are adamant that they have not received any pre-financing, and some of them have to sell their coffee to the local buyers vs. direct to the coop, or they are choosing to do so, as a protest. This trend continues along the various coops that we visit.

Not surprisingly when I return I get informed by Transfair that Sidama Coffee Farmers Union is suspended from FLO, and a few days later, the same with Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers Union.

I do not have any details of what is wrong, other than the flow of funds, and transparency obviously was not there. Is this paper work issues? Bookeeping, something more? Who knows, but hopefully it will be resolved fairly and quickly.

Heading further south, we leave the rolling green hills of Sidamo and arrive in Yirgaceffee. It’s still green, but the landscape has changed, as the hills become more vertical and rolling hills start to approach rolling green mountains. We park our vehicle and are hiking through a village where we come across a woman that states that she is 110 years old. Her husband died a few years back at 97. Off the main street through town, the Saturday evening street market starts to form, with every color of ground pepper from black to red to orange appears in little containers almost as a visual condiment to the full array of vegetables. It is an amazing feast of colors. Dark green of the hills, setting sun, and the color of the market.

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After three days in the field and many coop visits, it was time that we headed north back to Addis and that evening my flight home. Back in the office, we are doing all the cupping and logistics for our coffee that is afloat, or soon to be, and we are searching for more top gems from among the hill of beans.

Trip and Miscellaneous

Okay, if I have already expressed this already, this was a stellar trip! I arrived in Addis at 7:00 am after 2 days of travel, and a nice 11-hour layover in the Paris airport. (I was stuck with my luggage, so I could not hop into a taxi to go to down town Paris and watch people smoke at outside cafes under the Eiffel tower. Instead, I watched people smoke at faux indoor cafes at the airport, and got to pay about 27 dollars for a small and rather greasy quiche like substance) Back to Addis. Addis is, I am told, the third highest capital in the world at 2250 meters. It’s sunny and 85 during the day, and 55 at night, rather perfect. It’s an incredibly safe city (or least that is what I thought) as I walked the city from about 9:00 am till about 2:00 p.m. by myself. I saw the bones of Lucy, from 3.18 million years ago, at the National Museum. Wow! I have a few photos on our website, but I am not really a photographer, and the room was dark enough that could not see Lucy without a flash, and with a flash, the light reflected from the glass case, but either way, there is something magical about being 3 feet away from Lucy in the basement of the National Museum. Also in the museum is the large, almost oversized carved wooden throne of Haile Salase. Hailse Salase was the last emporor of Ethiopia. A line that they claim goes back to the days of Sheeba and Salomon (we are talking Old Testament here!) Haile Salase was most likely murdered by the Derg, the communist in 1974. That ended that line, but for those of you not familiar with Haile Salase by name, he was also know by his given name of Ras Tarafari, and was worshipped by the Rastafarians as the messiah. This was a position that Haile Salase was never comfortable with, as he was a devout Christian. Okay, after the museum, I headed off to the St. George’s cathedral, assisted by some local guides that I could not quite shake off but were very friendly and actually added to the experience. The Cathedral is in the shape of a hexagon, and looks like a few synagoes that I have seen. This is not surprising when you realize they Ethiopia has been Christian since about 360 AD This is old time Christianity. It was lent when I was there, and the Ethiopian Christians take lent seriously. One meal a day for 40 days, and absolutely no meat, or animal products (butter, dairy, etc) This is old school lent, and much closer to what Catholics observed to until lent was “watered down” in recent years. If fact, there are something like 250 fasting days for priests in Ethiopia, and about 180 for the flock. Our coffee traveling group loved the fasting foods, as all were vegetarian, and very good.

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I had mentioned Ethiopia’s own calendar above, the Ethiopians use the Julian calendar, which was introduced in 46 BC and it was used by the Romans, and eventually Christian world till a mathematical error was discovered, and the Gregorian calendar came into use around 1582. The correction was about seven years at the time, and leads to the joke that the travel agents like to use, “come to Ethiopia and be seven years younger”. The calendar is just another historical thing of interest in Ethiopia.

Ethiopians speak amrachic, which is a semetic languge, and it sounds a bit like a soft and more lyrical Hebrew or Arabic.

Time, Ethiopian time is actually quite clever. 7:00 am “our time” is 1:00 in the morning Ethiopian time. It’s the first hour of the morning. 1:00 at night, is 7:00 pm “our time”, and the first hour of evening. This works quite well for a country very near the equator, but as I was discussing with my taxi driver one day, would not be too good for us way up north, as the swing in the sunrise goes from 5:27 in the summer to 7:48 in the winter.

Lastly, the trade mark issue. Trademarks vs. certificates of origin. Big legal issue here, and with all complex legal issues, the devil is in the detail, but one thing for sure, EVERYONE in Ethiopia is aware of this issue. My taxi drivers, the doorman, the man and woman on the street, EVERYONE. To them, it is simply a case of Big powerful economically advantaged countries not wanting to pay Ethiopia for it’s natural treasures. I let them know that I strongly supported Ethiopia’s right to control the name of it’s very unique coffees, and that I felt that the U.S. and Europe should work hard to make sure the legal framework that Ethiopia deserves fits into the world legal code. Just stating that trademarks are a disaster for origin certificaitons, and not valid is not enough. Terrior is extremely important in coffee and other fine foods. Coffees from Sidamo should be labled as such. Legal hurdles such as trademark vs. origin certifications are important, but semantics. Right now, Europe and the U.S. look like colonialist that are looking to buy cheap natural resource and exploit the locals.

--Jason Long jason@cafeimports.com