November, 2004
Craig Holt

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For any coffee professional a trip to Ethiopia is a kind of pilgrimage; an opportunity to visit the place where it all started, so to speak. So I was thrilled when a client of mine wanted to visit the community from which Atlas buys its exceptionally elegant and nuanced “Kochere” Yirgacheffe. In addition to visiting the birthplace of coffee and facilitating a direct buying relationship for my client, I got to spend some time developing Atlas’ own relationship with the producers of one of our favorite coffees; time which I spent learning about what the community puts into the coffee, and what they would like to see happening in their area in the future.

Addis Ababa is the capital of Ethiopia, and its name means “New Flower” in Amharic. Coming into the city from the airport at six a.m., with the city obscured by cook fire smoke under a purple sky, it struck me less like a flower, and more like a giant Monopoly set that had been ripped up and scattered across acres and acres of forested hills; an appealing jumble of buildings and trees. The streets are well-paved, but the “sidewalks” are dirt paths crowded with people, goats, and cows. Even at that early hour, there were an amazing number of joggers out on the roads. I found out from my host Melesse Bekele (my group’s registered agent in Ethiopia) that with the recent Olympic success of the long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie, running was increasingly popular in Ethiopia, and that many of the people I saw were probably training for the upcoming Great Ethiopian Run. The joggers were truly everywhere; on sidewalks, on roads, in the median, and on a sloping dirt and cement patch the size of a football field (known as Meskel Square) where they ran in utterly random directions, confounding my Western sense of directional propriety.

Scattered as it was physically, the architecture of Addis Ababa tended toward a tattered late sixties faux-modern, but ranged from the decadent worldly style of the Sheraton Hotel complex (built by the son of a Saudi Arabian father and Ethiopian mother) to the rusty corrugated tin shacks that huddled in the gullies and the shadows of larger structures. Guests at the Sheraton could, while waiting for the butler to bring a pot of coffee and their laundered shirts, look out their hotel window to a view of thousands of tiny crowded shacks surrounding the manicured Sheraton grounds. Ethiopia is, like so many other countries, a shocking combination of realities.

My first visit was to the offices and milling facility of one of the largest exporters in Ethiopia. Despite this being the slack season, there was already a lot of coffee in their warehouse. Rows of hundreds of girls sat at conveyer belts inside the clean and spacious masonry-built warehouse, sorting milled coffee for defects. Outside, huge trucks – relics of the fifties, many of them – loaded with coffee straight from the auction belched black smoke in the dirt yard in front of the warehouse. Wiry men stared unabashedly at me and laughed when I monkied up the stacks of parchment coffee to get a good picture of the sorting tables. In talking with the president of the company, (deleted son reference) I was impressed by the amount of pride they took in their work. Throughout my visit to Ethiopia, I was to see constant reminders of this pride in the industry, ranging from small-holders of coffee land to the millers, government coffee specialists, and exporters.

I had lunch with Solomon Worku, owner/manager of SMS Exporters, at the “Top View” restaurant, aptly named for its setting high above the city of Addis Ababa. Enjoyed a typical Ethiopian meal, which consisted of various meats in a spicy-tart sauces all poured over a threatening-looking grey bread made of a local grain called “Tef”. Spent the balance of the day visiting my agent’s office and having dinner with Mohamed from Kalem Abdellah.

The next day I met my client and his wife, along with the managing director of Ambassa Enterprises, Atta Degu. Degu took us all straight out through the interminable streets of Addis to what seemed like the edge of town. We pulled into an obscure dirt lot and parked. Across a weed field (which three men were “mowing” in a desultory fashion using hand-held sickle) we approached a low-slung building via a dirt and rock path. This was the national auction, wherein 160,000 tons of coffee (Ethiopia’s largest source of foreign currency) was traded. Inside was a single long room with a raised stage at one end. Three officials from the Coffee Authority sat there, with the man at the slightly-raised center position doing all the talking. In front of him, buyers sat on the left and sellers on the right. Off to his left a series of tables along the window held samples (300 grams) of coffee, each with a label noting the results of the “liquoring unit” cupping. Based on this visual assessment and third-party cupping, the buyers place their bids. It all proceeds in a dignified fashion, with almost eerie calm. Bidders raise their hands – only slightly – to indicate their price, and once the high point is reached the seller raises their hand just the teeniest bit to indicate his or her acceptance of the transaction.

Coffees not sold that day are offered again the following day until all are sold. While we were there (at the very beginning of the washed coffee season) things were fairly slow, with the huge room only two thirds full, but during peak season (Jan/Feb) the place is apparently packed.

The coffee system in Ethiopia works as follows: small holders sell their coffee to washing stations where coffee is hulled, fermented, and sent out to raised drying racks. While on these racks it is hand sorted for defects by hundreds of women. When fully dried (all the samples I cupped while there came in between 10.5% and 11.5% moisture) it is bagged and put on huge Fiat trucks (those long-suffering automotive relics) where it is covered with tarps and criss-crossed with cabling. Once “wrapped and strapped” in this way, the cable system is sealed to prevent tampering, and the trucks drive down to the auction. There a sample is drawn and assessed, and the lot (around 160 bags in parchement) is auctioned. When a buyer is found the coffee is taken directly to that buyer’s dry mill. There it is milled and blended with at least one other lot to produce a full container of green coffee.

During the harvest washing stations run all night and day, with trucks prowling the hills during the day, then returning to the washing stations loaded with cherries at night.

After lunch we returned to the coffee authority facility, where we passed a long line of coffee trucks in front of the liquoring unit. There we were shown into the “Washed Coffee Lab” where every single washed coffee produced in this country is assessed. There we were treated to a lengthy explanation of Ethiopia’s stringent quality control methods by the Head Liquorer of the washed coffee unit. He explained that the coffees are first assessed green and then roasted and cupped. He waxed poetic as he described the 15 different variations of Ethiopian flavor profile, and showed the pride in his country’s product that I was to see throughout my time here. We then cupped Bebeka, Tepe, Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, and Limu coffees, each of which was true to its description.

Our next stop was in the “Natural Coffee Liquoring Unit” where we learned about the grading and processing of Ethiopian natural coffees. Here we cupped Harrars, Djimmahs, Sidamos, Bebeka, and Kafa Forest Coffee. Once again we found an excellent range of flavors within that subsection of Ethiopia’s production.

The following day, we headed out to the Yirgacheffe region, which is a subsection of the larger Sidamo growing region. Along the way we dropped into the sweltering semi-arid plains that most people associate with Ethiopia. In the lowlands we passed through endless fields of Tef grain, dotted here and there with Acacia trees and ant hills. Every few miles we’d pass a series of make-shift huts offering goods for sell. These huts huddled together according to product type – first a batch of rug vendors, then a series of pineapple salesmen, next potatoes, now lumber, now car jacks and tire irons, once even several miles of tombstone merchants, which was discouraging.

Even in the most seemingly-desolate stretches of sun blasted highway, we passed people walking the fields, or making their way through the mid-day heat in ramshackle horse-drawn carts with car tires. By lunch time, we’d made it into Awassa, a busy crossroads town where roadside ping-pong tables were all the rage, and long horn cattle blocked our way to the gas pumps at the Arco gas station.

From Awassa we moved into the hills of Sidamo, where the yellows and browns gave way to lush greens. As we gained elevation we passed through a large area where Qat was the main agricultural product. Qat is a shrub that grows to about the size of a Bourbon coffee plant, and features narcotic leaves. The small branches are plucked off the tree with leaves intact, and sold at a very brisk clip along the roadside. Throughout the Qat areas we passed gaggles of men slumped under trees languidly chewing leaves and talking through mouthfuls of greenish cud. I’ve read that Qat has brought entire villages to a standstill, but in our quick run through the area it was hard to see any obvious indication of cultural collapse in the Qat areas.

Finally we began to see coffee trees along the roadside, which was a great relief after the long drive. Spinning through the hills of Sidamo was a great experience, with valleys running down to the plains on our right, and forested hillsides sheltering fruit-laden coffee trees on our left. Occasionally we passed by well-organized washing stations, where men and women sorted through the parchment as it dried on the raised wooden racks.

We eventually left even the small towns behind as we entered the Kochere area of Yirgacheffe. Out here our presence was a huge event for the local kids. Upon seeing our truck, they would charge out of the forest pointing at us and shouting “Faranji! Faranji! Faranji!”. When I learned that this translates to “Foreigners! Foreigners! Foreigners!” I started shouting back “Darengu! Darengu! Darengu!” which means, “Local kids! Local kids! Local kids!”. They seemed to find this immensely amusing.

As we made our way along dirt roads under the growing threat of rain, we stopped occasionally to talk to coffee growers. Most of them lived in traditional homes called “Chogos”, and simply went out behind their houses to pick coffee from bushes growing amongst the other vegetation. All of them were very welcoming (an Ethiopian National Trait, in my experience) and happy to talk to the people who bought their coffee. The kids in particular were great fun to hang around with.

We rounded a bend on a steep hill, and saw the Kochere washing station below us. The clouds decided to take a break at that point, and the area was bathed in afternoon light. It was so beautiful as to be almost corny. The washing station occupies a broad natural amphitheater, which faces a steep slope. We arrived on the side of the steep slope, where the receiving station, pulping equipment, etc are located. Across from us, rows of drying tables hugged the hillside, laden with coffee in parchment. Men and women hovered by the racks, sorting for defects while they chatted in low voices. Up at the receiving station, the head of the washing station and his son (now the general manager) were explaining the process by which they receive and prepare their coffee. We walked down the hill, passing the depulper and the long channels of coffee. We stopped near the tanks where a handful of men sang as they stirred the fermenting coffee with long wooden handles. Down by the drying racks, I took some pictures of a group of women sorting the coffee, then showed them the picture with my digital camera. This created a mob scene. Apparently no Faranjis had ever pulled this trick before, and the women were fascinated to see themselves captured on camera. Everyone was very good natured about it, but they were extremely eager to catch a glimpse of themselves. At this point Mark blew everyone away by actually printing some of the pictures he’d just taken, which is an event I’m sure will be talked about for some time at the Kochere washing station.

We spent the afternoon touring the area, meeting the coffee growers and the folks at the washing station, and talking about our buying relationship with the Kochere community. On the drive back to Addis we decided that our goal for this year would be to dedicate a portion of the price of the coffee to building a community center – in the traditional style – near the washing station itself. More importantly, we want the community center to be the start of an ongoing relationship with the people of Kochere.

We are excited about the Kochere coffee because it represents an ideal combination – great coffee, grown by fantastic people.

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