Traveling to coffee producing countries is something Joe Van Gogh owner, Robbie Roberts, has done countless times in his career. Making such trips not only provides an opportunity to meet the farmers and learn more about their practices, it also offers a greater appreciation for the hard work that goes into coffee production. For as many trips to coffee origins as Robbie has made, this trip to Ethiopia in February was his first visit to Africa. Ethiopia is considered to be the center of origin for coffee with the greatest biodiversity of coffee varieties in the world. In a way, a trip to Ethiopia gives “traveling to origin” a whole different meaning. Read on for words from Robbie about his recent trip.
As we dropped through 10,000 feet, the sky above the clouds was pink with sunrise. It was still dark on the tarmac of Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport when we landed. By the time I had paid for my visitor’s visa and cleared customs, Sunday morning was coming down over Ethiopia’s capital. Twenty-seven years since roasting Ethiopian coffee for the first time, I was finally in coffee’s native home.
Thanks to the generosity of Samuel Demisse of Keffa Coffee, a green coffee brokerage with offices in Baltimore and Addis Ababa, I joined a group of five other coffee roasters from both ends of the United States and the middle of Canada on a whirlwind tour of coffee’s motherland.
Days were spent driving along country roads, bumping and bouncing in the cramped middle of a big Toyota, and into the coffee towns of my personal lore. The beans my palate has come to love through 27 years of coffee roasting, now coming to glorious life through the windshield of a Land Cruiser.
Green coffee. Acres of it, drying on raised beds, down the hill and up, as far as the eye could see. My first trip to the coffee lands of Ethiopia did not disappoint. New harvest was coming in as picking season wound down. I walked acres of raised drying beds, all full. Hundreds of pounds of green coffee bagged and stacked to the roof in a sprawling, mechanized mill on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, or organized in single-bag clusters, emptied in mounds on the floor for traditional hand sorting in the heart of Dire Dawa.
Afternoons set into deep, dark, constellation-strewn nights at a Uraga washing station or in the peaceful streets -- one part French Colonial one part Arab and all parts chill -- of Dire Dawa, gateway to Harrar. The names continue to play across the map in my mind’s eye – Aleta Wondo, Hambela, Yirga Chefe, Werka. I saw washing stations frantically processing incoming coffee under midnight floodlights. I smelled the heady aroma of naturally processing coffee cherry. And I tasted some of the most delicate, subtle flavors I’ve had the pleasure of cupping this past quarter century.
Coffee. Coffea Arabica. The shrub that fuels the morning and my imagination. The promised land for a career coffee roaster.
When people ask me, as they inevitably do when they find out my business, what my favorite coffee is, I often tell them that varies -- by seasons and by my mood. But I never let that question go by without letting the interrogator know that the one coffee country I could not do without is Ethiopia.
Finally, sunrise again. This one over Washington D.C., after 16 hours of darkness, after the long, dark night of Addis Ababa through Shannon, Ireland for fuel and food for the Atlantic crossing. From coffee’s capital to our nation’s capital. With the new day’s light, it was time to clear customs, change planes and, of course, order a cup of coffee.
The Ethiopian coffee ceremony
Roasted, ground, brewed over the space of an hour and a half or so, could be found anywhere people gathered. In the afternoon at peoples’ homes, after dinner at restaurants or a couple times a day in the hotel lobby.