By Michelle Fish
Hard to believe, but once upon a time there was no coffee. People got up in the morning, went to work, fell in love, stayed up late, ran marathons, made speeches, wrote poems… all without coffee.
Then about a thousand years ago, so the story goes, a young goat herder named Kaldi noticed something strange. His goats, normally all about eating, head butting, and standing on top of things like goats do, started acting strangely. Agitated. Dancing, even. They were normal, then they started chewing on some red cherry-like berries, and all hell broke loose.
Kaldi thought he’d try a few of those berries himself. And he liked them. So much so, that he figured they must be the work of the devil. He took them to the nearest monastery, just to be sure, and the monks agreed: the devil’s candy. They threw the cherries into the fire. But oh, the aroma of the smoke that wafted up from the toasting coffee beans inside those red cherries smelled so heavenly, so delicious, that the monks changed their minds.
And coffee was born.
That is the origin story of coffee. And although it is apocryphal, meaning that there are no other sources to back it up, it places the Kaffa region of Ethiopia squarely at the center of the coffee universe.
So, it was probably inevitable that Bob and I, along with several of our One Bigg Island in Space cohort, would find ourselves on a 13-hour flight from Chicago to Addis Ababa on the hunt for our next Farm-Direct relationship. We were going to the place where it all began.
Landing in Addis
We fly a lot and we travel far. But there is something about being on a plane for that long and landing where the weather is different, the air smells strange, and the landscape is out of a movie. It’s surreal and trippy, to be sure, but it is also exciting.
There was an abnormally long jostle to get our luggage, which we feared might be lost. Heart-stopping, imagining traipsing through a 3-week series of coffee farms in Africa in only the clothes I was wearing. But it all worked out in the end, and we found ourselves in the airport parking lot, being greeted by our friend and contact, Hamdi Ahmed of Highland Berry Coffee, as he bundled us into his SUV and set off into the city.
When you land at the Addis airport, you are on a high plateau, already 7,762 feet above sea level. To put that in perspective, it is just a hair lower than the top of Mount Olympus in Washington state. One might think that the air would be crisp and clear so high up, but it isn’t. Like so many of the developing countries we visit for coffee, there is a haze over everything. You can smell the smoke of burning. Burning trash, cooking fires, farmers clearing land… there are little fires everywhere.
Even the famous Ethiopian Coffee ceremony is a study in smoke, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
The city is full of contrasts. It is, outwardly, a modern city, with sky-scrapers and dozens of large-scale construction projects underway. There are wide open green spaces, public parks, and lots and lots of people and cars and motorcycles. It is also a very religious city, home to many faiths, but predominantly Christian. Everywhere, on any given day, there are groups of the faithful moving through the city in their distinctive all-white clothing carrying their wooden rosaries.
The bustling metropolis, a center for art, fashion, and business, and full of luxury shopping brands and high-end restaurants, gives the impression that Ethiopia is a country on the move. And in some ways, that’s true. In 2021, its GDP grew at a rate of 5.6%, comparable to the growth in the US economy.
But consider this: 90% of Ethiopians live on less than $5.50 a day. That’s about $2,000 a year, if you do the math. And more than 50% of Ethiopians live on even less than that. And while the cost of living is generally lower in Ethiopia than in the US, it isn’t THAT much lower. Access to housing, food and fuel are the baseline for living, and the majority of people in Ethiopia have only tenuous access to all three.
But you can almost forget you know that when you land in Addis.
That first afternoon
We checked into our hotel, splashed some cold water on our faces to try to shake off the “I’ve been on a 13-hour plane ride” blues, and headed down to the restaurant to have lunch with Hamdi. Our cohort for this part of the trip included Kim Zahnow, our friend and photographer, and Jorge Ferrey Machado, our Farm-Direct partner from El Recreo Coffee in Nicaragua.
We met Hamdi Ahmed and his sister, Nejat, at a Specialty Coffee Association trade show in New Orleans the year before. Nejat is based in Houston, Hamdi splits his time between his home in Addis and the family coffee farm in the Yirgacheffe region.
Hamdi is just a great guy. Smart, funny, with a big wide-open smile and so much enthusiasm for coffee and everything about his country and his culture. Of course we were there for the coffee, but Hamdi was determined that we would get a taste of the city before we headed out to the farm.
He took us to a new national museum and park housed on the grounds of Haile Selassie’s (the former Emperor) palace. It was a great short history lesson on Ethiopia, its nine distinct geographical regions and what they are all known for.
Bob and me with Hamdi.
Ethiopia is the only African country that was never a European colony. They were occupied for a few years by the Italians during World War II. And you can still feel the Italian influence in some of the architecture in Addis. But, with the help of the British army, they successfully kicked the Italians out. And now all that remains of their occupation is a national fascination with pizza. Weirdly, you can find pizza in even the most rural parts of the country. We ate a lot of it in the many of the small hotels we stayed in along the way.
But it’s not real Ethiopian food. That is a whole different ball game. And we got our first “taste” of it that night at a restaurant in the city that also featured live entertainment: a parade of music and dancing from all of the nine regions of Ethiopia. It was loud, and crowded, and so much fun.
What we ate
So, what is traditional Ethiopian food? It is a communal event, in which everyone gathers together to eat from the same platter. First is the injera. It is a very large, spongey crepe-like flat bread made from Teff, an indigenous Ethopian grain. It’s rolled out until it is about the size of a large pizza. It is both the serving platter for the main event and the utensil you use to eat it, by breaking off sections of the injera and using it as a scoop for the toppings.
And lets just talk about those toppings: stewed vegetables, lentils, roasted meats, and so much more. Each “dish” is its own little pile atop the injera. Almost always, there will be “Tibs” which is a delicious conglomeration of bite-sized chunks of meat cooked with onion and garlic and spices. Sometimes, even raw meat is served. And spices. Lots of little piles of spices.
You grab a strip of injera and scoop up a little meat, a few veggies and roll it in the spice. The taste is earthy, tangy and pungent, in the best of ways.
It is often served with Tej, which is a honey mead-like wine with a fairly high alcohol content and a musky flavor.
Although the meal on our first night was delicious, I think the most memorable version of it came towards the end of our Ethiopian stay. By this point in the trip, we had added our friend Brendon Maxwell of Utopian Coffee (Fort Wayne, Indiana) to our cohort. And we were visiting with people he knew from a different coffee company called SNAP.
It was late in the afternoon. We were sweaty, tired, and maybe a little sunburned, covered in dust from the coffee fields and wet mills we had been walking through all day. We pulled up to a rambling conglomeration of little store fronts in a ramshackle wooden building (think strip mall made of wood) that seemed to go on forever. We were led inside, past a room in which someone was butchering a goat. The long narrow corridor snaked on endlessly. There were small rooms on either side, full of curious faces. The air was thick with incense and smoke. It was hard to breathe. We had no idea where we were, and without a guide, we would never have been able to find our way out again.
Finally, we came to an open courtyard, kind of in the center of the rabbit warren of rooms. We sat down, and the proprietress began bringing out tray after tray of injera, covered with all manner of unidentifiable, but delicious, little stews. There was one tray that had only raw meat on it, probably from the goat we saw on our way in. We had been warned not to try the raw meat – our constitutions wouldn’t have been used to it, but Jorge was determined.
It was intoxicating. It was exotic. And it was the smokiest meal I have ever shared. There is something about eating this way that seems to promote great conversation and conviviality. And all the smoke and incense made everything feel hazy and surreal. It was unforgettable.
Why all the smoke?
So, let’s talk about the Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony. In a country that is renowned for its hospitality, this is perhaps the most important social and communal ritual of all. It comes in array of formats… from the less formal version you might find in a roadside cafe, to the full on high-holy celebration we experienced at several coffee farms.
The basics are as follows: first, on a bed of aromatic dried palm leaves, grasses, and flowers, a young woman lights incense to ward off evil spirits and purify the surroundings. The incense continues to burn throughout the ceremony, which can last for several hours. Then she will fill a Jabena, a round black clay coffee pot, with water and put it over burning coals. She takes a handful of green coffee beans and begins roasting them in a wok-like pan over the coals. Now the air is filled with incense, smoke from the coals, and the smell of the roasting coffee beans. There is a lot of smoke.
When they have reached her desired degree of doneness, she grinds them in a vessel that resembles a mortar and pestle, and adds them to the Jabena, which goes back over the coals until it boils. Then, she pours the coffee in a continuous stream into small, handle-less ceramic cups from a height of at least a foot or two above the cups, thus leaving the grinds behind in the Jabena. Sugar is sometimes served with the coffee, but never milk, in our experience. Along side the coffee, a snack of popcorn, toasted barley, and/or peanuts is also served.
In the full ceremony, she brews coffee with the grounds three times, with each cup progressively becoming weaker. Each serving has its own distinct meaning, but it is considered a blessing to be a part of the full three cup progression.
It is an honor and a mark of respect to be invited to participate in a coffee ceremony. We were fortunate enough to experience at least one a day, sometimes more, during our two weeks in Ethiopia. But none were more elaborate and celebratory than those on a coffee farm or a wet mill visit. We would sit down on plastic chairs in a big U-shape with our hosts, while the ceremony with the incense and the smoke was performed in the middle. Sometimes, there were more than 20 people in the U, and who sits where is very much a part of the ritual.
We had a lot of great conversations with producers in those big U shapes, and we learned a lot about the very difficult lives most of the small producers lead.
But there was an awful lot of smoke.
It’s about a seven hour drive from Addis Ababa to Yirgacheffe. As the city gives way to the country side, we noticed a lot of lakes, farms, and livestock. But one thing we didn’t expect to see was Rastafarians.
Rastafarianism, for those that don’t know, is mostly associated with Jamaica. It’s a religion and a way of life that is practiced by nearly a million people world-wide. Reggae, dreadlocks, and cannabis use are some of its hallmarks.
We were driving through the town of Sashamane when we noticed that all the tuk-tuks on the street were decorated with Jamaican flags and images of Bob Marley, and that there were lots of people walking around in dreadlocks. It just seemed so incongruous and out of keeping with what we had seen in Ethiopia so far, so I asked Hamdi about it.
He told a story about Haile Selaisse, the Ethiopian Emperor from 1930 to 1974. During the mid-1960s, Haile Selassie took a state visit to Jamaica, as the island was experiencing an extreme drought. It is said that as his plane landed, the rains came, and the drought was over. He was hailed as a God by the locals. And in return, he invited the Rastafarians to come and live in Ethiopia in Shashamane. Many did, and by the late 1960s, there were so many Rastafarians living there that the area became known as “Little Jamaica.”
I love the idea of this story, but the reality is a lot more complicated. Haile Selaisse is actually a central figure to Rastafarianism. His coronation in 1930 was seen as the fulfilment of the second coming of Christ in Revelations. You can read a lot more about that here.
But no matter which story takes you there, the fact remains that there are many Rastafarians living in Ethiopia, and that has not been as delightful as it sounds. At least, not for the Rastafarians. Because when Haile Selassie invited them, he didn’t give them citizenship. That means that although they pay taxes, they have been permanently excluded from the systems and benefits accrued to citizens. Perhaps the most important of which is the ability to leave and return to the country, as most no longer have Jamaican passports, either. In 2017, the Ethiopian government recognized the Rastafarian community as long-term residents and began providing ID cards that will at a minimum assure that they can access basic services and travel in and out of the country at will.
You, You, You, You, You!
As I said, it’s a long drive from Addis to Yirgacheffe. Hamdi had rented a van so that we could all ride together. Usually, Kim and I both hog the window seats, so we can lean out and take pictures “from the back seat” as we go.
But something very unexpected happened that has never happened to us before.
As we got out into the more rural parts of the country, we noticed that people who noticed our white faces peering out the van window looked very surprised and happy to see us. They would point, and wave. So we would wave back.
And then we started hearing shouts of “You! You! You! You! You!” As more people saw what they were pointing, waving, and shouting at, even more people joined in with the “You! You! You!” chant. Some even chased after the van.
Truly, they looked happy to see us. But we were a little bewildered by at all. And it happened every where we went.
Not only that, when we would get to a coffee farm or a wet mill station, we began to attract a crowd. We might start out with a group of five or six accompanying our cohort around the farm. But, ten minutes later when you turn around, there are 15 people with us. And half an hour later, 30 or 40.
Towards the end of the trip, when we were staying in a lovely, somewhat rustic hotel/resort, we got to witness an Ethiopian wedding. Or at least, the part of the wedding that has the bride and groom and hundreds of their guests all spilling out of the chapel. There was so much singing, dancing, and crazy big joy, and it was really something to see. We were trying to get to our cars so that we could go into town for a meeting, but there were so many people to walk through. They were all dressed to the nines in their fabulous party clothes, and we were in our dirty hiking attire.
Everyone was taking pictures and video, and I was doing my best to avoid photo-bombing the wedding. There was this one woman, in particular, who was taking a selfi. I gave her a wide birth, so I wouldn’t be in the shot. She turned around, put her arm around me and pulled me close. Apparently, she was trying to take a selfi with me in it! The next thing I know, five or six other people are pulling me in to take selfies with me. And everyone was dancing, and pointing, and smiling, and taking pictures of us. It was a little surreal, but very fun.
Ethiopia is known for extraordinary hospitality. And we felt very welcome everywhere we went. Actually, that’s true of everywhere we’ve been, regardless of the continent. But the “You! You! You! You! You!” thing is unique.
Reality Check in Addis
At the close of our trip, like we did at the beginning, we checked into one of the two western hotels in Addis. There’s a Hyatt and there’s a Marriott, and they are just down the street from each other.
During the course of our visit, we stayed in both. They are modern, luxurious, and filled with all the creature comforts… nice restaurants, beautiful swimming pools, glorious lobbies bedecked in art, and of course the rooms are uber plush. Kim said that the Marriott property was the nicest hotel she has ever stayed in.
$25 USD for breakfast at the Marriott.
We had just spent two weeks out in the coffee countryside, where the poverty is palpable. We met a coffee farmer that is supporting his family of 13 on the approximately $400 he netted from his crop in 2022. That is supplemented by the food they grow for themselves, with a little extra to sell. They have no potable water and no electricity. And in order for him to keep the farm afloat, he keeps three of his children out of school to work with him, thus almost guaranteeing that the cycle of poverty will continue into the next generation.
And we were staying in a $250 a room per night luxury hotel.
The stark reality of that is jarring.
And speaking of stark realities that are jarring, the backdrop to our visit was a civil war, raging in the Tigray region in the north. You couldn’t feel it in Addis. And you couldn’t feel it in the southern countryside.
I don’t pretend to know what the stakes were. But I have read that between 385,000 and 600,000 people died in the conflict, with all sides accused of committing wide-spread war crimes.
The economic effects to an already very poor country have been dire. And there has been a direct impact on the coffee trade, which I will explain more in Part 2 of this story.
But our experience of Ethiopia was one of deep hospitality, a long, proud culture, and warm and welcoming people. Shortly after we left, a peace treaty was signed, hopefully bringing a final conclusion to what has been a long-simmering and deadly exchange of tribal resentments.