Chasing Coffee in Ethiopia: Part Four

We headed into the mountains outside of Jimma to check out some coffee washing stations, but when we got to the place where the dirt bikes were supposed to be, there were no dirt bikes—just a muddy road that ran down into a valley.

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Jul 5 2014, 2:32pm

Welcome back to our installment of features from Ashton Goggans of Sightglass Coffee, an independent roastery in San Francisco, about the company's ongoing sourcing trips around Africa. There's a lot of crazy shit that happens in order to get high-quality beans back into the States, so the next time you start bitching about your overpriced cup of java, check back in on this ongoing series to get an insider's perspective about what it takes to source some of the best coffee in the world.

We returned to Jimma a few days later for a much needed night of modern comforts. We woke early the next morning in hopes of getting to a washing station an hour outside of town.

"The roads might be washed out," our friends at Technoserve told us. But someone would meet us where the roads became impassable and take us the rest of the way on dirt bikes, which, of course, sounded like a great idea to us.

We headed into the mountains, but when we got to the place where the dirt bikes were supposed to be, there were no dirt bikes—just a muddy road that ran down into a valley. Somewhere down that road was the washing station. May said we should walk, that it wasn't far.

We hopped out of the truck and started downhill. Thick mud clung to our shoes in great lumps. We slipped and slid past thatched huts and homes made from clay and woven grasses. Naked children and women wrapped in beautiful, bright fabrics—yellows and reds, deep indigos, purplescame to the edge of their yards, and watched us pass.

A group of young boys came running up and asked us to take their picture. They commenced dancing. The sun came out and the sky cleared. At no point did we consider the fact that we were walking downhill now, and would have to walk uphill later on that day.

We came to a fork in the road where we were greeted by two men, one smiling widely, his teeth green with khat while the other carried a notebook. The green-toothed man extended his hand to May and held it for a very long time, staring straight at her, mumbling and smiling.

"He is mad," the man with the notebook said.

"What?" May said.

"Crazy," he said "He has mental problems."

We were lead by the man with the notebook past a small village, through a cornfield, and out into a large valley. Small coffee trees dotted the hillside. A variety of different monkeys canoodled in the canopy of a large tree.

"Do they really throw their shit?" I asked May, who just smiled back at me.

We picked some red coffee cherries and chewed them slowly. They tasted sweet and vaguely medicinal: the skin thick and bitter with a meat that was sticky on the inside. The cherries were plump and ripe and consistent in shape. Wonky cherries are a sign of poor quality. These were beautiful.

Rows and rows of raised African drying beds extended towards the bottom of the valley. Men and women stood under the shade of a makeshift roof, sorting coffee cherries in large troughs.

I felt weak and couldn't stop perspiring. We hadn't planned on such a long hike and were out of bottled water.

We walked down to the washing station, looked at the green coffee drying on the beds. They were doing good work here—excellent wet processing, using fermentation tanks and a gorgeous de-pulper, which is used to remove the meat from the seed. The sorters were very meticulous with the de-pulped green beans, making sure there were no deformed or defective specimens on the tables, and that the parchment was solid and intact, ensuring the beans would survive packing and shipping all the way to the states without going bad. The pickers had been very careful with their cherry selection.

Most of green coffee buying involves this sort of work: walking farms and looking at their tree's health and seeing how the cooperatives processed the ripe cherry—how careful they were with their sorting, milling, and drying.

May spoke with the cooperative's leader about pricing and quantities. We started back.

Fifteen minutes into walking back up the hill, our legs felt terrible, burning from the climb. The mid-afternoon sun shone down mercilessly, the sky cloudless and very bright blue. We realized we had forgotten water bottles, having planned to be taken in on dirt bikes. The steep incline rose up in front of us. It hadn't seemed that steep walking down it.

May walked far ahead of us. She seemed unfazed, while the Brothers Morrison and I stopped regularly, leaning against trees or fences to catch our breath. We considered being sick.

"It must be the altitude," Justin said. "I'm not in this bad of shape."

May kept her pace and was soon out of sight. We came to the top of a hill to find her surrounded by a crowd of children, all giggling and smiling, looking at her camera's LCD, at a photo she had taken of them. She looked at us and laughed.

"You guys look like shit," she said.

She walked with us for a while and then disappeared over the next hill. Over the course of the next hour, we each hit our knees, panting hard, our legs burning from the ascents, our bags weighing heavily on our backs.

Suddenly a thin old man appeared at the top of a hill in front of us, walking a donkey.

He motioned for one of us to get on.

"I take you," the man said.

I took the first ride, up and over the last two hills. It felt like a dream, this movement without pain or effort, being carried by this noble, dumb creature. I dismounted and sent the donkey back down for the Brothers Morrison.

May walked up with a half-bottle of water. I took small sips, let the water rest in my mouth. I focused on the sensation of wetness, of moisture. It tasted perfect. She had paid the man with the donkey the equivalent of two dollars to taxi us the last kilometer. I wanted to kiss her on the mouth.

Soon the Brothers Morrison appeared at the top of the hill, smiling. We drove back to Jimma in silence, staring out the windows at timeless lands.