Chasing Coffee in Ethiopia: Part One

I work at Sightglass, an independent coffee company in San Francisco. We take dozens of sourcing trips around the world to places where there's a variety of obstacles: political and health issues, to dangerous terrain.

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May 2 2014, 3:00pm

Photo by Ashton Goggans

Welcome to our first 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.

Ethiopia's rainy season ran long, which delayed the harvest and pushed back our trip to the beginning of November. Showing up early would mean walking around empty coffee drying beds and potentially looking at some early picking. For our purposes, a total waste of time and quite a bit of money. If we miss harvest in full-swing, we've blown it.

I work with two brothers, Justin and Jerad Morrison, who own Sightglass, a San Francisco-based independent coffee bar and roastery. Oregonian by birth and fine travel companions, the both of them.

Companies like ours often find the term "specialty coffee" tacked onto our names. The first mention of it was penned in a 1974 issue of Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, a publication that's still alive, and which I'll admit I've never read. The term's a fine one, if only a little vague, and in the last ten or so years, it's taken on a distinctive meaning: to describe small, independent roasters who treat the sourcing, roasting, and preparation of coffees in a similar manner to the techniques that vineyard owners and winemakers treat wine grapes and vinification. Our coffees are "cupped," or evaluated, after they are roasted, then brewed using a simple immersion method in a small bowl. Cuppers—as in people who do this for a living, professionally—slurp them aggressively, using a special deep-bellied spoon, assessing various qualities: mouth-feel, body, sweetness, flavor notes, aroma, etc. We get academic with our talk about growing elevation and coffee plant varietals and processing methods.

coffee in hands

Though it isn't quite the Indiana Jones-esque lifestyle that some green buyers, as well as shows like Dangerous Grounds, might lead you to believe, buyers for larger specialty roasters are at origin upwards of ten months out of the year. For a small roaster like us, it includes dozens of week-long trips to places where you better not run out of bottled water and toilet paper, and you best have done your research as far as health risks.

The day before our flight out, I sat down at a travel clinic in downtown San Francisco and allowed a nurse to put needles in my arm a number of times. Too many times. A cocktail of vaccines for MMR, tetanus, polio, hep-A and –B, typhoid, meningitis, yellow fever. Raised by hippies, I'd never been subjected to vaccines and commenced feeling ill, immediately. I bought another bottle of malaria pills, two bottles of hand sanitizer, and several packs of baby wipes. I also picked up a bottle of Cipro, what Justin refers to as the "eject button." An antibacterial that'll pretty much wipe out whatever's in your stomach, good and bad, and leave you feeling stripped out, gutted.

Justin, Jerad (heretofore referred to as "The Brothers Morrison"), and I caught a red eye flight out of San Francisco on a Friday night. We tried to sleep for a few hours in Dulles airport before we boarded a 747, took our seats, and spent the next 15 hours accepting as many free Heinekens and plastic mini bottles of Sutter Home wine as Ethiopian Airlines would comfortably allow. We landed in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, on Sunday morning. I was still (very) nauseated, and feeling like I'd been tossed off a carnival ride.

But on the day that we arrived into the Ethiopian capital, a travel alert was released: There was reliable evidence that Al-Shabaab, a Somalian-based militant group, was planning a terrorist attack in a number of areas around Ethiopia. Security officials were very concerned about an attack at the World Cup qualifier between Ethiopia and Nigeria. If Ethiopia won, it would be their first World Cup win.

For a small roaster like us, it includes dozens of week-long trips to places where you better not run out of bottled water and toilet paper, and you best have done your research as far as health risks.

As soon as we left the airport terminal, we were greeted by an Ethiopian woman who was employed by a East African coffee exporter/roaster, based out of Nairobi. Months prior, Al-Shabaab had taken over a shopping center there, throwing grenades and peppering the center with bullets, killing almost 70 people. The woman's employer had a cafe in that mall. I'd seen pictures of it, torn apart by bullets, broken glass everywhere, that surfaced across the international news following the attack.

She brought us to a restaurant which doubled as a traditional Ethiopian dance club at night. The interior was adorned in carved African hardwoods and beautiful textiles. The young people didn't come here anymore, she told us. They weren't interested. They wanted American "rap" music, she said.

We ate some injera—soft, spongy bread that's a staple of Ethiopian food—with spiced, raw meat, and some sort of dry farm cheese. Everything smelled vaguely sour, ripe—something like curry, but warmer, more earthy. My malaria medication was making my stomach churn.

We finished lunch and drove through Addis, the air thick with dust and diesel smoke. People walked aimlessly in the middle of streets, crossing in front of taxis and buses and little Tuk-Tuk three-wheel rickshaws with seemingly no concern for the possibility of getting run over. Men sat in plastic chairs and on rocks and on the ground all along the road, chewing a leafy green plant called khat, a euphoria-inducing amphetamine that grows wild around this area.

We were dropped off at the domestic terminal. We drank some beers and boarded our flight to Jimma, the largest city in Southwestern Ethiopia, surrounded by lush highlands littered with coffee. The beers seemed to help with the nausea. I hoped my stomach would stay settled for the flight.

Check back later this month for part two.