Pot of Gold

Joseph Brodsky has a nose for great coffee. It led him all the way to Ethiopia, in search of the Geisha.

Joseph Brodsky eyes the freshly pulled double espresso with scorn. "This looks terrible," he mutters darkly. From its poorly foamed surface, he can tell the coffee has been extracted from the espresso machine in a few measly seconds rather than the ideal 25. "And there's a fishy smell. Stomaching this is going to be the worst."

He has no choice. This espresso, from an airport coffee joint, is the only way Brodsky is going to stave off his customary caffeine-withdrawal headaches before boarding a plane to Ethiopia. As co-owner and coffee buyer for Novo Coffee, an up-and-coming high-end Denver coffee-roasting company, the 32-year-old Brodsky frequently travels to remote corners of the world to test coffees with his finely tuned palate, looking for the perfect java jolt.

He's in the vanguard of the "third wave," a small but determined group of entrepreneurs, adventurers and slurpers who are hell-bent on elevating coffee, the world's second-most widely traded legal commodity and purveyor of the number-one psychoactive drug (caffeine), beyond the first wave of corporate canned crud, beyond the second wave of frothy franchised Frappuccinos -- to an exalted level where each cup is prepared, discussed and quaffed like the finest Bordeaux or single-malt Scotch.

Joseph Brodsky has a taste for adventure -- and Ethiopian coffee cherries.
Joseph Brodsky has a taste for adventure -- and Ethiopian coffee cherries.

This trip is Brodsky's most ambitious journey yet. He plans to join an international lineup of coffee experts as they venture into the lush highlands of southwestern Ethiopia, where, far beyond any paved road and certainly off every map, they hope to find what may be the greatest coffee on the planet.

That coffee is called the Geisha.

The Geisha burst onto the scene at the Best of Panama 2004 coffee competition, judged by some of the most respected connoisseurs in the world. From killer Colombian to beatific Bolivian, these palates had tasted them all -- until they were moved by the unfamiliar Geisha. "High citrus notes, a touch of jasmine in the aroma, and a black tea finish!" an expert pronounced. "What may be the most complete cup of coffee I have ever had the pleasure of tasting!" another raved. The Geisha handily took top honors in Panama and continued to dominate every competition in which it was entered. And this past summer, un-roasted Geisha sold for $50.25 a pound -- fifty times the price for standard beans, and a new world record.

But while its assets are obvious, the Geisha's origins lurk in mystery. Scant records show that the bean, currently cultivated on Panamanian estates, was first collected somewhere in southwestern Ethiopia during a 1930s coffee expedition and naively labeled a hardy yet poor-tasting subspecies. Beyond that, there's no clue. The shadowy source of the Geisha has become an El Dorado for coffee experts, a mystical, mythical place where wild hillsides overflow with Geisha trees loaded with coffee cherries that may hold beans -- "green diamonds" -- even better than the magnificent Panamanian Geisha. Brodsky can see it so clearly, he can almost taste it.

Now, as he waits for the plane that will take him closer to the Geisha, he raises the paper cup of double espresso and takes a gulp of caffeine. For a moment, his trademark poise falters as his delicate tastebuds register the medicinal bitterness of over-roasted and under-brewed beans. He scowls. "Starbucks shwag."

Welcome to Addis Ababa," reads the billboard, right above an image of an elegant woman and a pair of gigantic condoms. "Have a safe stay!"

Brodsky watches the sign slide by from the back seat of a dinged, Russian-made taxi, one of the endless "blue devils" that add to the dusty disarray of the capital city's crowded streets. The road is a maelstrom of metal and flesh, a tangle of death-defying blue devils, acronym-emblazoned white SUVs (the ubiquitous workhorses of international aid everywhere) and barefoot beggars throwing their grubby hands before every white face they see, imploring, "You, you! Money, money!" Free-ranging goats munch on grassy medians, cement skyscraper skeletons sheathed in rickety log scaffolding stand beside glass office buildings shimmering in neon, and, behind them all, oceans of rusting corrugated tin undulate into the distance -- the roofs of disintegrating shantytowns.

In two days Brodsky will leave the city behind, bound for southwestern Ethiopia -- and the Geisha. He'll be joined by Semeon Abay, a Novo colleague who'll film the expedition, as well as an assemblage of experts and adventurers from around the globe. But first Brodsky has to see a man about some coffee. The taxi deposits him at the office of Abdullah Bagersh, the fifth-largest exporter in the country.

Over cups of steaming java, Brodsky tells Bagersh of his plans. After the Geisha expedition, he plans to stay in Ethiopia for a few weeks and seek out beans never before tasted in American coffeehouses -- coffees full of natural, sparkling tangerine flavor and echoes of dark chocolate. "I am willing to stay as long as I need to," he proclaims. "To me, the future of coffee in Ethiopia seems like how French wine is differentiated between appellations such as Bordeaux and Burgundy and Sancerre."

Brodsky's idea isn't all business, isn't just a means of procuring exceptional green beans that Bagersh will ship back to Denver, where they'll be carefully roasted at Novo's warehouse, then sold for premium wholesale prices to swanky restaurants and hotels around the country, as well as direct to finicky consumers at Novo's handful of local retail outlets. For Brodsky, this mission is also personal -- a way to give back to the birthplace of coffee and a land that fueled his own coffee awakening.

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