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Pot of Gold

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

In 2001, just before he and his brother Jake moved to Denver to join their father, Herb, in anticipation of launching Novo, Brodsky smelled a batch of fresh-roasted beans from the Ethiopian region of Harrar. The aroma hit like a thunderclap. "I never knew coffee could smell like something else, much less fresh blueberry muffins," he remembers.

Brodsky had always liked coffee, sipping the stuff constantly while hitchhiking around Africa and living in Madrid for several years. In Madison, Wisconsin, he'd watched his older half-brother roast beans in a popcorn popper to stock his espresso cart. He'd even spent a few months transporting commercial-grade coffee, the worst of the worst, to Midwestern convenience stores. But these Harrar beans were different, a single batch showcasing the 1,500 flavor components in coffee, three times the number in wine. It was enough to inspire Brodsky to throw himself into the esoteric art of cupping: scientifically sniffing, slurping and grading brews on an internationally recognized hundred-point tasting scale. Every sip was a tantalizing taste of what more there was to experience, of the unimaginable beans ready for discovery. All Brodsky had to do was find them, traveling the long and winding path of coffee production all the way back to the beans' origins: the crimson coffee cherries that proliferate around the steamy equatorial waistline of the world.

"That's what I feel is unique about what Novo does," says Brodsky. "It's beyond the pursuit of quality. It's beyond the pursuit of fair trade. It is really directly connecting with the farmers on their own terms."

To pursue his goal, Brodsky enlisted in the third wave of coffee enthusiasts, a handful of fetishistic geeks who, armed with light-roasted beans, artisanal coffee presses and espresso cups decorated with Sistine Chapel-worthy foam designs, are spreading an idea that's downright revolutionary. Forget the standard concept of specialty coffee, normally defined as any defect-free cup, which accounts for slightly more than half of the $19 billion U.S. coffee market. Specialty coffee, they insist, should be considered special coffee -- a drink that usually comes from a single type of bean, lovingly picked, processed and transported, so that its natural, full-bodied sweetness shines through without Splenda, thank you very much.

"The original vision of specialty coffee has been refined and pushed to where it really should be," says Kenneth Davids, co-founder of Coffee Review, the java-jonesing version of Wine Spectator. "Somebody like Novo Coffee had the sense to come in at the leading edge of all this."

Novo has surfed the third wave to success. The company's coffee is turning heads at places ranging from the Med in Boulder to the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building, even though the company faces some sizable competition in Colorado, including from the Whole Foods-owned Allegro Handcrafted Coffee, based in Thornton. Coffee Reviewusually scores Novo coffees among the top offerings. Brodsky has been invited to participate in inter-national coffee events from Panama to Papua New Guinea, and his iPod is filled with photos of local women he's wooed along the way.

Now here he is in the largest coffee-producing nation in Africa and the sixth-largest in the world -- a country where they sing songs about coffee, make wines out of coffee and name soccer teams after coffee -- discussing his desire to transform Ethiopia into the French wine country of coffee, with the Geisha as the star vintage. "It's a dream come true," Brodsky gushes to Bagersh.

As his father always tells him, if he puts in the work and stays humble, good things will happen. Sure, he may be in one of the poorest nations in the world right now, where locals like to joke that there hasn't been a war-free decade in its millennia-long history of besieged Orthodox Christian dynasties, Marxist regimes and deadly famines. Yes, the de facto Islamist government in neighboring Somalia just declared a holy war on Ethiopia. And okay, Christian-Muslim riots the week before left buildings in cinders and more than a dozen people dead a few miles from where the Geisha expedition will be traveling. But good things will happen on this trip, he just knows it.

Near the end of the meeting, Brodsky asks his host, "What's going on in the west?"

Bagersh gravely shakes his head. "Something we've never had before: Muslim-Christian conflict."

Brodsky just laughs. "I was talking about the coffee."

Moby-Dick had Captain Ahab. The Fountain of Youth had Juan Ponce de León. The Geisha has Willem Boot.

Boot is the undisputed Indiana Jones of the coffee world, with a touch of James Bond and Lieutenant Columbo thrown in for good measure. Born to a Dutch coffee roaster, he moved to the States and founded one of the world's preeminent coffee-consulting businesses in California. In his San Francisco "tasting laboratory," Boot has tutored many of the current leaders of the specialty-coffee industry. Outside of the lab, he travels around the world improving coffee conditions: fighting to break trading-conglomerate strongholds in Papua New Guinea, encouraging Bolivian farmers to trade coca plants for java, chasing down rumors that coffee farms in Zambia may hold promise for that country's downtrodden masses.

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