Pot of Gold

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

And somehow he finds time to swim the San Francisco Bay without a wetsuit, take a few karate lessons from a Special Forces trainer, and track down and patronize promising artists in nearly every coffee country he visits.

Boot is obsessed with the Geisha. It was love at first sip. "It stole my heart," he says in accented English. "It stole my senses." That's why he organized this expedition: to track the Geisha all the way back to its original source. Under the aegis of a U.S. Agency for International Development project to improve and promote Ethiopian coffee, Boot sent out a call to top-tier coffee experts far and wide, mustering an international troupe of epic caffeinated proportions. Along with Brodsky, the lineup includes:

Golden-haired K.C. O'Keefe, a religiously inspired Seattle native who moved to Lima, Peru, to help Shining Path refugees, among others, market their coffee. That he sometimes consults for Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters has led some Latin Americans to wonder if O'Keefe works for the CIA.

K.C. O'Keefe tests potential super tasters in Ethiopia.
K.C. O'Keefe tests potential super tasters in Ethiopia.
Graciano Cruz appreciates good coffee -- and wants to teach farmers how to make it.
Graciano Cruz appreciates good coffee -- and wants to teach farmers how to make it.

Wendy De Jong, coffee buyer for Tony's Coffee, a Seattle-based operation that's considered an industry pioneer. De Jong likes to carry around a handful of dry-processed coffee cherries, and she fondly remembers the day she sipped the best Ethiopian Harrar she's ever tasted: April 19, 2001.

Joe Hsu, general manager of Orsir Coffee, a Taiwanese company with this motto: "The Coffee Is So Fly." Hsu comes armed with an arsenal of gadgets, including a massive watch that tells him his location, a tiny computer that translates Taiwanese, and -- most important -- a miniature water heater and filter that allows him to brew a single cup of coffee anytime, anywhere.

This formidable bunch, accompanied by USAID-sponsored Ethiopian coffee officials, is currently careening about the beds of two borrowed pickup trucks, lurching from one pot hole to the next in the middle of a massive coffee farm far to the southwest of Addis Ababa. (A trio of Land Cruisers had proved no match for the rutted roads.) No one minds the discomfort: The expedition may be minutes away from meeting up with the Geisha.

To get to this point, they've passed through rolling fields of yellow flowers, crossed World War II-era trusses spanning ancient river valleys, navigated dusty switchbacks scaling the sides of sharply pitched mountains and ventured deep into the heart of the Ethiopian highlands, where a riot of undergrowth, birds and baboons make the stereotype of the country as a parched-earth wasteland seem like a bad joke. They've eagerly snapped photos of machete-toting children and sheep riding on top of overcrowded buses. And they've chewed sizable amounts of chat, the locally grown mild narcotic that, after hours of drool-inducing masticating, lays a nice, dreamy sheen over the trip's few flaws: a popped tire on the first Land Cruiser, the tendency for the second Land Cruiser's back door to burst open, and the third Land Cruiser's endless playing of Phil Collins tunes.

But they knew everything wouldn't be as smooth as a fresh cup of Kenyan light-roast or delicate Sumatran single-origin.

Now the farm's tidy rows of coffee trees whiz by, a low-lying tapestry of thin stalks and waxy olive-green leaves flourishing beneath the shadows of massive shade trees. Cloud-swathed hills roll toward the horizon, their dense foliage punctured by round huts sweating smoke through their thatched roofs. Every now and then along the side of the road is a smudge of brown amid the green -- the muddy arms and tattered clothes of young boys filling burlap sacks with coffee cherries.

"This makes you appreciate people with big butts," says Boot, sitting precariously on a shuddering wheel well, after a particularly wince-inducing jolt. Still, he's excited. "This may really be something," he predicts. Because at the end of this very rough road lies Variety 75227, a coffee subspecies that has long, evenly spaced leaves and cherries that change shape as they ripen -- just like the Geisha.

Variety 75227 may well be what they've come to Ethiopia to find, but even if it is, the hunt is far from over. Every coffee tree planted on this farm came here from somewhere else; identifying the Geisha would prove that the plant exists in Ethiopia, but would not illuminate its origin. To discover that, the group will have to travel farther to the southwest, deeper into the wilderness.

The earliest known reference to the Geisha notes that "Seeds were imported from Geisha forest, S.W. [Ethiopia], in about 1931." Unfortunately, towns named Geisha are as ubiquitous in Ethiopia as towns named Springfield are in the U.S. In the southwestern corner of the country alone, there are four communities named Geisha or Gesha or Gecha. The Geisha plant could be located near any of them. Or none of them.

The trucks finally stop their bone-rattling journey. And there, right off the side of the road, is a glade full of Variety 75227.

At first glance, the trees look promising. "There are some similarities," offers Boot, fingering the stem and leaves. He plucks a crimson cherry off a branch and pops it into his mouth, working it around with his tongue before spitting out two green beans. "These beans do have an elongated shape. That's interesting," he adds, sucking on the cherry's mucilage. "But the cherries are relatively dry, not juicy."

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