Pot of Gold

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

O'Keefe is skeptical. "Does the tree look a little thin to you?" he asks Boot before sucking on a cherry. "The Geisha cherries are normally thicker and crunchier." Boot nods, frowning.

Brodsky is silent, watching the two Geisha experts operate. He's no botanist, but he doesn't find this discussion all that scientific. Abay holds his camera by his side; it ran out of battery power on the road to 75227. No matter: It appears there will be no film-worthy discovery today.

"Let's leave before it gets dark," says one of the Ethiopian officials, pointing to an increasingly overcast sky. During the ride back, Boot and O'Keefe discuss setting up a taste test to compare 75227 and Panamanian Geisha, but neither seems too interested. As darkness sets in, the group arrives at a plantation house ringed by flower beds and armed guards -- their lodging for the night. On a dimly lit porch, where mosquitoes buzz about in defiance of the fact that this region has been declared malaria-free, a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony awaits. While burning frankincense fills the air and coffee beans pop and smoke in a wide metal pan over a glowing charcoal brazier, O'Keefe pronounces his final verdict regarding Variety 75227. "I doubt it is Geisha," he says. "It's maybe a cousin."

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

The mood is somber as plantation workers disburse the steaming coffee in ceramic demitasses. There's little of the group's typical banter, none of the brainstorming about how espresso machines could be hooked up to the Internet to make the perfect trans-national cup, ruminations about how string theory relates to coffee. Finally, however, the gloom lifts -- with the appearance of a bottle of whiskey. Soon everyone forgets about Variety 75227, its ghosts chased away by another liquid and more esoteric topics. How much research and development, exactly, went into the creation of the Frappuccino? And can whiskey be consumed with the same violent slurps that cuppers use to drink coffee?

The answer is no, as they painfully discover.

Anteneh Addisu skeptically surveys the strangers crowded into his office. He is an administrator in the town of Mizan Teferi, a bustling but remote outpost just a couple dozen miles from the Sudanese border. He's not used to faranjis -- the local term for foreigners -- showing up unexpectedly. Even worse, these faranjis are looking for buna -- coffee. That usually means trouble.

The riches from this country's green diamonds are often reaped by those living somewhere else. In 2004, the world learned that a naturally decaffeinated strain of Ethiopian coffee had been discovered, a truly mind-blowing and lucrative find for the coffee's producers. Unfortunately, these beans turned up in Brazil, which had acquired the species decades earlier from a coffee-collecting expedition to Ethiopia. While that coffee export had been authorized, not all of the Ethiopian beans growing on far-flung fields arrived there by legitimate means. There are rumors, for example, of a French team having smuggled an entire coffee seed bank out of Ethiopia. To gain increased financial control of its beans, lately Ethiopian officials have been trying to trademark their coffee names -- a plan discouraged by Starbucks even as it sells up-market Ethiopian beans for $24 a pound.

So, Addisu asks his unexpected guests, what are you doing here, inquiring about coffee? His courteous smile, the one perfected by bureaucrats everywhere, looks a little thin.

Boot steps forward, armed with a notebook, a digital recorder and his own charismatic grin. He gestures to the group around him, explaining that they are part of a respectable USAID agricultural project. "We are looking for a coffee variety," he says. "And we have good reason to believe that variety is from Gesha in Maji and Goldiya." The town is south of here, just beyond the forest-studded hills.

Yes, Addisu tells them after conferring with his staff, there is wild coffee growing near Gesha. That's a good sign, but he has bad news. "It looks like you cannot go there this week," he says with official finality. "From Mizan, it used to be possible to drive, but now it is impossible. From this place to that specific area of Gesha, eight hours on foot. From the town of Gesha, you have to walk another three hours to get to the coffee area." He points to the torrential rain pouring down outside his window. "If you're out tomorrow and it rains like this when you are in the mountains..." He trails off with a shrug.

"We have come so far," protests Brodsky, Abay filming his frustrated countenance. He's sick of all the driving, all the planning. He's dying to get out into the forest.

Addisu just shakes his head. "This area, it is very bad. A BBC journalist, he traveled to an area where people were starving of hunger," he says. "He stayed for one month and lost forty kilograms weight."

It would not be your typical walk in the woods.

"Okay, we should probably get going," Boot says to Addisu. "We don't want to steal your afternoon with our silly quest for the Geisha."

"No, no, not silly for us," replies Addisu. "If our farmers can get some benefit from this project, we are delighted."

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