Pot of Gold

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

If the group has discovered anything, it's the daunting odds stacked against them, the colossal unlikelihood of locating any specific kind of coffee in the middle of an Ethiopian forest, much less the Geisha.

On the penultimate day of the expedition, the Land Cruisers stop at a coffee research center, the only one of its kind in the country. Here, lab-coat-clad scientists drop a gasp-eliciting bombshell: The thousand coffee genotypes growing at the research center represent just a tiny fraction of Ethiopia's coffee biodiversity. The rest are complete mysteries, tens of thousands of beans growing in village farms and sprawling jungles that are blended into obscurity or never tasted at all. And no one knows how many nameless coffee tastes have already been lost to the country's widespread deforestation. Even if the wild Geisha still exists in some untouched corner of Ethiopia, differentiating it from all the other genotypes will be a daunting task.

Then the scientists deliver an additional blow: They've found records confirming that the town of Gesha, near Mizan Teferi, where the group stopped near the beginning of the trip, is probably the most likely location of the wild Geisha. The rest of the itinerary may have been a wild goose chase.

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

On the long drive back to Addis Ababa, Brodsky quietly gazes out the Land Cruiser's window, pondering these setbacks. O'Keefe interrupts his resigned contemplation to show him something remarkable: They are cruising down a road paved with coffee. Beneath their wheels, dried coffee cherries are strewn across the asphalt. It's a grassroots, four-wheeled de-husking operation, they realize, the road-killed remains roasted and sold by locals to drowsy drivers. All over the world, O'Keefe marvels, wealthy plantation owners are spending millions to replicate the kinds of coffee occurring naturally in Ethiopia, while here struggling farmers must resort to processing these perfect beans through highway hit-and-run.

"It's like the Panamanians are working hard to get to the moon, and they get there, and the Ethiopians are already there, essentially by accident!" O'Keefe exclaims over the vehicle's warbling cassette player. If he has his way, however, Ethiopia's coffee will soon rise above the asphalt.

Unlike the rest of the expedition, O'Keefe has accomplished his mission on this trip. Working under Boot for USAID, he's probed the tastebuds of dozens of Ethiopians, running them through a gauntlet of sweet, salty and sour-tasting liquids to unearth the top two "super tasters" of the bunch. This duo will staff southwestern Ethiopia's first-ever cupping lab, slurping and grading and differentiating the coffees produced by the region's tens of thousands of farmers. He's not aiming to turn Ethiopians into java snobs; the cupping lab is the first step toward introducing a vital element long lacked by Ethiopia's coffee industry: quality control.

"We have a historic opportunity on our hands to help millions of farmers worldwide," O'Keefe exclaims. "We have roasters who are developing their consumer market, and consumers who are becoming more and more sophisticated and willing to pay more and more for coffee. Ethiopia has the opportunity to completely get rid of its commodity-coffee market and focus on specialty coffee, just by learning to select out their coffee and present it to the market."

When he holds forth on how quality coffee can revolutionize Ethiopia, O'Keefe sermonizes with the passion of a slurper who's seen the light. He envisions coffee roasters like Brodsky cutting out price-gouging middlemen, uniting directly with the Ethiopian farmers and contractually promising them a hefty bonus if, through careful picking and processing, they produce exquisite-tasting beans. In response, he imagines farmers cultivating beans so vibrant, so perfect, that the farmers cast off the debilitating yoke of the commodity-coffee market and set their own exclusive prices. He pictures an Ethiopia blossoming with twenty, forty, sixty different niche coffee markets, each in lucratively high demand. And he predicts the current concept of fair-trade coffee, the idea of consumers paying a premium to insure a certified minimum bean price, going where it belongs: into the trash with yesterday's grounds.

"Fair trade is charity," he preaches, words swelling with fury. "It does not reward the individual farmer who is industrially working on his land and doing a better job than his neighbor. Under fair trade, all farmers are paid the same. If everybody gets paid the same, there is no motivation to improve the coffee."

Brodsky joins the discussion, a convert who's caught the spirit. "The past two days, there have been all these ideas going through my head," he admits. Yes, the group didn't find the Geisha, but maybe it's not the plant that's important, it's what it symbolizes. Maybe, he persists, "the Geisha is a rallying point, to rally your forces around the most flavorful, fruity and expressive varieties." Maybe it's time to raise this banner, inspiring roasters and farmers alike to launch a caffeinated crusade into this Holy Land of coffee, to seek out dozens of undiscovered buna beans that will put the Geisha to shame.

Flush with enthusiasm, O'Keefe and Brodsky ask their driver to pull over. The pontificating has made them hungry, and there are some fine-smelling corncobs being roasted on the side of the road. As women crowd around, the faranjis trade Ethiopian birr for corn, mangoes and sugarcane. No one buys the road-killed coffee.

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