Pot of Gold

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

Near the end of the expedition, Brodsky finally finds the Geisha. The massive, elongated beans are unmistakable: This is the coffee that enraptured a thousand cuppers -- and launched one ambitious, if unorganized, expedition into the Ethiopian jungle.

Unfortunately, it doesn't come from the cherries of an untamed plant at the end of the longest, most remote trail in Ethiopia. It comes from a Ziploc bag under the arm of Graciano Cruz, a Panamanian agriculturalist with slicked-back hair and wild eyes who's in Addis Ababa for a coffee conference. "I always travel with Geisha beside me, man!" Cruz confesses between swigs from a bottle of coffee-flavored liqueur. He's managed to transport the roasted Panamanian Geisha beans through Ethiopian customs -- though officials there did confiscate his passport. "I am the first wetback Panamanian in this country! That's okay, man. I don't need to go anywhere. There's a lot to do in this country!" he adds with a wink, his eyes tracing the path of a shapely Ethiopian woman passing by.

Now a cup of that Geisha, ground and brewed, is steaming luxuriantly in an Addis Ababa laboratory reminiscent of a dentist's office. Brodsky, Cruz and a few of the Geisha-expedition colleagues, armed with clipboards and covered by aprons, ready their tastebuds. This is the first true cupping exercise of the trip. The Geisha sample is accompanied by brews from three Ethiopian regions; none are labeled. No matter. As soon as the cupping begins, the Geisha unveils its finery.

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

"A world of citrus," Brodsky says as he leans over one of the cups, his nose skimming its murky surface. "This is like Pez-dispenser orange." He hasn't even started the tasting stage, but from sniffing alone, he's certain this is the Geisha. He smiles, energized, though his grin is framed by pallid skin and baggy eyes. Since the expedition returned to Addis Ababa, he's stayed up late, thinking about the trip, thinking about the Geisha, thinking about specialty coffee and Ethiopia. Now, he insists, "everything is coming together."

Unlike the coffees Brodsky brews, the plan brewing in his head doesn't come from a single source. Part of it is growing out of his time in this land of coffee, some of the best in the world, a land witnessed largely through the window of a rumbling Land Cruiser; all but a fraction of this coffee is completely unknown, and much of it is falling victim to spreading development. Fueling the expansion of the plan is the notion that farmers, by focusing on the specialty-, rather than the commodity-coffee market, can double or triple their meager incomes. The plan goes far beyond the fair-trade notions many coffee geeks embrace, and a key part was added just this morning, while Brodsky was sitting in Cruz's hotel room.

Munching on roasted Geisha beans and shrouded in cigarette smoke, the Panamanian told the Denverite tales of building canals out of banana-tree trunks to irrigate swaths of Central American rainforest. He described selling the by-products of grassroots coffee-cherry processing as lucrative organic fertilizer. He explained how he's using an $8,000 investment to turn hundreds of indigenous Panamanian farmers into high-end coffee producers. "Fuck fair trade!" Cruz hollered. "The real fair trade is what we are doing right now! The future of coffee is here, man!"

Brodsky wholeheartedly agrees. "It's the final piece of the puzzle," he says. "I am going to do what I thought the trip was going to be about: working with coffee variety and coffee people in Ethiopia. And as my dad says, I am going to put in the energy, and good things will come."

In his mind, he sees something very, very good -- for Novo, for specialty coffee, for Ethiopia. In reality, it's already coming together: 90+ Coffee, an internationally based business collaboration to find, refine and market the very best coffees in Ethiopia. Bagersh, the Ethiopian exporter, will travel the country, seeking out the top-tasting beans, javas rated 90 points and higher. Cruz will work with the farmers of these beans, teaching them how to produce the best organic products possible. And Brodsky, through Novo Coffee and other outlets, will present these coffees to thirsty consumers in Colorado and beyond. Profits, Brodsky promises, will be channeled back to the farms for schools, cupping labs and infrastructure. Similar models will be set up in Panama. As Brodsky gushes to his brother and father via e-mail, "This may be the biggest opportunity specialty coffee has ever seen."

He doesn't plan on returning to Denver anytime soon. He'll stay right where he is, setting up high-end cupping labs, tasting hundreds and hundreds of coffees. There's even talk of another Geisha expedition, one that will trade the Land Cruisers for labs, the swashbuckling for science.

The hunt isn't over. Maybe, just maybe, somewhere in a pristine forest deep in the Ethiopian wilderness, Brodsky will one day find the long-lost origin of the Panamanian Geisha, the coffee he's now gazing at in the cupping lab. And with that thought, it's time to slurp.

Breaking the surface of the legendary liquid with a specially designed spoon -- no ordinary utensil will do -- Brodsky lifts the Geisha to his mouth and, with a monstrous slurp, sends the coffee across his carefully calibrated tastebuds. There it is: the renowned tangy citrus flavor, the stable, elegant body...but something's off. Maybe the beans are too old, or the processing was shoddy. This is good coffee -- but not great. Cruz, who believes the Geisha should never score below 90 points, gives it the kiss of death: an 88.

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