Roast of the Town

From Ethiopia, with love.

Black Gold, a documentary about Ethiopia's coffee industry, promises that after you see it, "coffee will never taste the same." In the film, shots of perky Starbucks managers are followed by clips of barefoot Ethiopian coffee pickers; first-world supermarket aisles packed with different coffees are interspersed with third-world therapeutic feeding centers where workers force-feed spindly-limbed infants.

Semeon Abay watches the movie quietly. When it's over, the Ethiopian-born head roaster for Novo Coffee smiles thoughtfully. "I liked it. It shows the reality of what's going on, the dark side of coffee," he says. "But there is one point I miss. It just shows the economic disadvantaged part of Ethiopia. There's a lot more to the country."

Abay knows all about his country's poor and suffering people. He used to play one of them on TV.

Once a TV star, Semeon Abay is no has-been.
Mark Manger
Once a TV star, Semeon Abay is no has-been.

He grew up middle-class in Addis Ababa, which means he lived crammed into a two-room apartment, never quite sure where his next meal would come from. He studied film in college, hoping to become a director, but leaders in the local film industry took one look at the good-looking young man and got other ideas. He was hired for a recurring spot on Police Show, a popular Ethiopian sitcom. As a destitute teenager with Hamlet-like internal struggles, Abay was a hit.

"People acted like when you see a famous guy on the street," he remembers. "When they saw me, they were like, 'Oh, my God, this poor boy!'" Strangers -- many of them pretty women -- showered him with attention.

His life was so good that when Abay's friends secretly entered his name in the U.S. Diversity Visa Program lottery, which picks just a fraction of the applicants, he was less than thrilled to win. "To tell you the truth, I was really enjoying my lifestyle at the time," he admits. "But if you decide you don't want to go to America, everyone you know will think you are crazy."

So Abay moved to an America far different from what he'd seen in the movies. He settled in Denver, a cowtown "slower than Addis." His life here was bleak, just mindless jobs and missing his friends and family, until he struck up a conversation with a white guy at an Ethiopian restaurant on Colfax who ate like they did back home. That guy was Joseph Brodsky, recently returned from an Ethiopian coffee trip, and he soon hired Abay to work for Novo.

Now Abay spends his days in Novo's warehouse in north Denver, carefully calibrating an ancient Italian coffee roaster, tweaking temperatures to produce great Panama espresso, perfectly timing batches of wild-forest Ethiopian. Through all this buna, this coffee, he connects with home. "For me, it is like being a translator for the farmers," he says. "I translate the farmer's job to the consumer."

The work also reminds him of his dream job, which is making movies. "Directing is believing your senses," he says. "Roasting is, too. You decide a coffee is done roasting by believing your senses -- by looking, smelling, tasting."

While he's roasting, he's making plans for a film that will put Black Gold, now showing at Starz FilmCenter, to shame. "The first thing for me is to do a documentary on the Ethiopian coffee farmer," he says. "I want the world to know the connection between the coffee and the coffee farmer besides the money."

He'd hoped that returning to Ethiopia to film the Geisha expedition would be the start of that project, but the ill-fated trip didn't yield the footage he needed. "As a filmmaker, finding the Geisha was the heart for me," he explains, rubbing his chest. "I got back with maybe the hands or the legs, but no heart."

And that wasn't the only disappointment on the trip. His former fans didn't seem to recognize the onetime heartthrob. "The sad thing is I left the show too soon," he says half-jokingly. "I didn't get the appreciation I deserve."

 
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