Pot of Gold
Joseph Brodsky eyes the freshly pulled double espresso with scorn. "This looks terrible," he mutters darkly. From its poorly foamed surface, he can tell the coffee has been extracted from the espresso machine in a few measly seconds rather than the ideal 25. "And there's a fishy smell. Stomaching this is going to be the worst."
He has no choice. This espresso, from an airport coffee joint, is the only way Brodsky is going to stave off his customary caffeine-withdrawal headaches before boarding a plane to Ethiopia. As co-owner and coffee buyer for Novo Coffee, an up-and-coming high-end Denver coffee-roasting company, the 32-year-old Brodsky frequently travels to remote corners of the world to test coffees with his finely tuned palate, looking for the perfect java jolt.
He's in the vanguard of the "third wave," a small but determined group of entrepreneurs, adventurers and slurpers who are hell-bent on elevating coffee, the world's second-most widely traded legal commodity and purveyor of the number-one psychoactive drug (caffeine), beyond the first wave of corporate canned crud, beyond the second wave of frothy franchised Frappuccinos -- to an exalted level where each cup is prepared, discussed and quaffed like the finest Bordeaux or single-malt Scotch.
This trip is Brodsky's most ambitious journey yet. He plans to join an international lineup of coffee experts as they venture into the lush highlands of southwestern Ethiopia, where, far beyond any paved road and certainly off every map, they hope to find what may be the greatest coffee on the planet.
That coffee is called the Geisha.
The Geisha burst onto the scene at the Best of Panama 2004 coffee competition, judged by some of the most respected connoisseurs in the world. From killer Colombian to beatific Bolivian, these palates had tasted them all -- until they were moved by the unfamiliar Geisha. "High citrus notes, a touch of jasmine in the aroma, and a black tea finish!" an expert pronounced. "What may be the most complete cup of coffee I have ever had the pleasure of tasting!" another raved. The Geisha handily took top honors in Panama and continued to dominate every competition in which it was entered. And this past summer, un-roasted Geisha sold for $50.25 a pound -- fifty times the price for standard beans, and a new world record.
But while its assets are obvious, the Geisha's origins lurk in mystery. Scant records show that the bean, currently cultivated on Panamanian estates, was first collected somewhere in southwestern Ethiopia during a 1930s coffee expedition and naively labeled a hardy yet poor-tasting subspecies. Beyond that, there's no clue. The shadowy source of the Geisha has become an El Dorado for coffee experts, a mystical, mythical place where wild hillsides overflow with Geisha trees loaded with coffee cherries that may hold beans -- "green diamonds" -- even better than the magnificent Panamanian Geisha. Brodsky can see it so clearly, he can almost taste it.
Now, as he waits for the plane that will take him closer to the Geisha, he raises the paper cup of double espresso and takes a gulp of caffeine. For a moment, his trademark poise falters as his delicate tastebuds register the medicinal bitterness of over-roasted and under-brewed beans. He scowls. "Starbucks shwag."
Welcome to Addis Ababa," reads the billboard, right above an image of an elegant woman and a pair of gigantic condoms. "Have a safe stay!"
Brodsky watches the sign slide by from the back seat of a dinged, Russian-made taxi, one of the endless "blue devils" that add to the dusty disarray of the capital city's crowded streets. The road is a maelstrom of metal and flesh, a tangle of death-defying blue devils, acronym-emblazoned white SUVs (the ubiquitous workhorses of international aid everywhere) and barefoot beggars throwing their grubby hands before every white face they see, imploring, "You, you! Money, money!" Free-ranging goats munch on grassy medians, cement skyscraper skeletons sheathed in rickety log scaffolding stand beside glass office buildings shimmering in neon, and, behind them all, oceans of rusting corrugated tin undulate into the distance -- the roofs of disintegrating shantytowns.
In two days Brodsky will leave the city behind, bound for southwestern Ethiopia -- and the Geisha. He'll be joined by Semeon Abay, a Novo colleague who'll film the expedition, as well as an assemblage of experts and adventurers from around the globe. But first Brodsky has to see a man about some coffee. The taxi deposits him at the office of Abdullah Bagersh, the fifth-largest exporter in the country.
Over cups of steaming java, Brodsky tells Bagersh of his plans. After the Geisha expedition, he plans to stay in Ethiopia for a few weeks and seek out beans never before tasted in American coffeehouses -- coffees full of natural, sparkling tangerine flavor and echoes of dark chocolate. "I am willing to stay as long as I need to," he proclaims. "To me, the future of coffee in Ethiopia seems like how French wine is differentiated between appellations such as Bordeaux and Burgundy and Sancerre."
Brodsky's idea isn't all business, isn't just a means of procuring exceptional green beans that Bagersh will ship back to Denver, where they'll be carefully roasted at Novo's warehouse, then sold for premium wholesale prices to swanky restaurants and hotels around the country, as well as direct to finicky consumers at Novo's handful of local retail outlets. For Brodsky, this mission is also personal -- a way to give back to the birthplace of coffee and a land that fueled his own coffee awakening.
In 2001, just before he and his brother Jake moved to Denver to join their father, Herb, in anticipation of launching Novo, Brodsky smelled a batch of fresh-roasted beans from the Ethiopian region of Harrar. The aroma hit like a thunderclap. "I never knew coffee could smell like something else, much less fresh blueberry muffins," he remembers.
Brodsky had always liked coffee, sipping the stuff constantly while hitchhiking around Africa and living in Madrid for several years. In Madison, Wisconsin, he'd watched his older half-brother roast beans in a popcorn popper to stock his espresso cart. He'd even spent a few months transporting commercial-grade coffee, the worst of the worst, to Midwestern convenience stores. But these Harrar beans were different, a single batch showcasing the 1,500 flavor components in coffee, three times the number in wine. It was enough to inspire Brodsky to throw himself into the esoteric art of cupping: scientifically sniffing, slurping and grading brews on an internationally recognized hundred-point tasting scale. Every sip was a tantalizing taste of what more there was to experience, of the unimaginable beans ready for discovery. All Brodsky had to do was find them, traveling the long and winding path of coffee production all the way back to the beans' origins: the crimson coffee cherries that proliferate around the steamy equatorial waistline of the world.
"That's what I feel is unique about what Novo does," says Brodsky. "It's beyond the pursuit of quality. It's beyond the pursuit of fair trade. It is really directly connecting with the farmers on their own terms."
To pursue his goal, Brodsky enlisted in the third wave of coffee enthusiasts, a handful of fetishistic geeks who, armed with light-roasted beans, artisanal coffee presses and espresso cups decorated with Sistine Chapel-worthy foam designs, are spreading an idea that's downright revolutionary. Forget the standard concept of specialty coffee, normally defined as any defect-free cup, which accounts for slightly more than half of the $19 billion U.S. coffee market. Specialty coffee, they insist, should be considered special coffee -- a drink that usually comes from a single type of bean, lovingly picked, processed and transported, so that its natural, full-bodied sweetness shines through without Splenda, thank you very much.
"The original vision of specialty coffee has been refined and pushed to where it really should be," says Kenneth Davids, co-founder of Coffee Review, the java-jonesing version of Wine Spectator. "Somebody like Novo Coffee had the sense to come in at the leading edge of all this."
Novo has surfed the third wave to success. The company's coffee is turning heads at places ranging from the Med in Boulder to the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building, even though the company faces some sizable competition in Colorado, including from the Whole Foods-owned Allegro Handcrafted Coffee, based in Thornton. Coffee Review usually scores Novo coffees among the top offerings. Brodsky has been invited to participate in inter-national coffee events from Panama to Papua New Guinea, and his iPod is filled with photos of local women he's wooed along the way.
Now here he is in the largest coffee-producing nation in Africa and the sixth-largest in the world -- a country where they sing songs about coffee, make wines out of coffee and name soccer teams after coffee -- discussing his desire to transform Ethiopia into the French wine country of coffee, with the Geisha as the star vintage. "It's a dream come true," Brodsky gushes to Bagersh.
As his father always tells him, if he puts in the work and stays humble, good things will happen. Sure, he may be in one of the poorest nations in the world right now, where locals like to joke that there hasn't been a war-free decade in its millennia-long history of besieged Orthodox Christian dynasties, Marxist regimes and deadly famines. Yes, the de facto Islamist government in neighboring Somalia just declared a holy war on Ethiopia. And okay, Christian-Muslim riots the week before left buildings in cinders and more than a dozen people dead a few miles from where the Geisha expedition will be traveling. But good things will happen on this trip, he just knows it.
Near the end of the meeting, Brodsky asks his host, "What's going on in the west?"
Bagersh gravely shakes his head. "Something we've never had before: Muslim-Christian conflict."
Brodsky just laughs. "I was talking about the coffee."
Moby-Dick had Captain Ahab. The Fountain of Youth had Juan Ponce de León. The Geisha has Willem Boot.
Boot is the undisputed Indiana Jones of the coffee world, with a touch of James Bond and Lieutenant Columbo thrown in for good measure. Born to a Dutch coffee roaster, he moved to the States and founded one of the world's preeminent coffee-consulting businesses in California. In his San Francisco "tasting laboratory," Boot has tutored many of the current leaders of the specialty-coffee industry. Outside of the lab, he travels around the world improving coffee conditions: fighting to break trading-conglomerate strongholds in Papua New Guinea, encouraging Bolivian farmers to trade coca plants for java, chasing down rumors that coffee farms in Zambia may hold promise for that country's downtrodden masses.
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.
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."
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."
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."
Everyone knows Addisu is not just being polite. There's an unspoken understanding here that Ethiopia's coffee farmers are getting the very short end of the stick. While coffee geeks like to compare java's potential to wine, the two drinks differ in one fundamental way: Turning a good grape into a bottle of fine wine is usually under the purview of a single vineyard, but a great coffee bean must pass through numerous hands -- farmers, millers, co-op owners, exporters, importers, roasters, baristas. For a coffee entrepreneur like Brodsky, this means there are innumerable nerve-racking ways that the precious, fickle beans may be ruined before they reach consumers. For the 1.2 million subsistence coffee farmers in Ethiopia and the millions more like them worldwide, the situation is far more calamitous.
While Novo may charge a hefty $2.25 for a no-frills twenty-ounce cup of Ethiopian, by the time that money filters through the supply chain to the coffee farmers, just a few cents are left. Most Ethiopian farmers get by on less than a dollar a day, tending some of the world's finest beans in meager gardens around their one-room shacks while their barefoot children beg for change on the side of the road. And even that paltry livelihood cannot be guaranteed. Ethiopia's coffee industry, like that of essentially every java-producing nation, is inexorably tied to the boom-and-bust variability of the commodity-coffee market. In 2002, when an international java glut sank world coffee prices to a thirty-year low, Ethiopian coffee cooperatives went bankrupt. Coffee fields were torn up to make room for chat. People could no longer afford clothes, medicine or food.
It was a stark reminder that in this country, a tiny bean lies at the heart of everything: the economy, the culture, the society itself. When coffee prices fail, Ethiopia collapses from within.
"Coffee is a product that people feel passionately about, and yet it is a horrible product in so many ways," says Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds, a comprehensive history of coffee. "Coffee provides a sort of a metaphor for the inequality built into our capitalism system."
The Geisha is another metaphor: All beans are not created equal, and this mythic bean could represent salvation for Ethiopian farmers. Now the team has learned the bean could be almost within reach, but there's no practical way to get there. "You have to be realistic. You cannot take an eleven-hour walking journey without any specific equipment," Boot says to Brodsky as they leave Addisu's office. "That sucks."
It's not the only thing that will suck today. The plan is to spend the night at a thinly veiled bordello, a place where the "bar girls" gyrate to Tupac while waiting for customers, a shabby but tolerable choice. But while the faranjis stand outside this establishment in the rain, the proprietors confess that there's been a scheduling mixup, and no rooms are available. Everyone will have to stay down the road...at the bad hotel.
The bad hotel is heroic in its depravity, a stark cement hulk rising from a moat of foul-smelling mud. Bedrooms are dingy cells populated by spiders the size of human hands; bathrooms are feces-smeared holes in the floor. A flickering orange luminescence illuminates the scene, courtesy of the piles of burning trash smoldering just beyond the hotel's razor-wired gate.
De Jong leans over the hotel's rusty balcony, watching the pyrotechnics. She takes a swig of Black Label and chuckles, her face illuminated in an Apocalypse Now-like hue. "Nothing in coffee is ever quick and simple," she says. "That's the truth."
Roasted coffee beans go bad in two weeks. Their structure deteriorates, their essences turn sour. Ground coffee is even more unstable, a half-hour time bomb ticking away to total flavor disintegration. In comparison, it takes roughly five days for the Geisha expedition to fall apart.
Everywhere the group ventures, the Geisha seems just out of reach. In the remote village of Gecha, hundreds of wide-eyed children flock to the rarely seen faranjis while officials glare at them warily and say no one is going near their buna without proper documentation. Elsewhere, locals tell them of additional obstacles in their path: murderous forest tribes and bloodthirsty lions leaping from the trees.
To Getinet Kelkle, a longstanding Ethiopian coffee expert accompanying the expedition, these reports, though probably apocryphal, make poetic sense. "I am sure a lion will be guarding Geisha," he laughs. "Why else is it so secret?"
In the town of Bonga, Boot finally loses his titanium-hulled temper. He's just learned from chat-chewing truck drivers that the last two Geisha towns are at least a mud-splattered day trip away -- an extra day the adventurers don't have. "I don't understand why it takes me only two minutes to find out about this, while you had at least two months to discover the information," he thunders to his Ethiopian escorts. As the camera rolls, the Ethiopians say nothing. Only later, away from Boot, do they insist that no one bothered to tell them anything about the Geisha hunt until two days before the expedition started.
After that, back in the Land Cruisers, the grumbling begins. Why wasn't this trip better organized? What have we learned about the Geisha, about Ethiopian coffee? Is this just some sort of faranji field trip? And why the hell are we spending so much time in the trucks?
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.
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.
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.
"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.
That's okay, Brodsky says with a smile. It's all right if the Geisha has lost a bit of its intoxicating luster. After all, it's just one pretty gem in a country full of diamonds -- and he's out to find them all. "The Geisha is not the big picture," he says. "It's just another flavor."
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