The second day of our conference began like many days in Ethiopia: with a traditional coffee ceremony. I would learn later in the trip that the setting of the ceremony greatly influences how much I enjoyed them; at this point, the only coffee ceremonies I had seen were in the lobby of hotels, and I was enjoying each one. But no matter whether the ceremony is performed outdoors in the lush, tropical setting of Yerga Alem (more on this later), or the lobby of the Selam Hotel, the basic ritual is the same. (Aside: “Selam” means “peace” in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. In a way, Amharic reminded me of Japanese in that characters (fidels) substituted for symbols, and there’s not that many of them (about 200), so I was able to pretty rapidly recognize and pronounce Amharic words. Sadly, having absolutely no Amharic vocabulary, I often had no idea the meaning of the Amharic words I could string together. Happily, many times the Amharic word sounds eeily similar to the English. So with a patient person, it’s possible to muddle your way through many situations witha very rudimentary understanding of the language.)
Anyway, back to coffee ceremonies. It begins with the washing of green coffee in a shallow pan resembling a wok. The pan is placed over a charcoal stove and the beans stirred until roasted. As you might imagine, the resulting roast is uneven and scorched, but it always tasted better than I expected. Once roasted, the beans are transferred to a mortar, and pulverized, the usual WMD being an iron bar. Ground coffee is transferred to a clay coffee pot, called a jebena, water is added, and it is boiled over the charcoal. It is them poured into cups and served. Sometimes a savory, pungent herb called tena adam is added to the cup. Sugar is optional.
So what’s better after coffee than more coffee? That morning was dedicated to cupping Harar coffees, and it proved to be an interesting session for me. There are about 25 exporters of Harar coffees, and many were represented, some with multiple samples. All told, there were probably 30 or more samples to evaluate; I don’t know the exact count because we were divided among tables such that not all cuppers were obligated to rate all the samples (although we were free to taste them all).
Given that I’m a “newbie” in this crowd, I hope I can be forgiven for a minor infraction: I didn’t bring my own spoon. I didn’t realize that cuppers typically travel with their favorite spoon, and often bring extras from their companies to leave behind for exporters. Having a readily identifiable spoon certainly helps when there are 50 people cupping in a room!
The good news is that there were two Harars at the table that I thought I’d like to buy. The bad news is that they may be difficult this year; time will tell. The reason is that the country has implemented a new coffee exchange for the 2009 season (crops grown in 2008), and while there are a few exceptions to it, the vast majority of the country’s coffee will go through the new system. The problem is that all coffees will be graded and grouped together, e.g., Sidamo Grade 4, and all other traceability info, e.g., washing station, grower, etc. will be lost. Obviously, this is an undesireable situation for specialty buyers, and the net result has been that contracts are down 40% vs this time last year. The government is talking to buyers about potential solutions, and as soon as I know more I’ll pass it along.
Meanwhile, we ended the day looking forward to a trip to the old city of Harar. Tune in next time for amzing tales of daring-do featuring hyenas and raw meat!