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Brewed to Perfection

An age-old passion proves to be big business for Ethiopia’s economy

Around 7 on a weekday morning, the Piazza district in Addis Ababa still sleeps. Apart from a couple of bedraggled shoeshine boys sitting on the curb, the streets in this area of the Ethiopian capital are empty. The neighborhood’s many theaters and upscale storefronts — jewelry shops and travel agencies — are still shuttered. But as the city’s cultural center and a major thoroughfare, the Piazza district will awaken within the hour and its streets will be jammed with pedestrians and automobiles, as residents hurry to work.

But one business in the district, the Tomoca Coffee House, opens before dawn to cater to an early-bird clientele. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee that escapes through its entrance reminds passersby that a new day has started.

Since 1953, the family-owned shop has served what its many loyal customers consider the finest coffee in the capital. A fixture in the neighborhood, the shop has changed little over the past half century. The wall’s many coffee stains and fading yellow paint attest to its longevity.

Inside, longtime patron Legesse Feyissa hovers over one of several crowded, elbow-high tables, sipping a steaming cup of coffee. Bald, thick-shouldered and dressed in a tweed blazer, he greets friends and fellow patrons with a smile and a traditional Ethiopian greeting.

The men shake their right hands, pull each other close so their right shoulders touch, reach their left arms around and pat each other on the back.

A family man with a successful trading company, Mr. Legesse enjoys his first coffee of the day at Tomoca’s, where he catches up with a group of old friends before heading to work. Over coffee, the men discuss politics, their families and their careers.

“Tomoca serves the best coffee in Addis. Akalu [the owner] reads books. He knows as well as anyone how to buy and roast good coffee,” says Mr. Legesse. “Look around. There are no teenagers, no kissing, no video games. It’s just old people speaking the same language.”

For centuries, Ethiopians have cultivated coffee and, with it, a coffee culture.

According to tradition, an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi from the province of Kafa was the first man to discover coffee. Born around the year 650, he lived during the waning years of the Christian Aksumite Empire. A husband, father of two daughters and foster parent to an orphaned nephew, Kaldi one day noticed his flock of goats dancing energetically. He determined the cause of their peculiar behavior to be the red coffee drupes they nibbled off nearby bushes. He took some of the fruit home, and he and his family began experimenting with them for culinary use.

When his nephew, Giorgis, entered the local Orthodox monastery, he shared his family’s coffee roasting recipe. The monks enjoyed the drink and soon made a habit of offering it to brothers visiting from other monasteries across Ethiopia. Eventually, word of the delightful drink reached the monasteries of the Byzantine Empire and, in time, the rest of the world.

Proud of this heritage, Ethiopians of all backgrounds and creeds celebrate coffee, and regard drinking it as an important social event.

Many families, especially in small or rural communities, regularly take turns hosting traditional coffee ceremonies. Generally, the woman of a household invites her female friends and neighbors for an afternoon coffee. The tradition requires she roast the coffee beans by hand over a coal furnace. On her hands and knees, she smashes the roasted beans in a mukcha, or heavy wooden bowl. She then places the fresh grounds in a jebena, or clay pot, and adds hot water to brew a rich, distinctly Ethiopian coffee. In towns, often the coffee is served with fresh popcorn.

The women dress in traditional clothes and often gather in the hostess’s yard, where she lays freshly cut grass and burns incense. For a couple of hours, the women will drink coffee and enjoy each other’s conversation before returning home.

The importance of coffee in Ethiopian culture corresponds to its central role in the nation’s economy. Coffee beans account for up to 60 percent of Ethiopia’s total revenue from exports each year. More than half of the coffee beans produced in Ethiopia are tagged for export. Most end up in markets and restaurants in the Arabian Peninsula, Europe, Japan and North America.

As much as a quarter of the nation’s 85 million people depend directly or indirectly on the coffee industry for their livelihoods.

More than a million farmers produce coffee beans. Most of them are sustenance farmers who own less than a hectare of land (less than two and a half acres), have little capital at their disposal and survive very close to the poverty line. These farmers usually bring their crop to market on the backs of donkeys and are extremely vulnerable to climatic and market forces as well as the unfair business practices of local merchants.

Paradoxically, they and other small farmers contribute some 95 percent of Ethiopia’s total annual agricultural yield.

In an effort both to defend the farmers’ welfare and strengthen Ethiopia’s agriculture industry as a whole, former World Bank economist Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin in 2008 established the country’s first commodities market: the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX).

Though much remains to be done to protect small farmers and expand Ethiopia’s agriculture, the ECX has already made major headway in its first few years. It now requires, for instance, traders make more accessible to small farmers information about the market, which in the past they kept to themselves.

Several mornings a week, Tomoca Coffee House owner, Akalu Woube, removes his white apron and slips quietly out of his crowded shop in the Piazza district. He strides to the corner, hops on a bus headed for Addis Ababa’s Mexico Square and pays the $0.07 fare. Fifteen minutes later, he arrives in front of the ECX’s modern, steel and glass structure. On its facade above the main entrance, a large LED panel broadcasts the latest financial news. He enters the building, checks in at the reception desk, puts on a gray, ECX-issued apron and waits for the trading floor to open.

At the stroke of the hour, the market opens and buyers and traders pack the floor. All attention focuses on the electronic board above, which flashes in red and yellow lights up-to-the-minute news on coffee and other goods: the asking price, grade and location.

Mr. Akalu stands among them, eagerly watching the lights beside Harar beans — one of Ethiopia’s most sought-after coffee beans. A nearby trader observes him, raises his right hand and shouts out a price. Mr. Akalu waves his hand in a show of interest. The man’s cries grow louder, but Mr. Akalu hesitates. Suddenly, he pulls his arm down, turns and walks away.

“I judge how desperate the traders are to sell and buyers to buy,” Mr. Akalu explains on the bus back to the Piazza district. “I’m looking for the right type of coffee at the right price. But if the demand’s too high, I stay away.”

“The other buyers were very excited today,” he adds. “I think the price will soon go down.”

Meanwhile in Dire Dawa, a city 220 miles east of the capital, coffee experts at an ECX grading laboratory test samples of the Harar beans Mr. Akalu nearly purchased. The facility’s director, 30-year-old Sileshi Ambaye, and his team of four internationally trained “cuppers,” or coffee experts, maintain the Harar beans’ high standard. Each sample — which consists of deposits taken from three different parts of every sack of coffee — undergoes a series of standardized tests.

“If we see any primary defects — black color, foreign matter like soil and stones, insect damage or husk still on the bean — we downgrade it in the raw evaluation,” says Mr. Sileshi, explaining the grading process.

“The consequences of bad handling appear in the cup,” he continues. “If the beans are stored in a moist place, they taste musty. If they are over-dried, they taste woody.”

A neat row of samples lines a laboratory table. With a spoon in one hand and a spittoon in the other, the cuppers make their way down the table. One by one, they take a spoonful of each sample, raise it to their noses and sniff it several times. They then place it in their mouths, swish it back and forth, discharge it and make notes on their pads of paper.

“When we test Harar beans, we smell for flowery fragrances and taste for chocolate. We give grades for flavor, acidity and body. It’s the balance between all three that gives you the overall character of the coffee,” says Mr. Sileshi.

“Ethiopians love coffee. Every mother drinks coffee three times a day. It’s the way we interact with each other.”

Award-winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE.

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