Every year we gather our Direct Trade family at the Extraordinary Coffee Workshop, Intelligentsia’s annual family reunion and global supply chain summit. ECW is a moveable feast, convened during harvest each year in a different country so that our partners can roll up their sleeves as they learn from and inspire one another. But when we held ECW in Ethiopia in 2014, the event produced less education and inspiration than confusion and cognitive dissonance.
Our friends who made the trip from Latin America struggled to square the conflicting messages their senses were sending. What they tasted in the lab -- effervescent coffees, sparkling with acidity, filled with fruit sweetness, elevated by floral notes -- bore little logical connection to what they saw around them. The farms we visited were nothing like the ones they knew from home -- scraggly, unkempt coffee plants that looked as if they’d been abandoned, growing in an unorganized way on farms that didn’t appear to have been maintained in years. The same went for the washing stations, where rustic equipment emptied coffee into crumbling fermentation tanks with cracked cement, weeds growing everywhere.
They were right to be a little confused, and perhaps more than a little jealous. The game is rigged, after all. Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, has an unfair advantage. Its indigenous varieties, its terroir and its climate, optimal for coffee growing, give Ethiopia an unfair advantage over just about everyone else. An average coffee there is better than great ones from many other countries.
Talking about coffee in Ethiopia is a complicated undertaking, much in the same way it is hard to communicate the impact of a moving piece of music or powerful work of art. The late American dancer Isadora Duncan came as close as anyone we know to capturing the essence of this challenge with her witty retort to a reporter’s question after one of her performances. When asked if she could explain what a particular series of movements meant, she replied,
That’s just the way it is: we simply don’t have a vocabulary capable of capturing the emotional intensity and profound soulfulness of great music, art, dance or Ethiopian coffee. Since this is a format for the written word, however, we’ll stumble onward anyhow.
For starters, remember that Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. It is the one place on earth where native Arabica coffee varieties grow wild, home to more genetic diversity in coffee than the rest of the producing countries combined, and not by a small margin. Ethiopia boasts the most ancient and the most compelling traditions for coffee consumption that the world has seen. Coffee permeates the cultural fabric of Ethiopian life, and has been celebrated daily for centuries. The myth of Juan Valdez, who has been walking Colombia’s coffeelands with his trademark poncho and mule for a half-century, may seem like a storied tradition to us, but the life of that fictitious farmer is a blip compared to Ethiopia’s coffee heritage.
Take the coffee ceremony, for example. Across Ethiopia, people generally buy green coffees in the markets then take them home to put them through the processes we have chosen to leave to the professionals. They roast the coffee over hot coals in their living rooms, grind it by hand with a mortar and pestle, boil water and brew the coffee using a clay vessel. The coffee ceremony is at once a social tradition, a celebration of the virtuous properties of coffee and an opportunity for contemplation and reflection. Coffee is served over a long period of time in three individual rounds -- Abol, Tona, and Baraka -- each of which has its own specific significance. Life without coffee is almost unimaginable in Ethiopia -- something less than a full life. Most people drink coffee in the morning, the afternoon, the evening, and sometimes late into the night. Ethiopia is one of the few producing countries that drink more than half of what they grow.
Coffee, buna in Ethiopia’s native Amharic, accounts for nearly two-thirds of foreign export earnings, and employs about 10 percent of the population. It is in many ways the lifeblood of the entire country.
There are certain things in the world that seem to make perfect sense, that somehow just feel right. Coffee in Ethiopia is one of them. In no other country have we been struck with such a powerful sense of coffee clarity and purpose, as if coffee’s value in this world and its reason for being were not to be questioned but were essential and simply intuitive. Ethiopia is a deeply nourishing place. It breathes life, and you get the feeling that if you were to toss a few seeds up in the air in the afternoon, they would take root and sprout into mighty trees overnight. Spending time there solved a mystery that had been dogging us for years: how can the coffees from this country be so incredibly intoxicating?
The phrase “taste of place” has meaning that we never fully understood before we started traveling to Ethiopia. The coffees themselves are in some way a testament to nature’s grace, pushing the boundaries of flavor and aromatic complexity while remaining impossibly sweet and delicate. At their best, coffees from Ethiopia are nearly untouchable in the world of specialty coffee, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
What is remarkable is that the surface may have only been scratched – there are coffees growing wild in Ethiopia’s forests that remain unclassified, and relative to the long sweep of coffee’s history in Ethiopia, it was only recently that microlots have been preserved all the way to the market. That trend has accelerated over the past few years, but there is still so much opportunity in Ethiopia. I think our notion of what constitutes perfection in coffee will be challenged over the next few years by coffees that emerge from the hills of Southern Abyssinia.
So let this serve as notice to the rest of the world, which took Ethiopia’s seeds to create an industry: the original source of coffee is here to retake the throne.
A Word about our I-Marks
I-mark is short for Intelligentsia marks. Our I-marks are the distinctive and evocative names we have chosen for the single-origin lots we source from each of the countries on our menu. The I-mark names are carefully chosen to convey the essence of how our overall approach to Direct Trade is adapted to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities we see in each country where we work. They evoke something distinctive about each one of those origins. And they are a signal of the meticulous process of curation behind every coffee labeled with one of our I-marks.
We subscribe to the belief that a coffee’s quality frontier is determined primarily at origin by the interplay of three factors: the coffee variety, the growing environment and the toil of farmers and workers. But that doesn’t mean we have nothing to do with it. Our approach to sourcing, quality control and roasting is exhaustive, and our appetite for data is insatiable. We seek information and actionable insight all along the coffee chain, and work tirelessly to leverage what we learn to coax as much complexity, flavor and sweetness as we can from the green coffee we buy. When we approve a specific lot for release under our I-marks, it is our guarantee that lot has met our high standards and represents the very best that origin has to offer for that crop year.
For more on our I-marks, listen to this episode of our Buyers Notebook podcast.
KURIMI: The original Intelligentsia Organic I-Mark in Ethiopia
The name Kurimi comes from a conversation our Vice President for Coffee Geoff Watts had years ago with coffee growers in Ethiopia. The story behind the origin of the name is one of a handful of stories generated through our sourcing trips over the years that embodies the spirit of our Direct Trade model.
During a visit to a washing station in Ethiopia, Geoff gathered growers around a raised bed where coffee was drying. He asked them which seed they would select from a given section of the table if they were starting a coffee nursery. After a brief period of reflection, agreement emerged around a single seed. This pattern repeated itself several times, with Geoff asking and the growers answering, remarkably coming to consensus each time about which seed would be the very best one to set aside for the seedbed -- which seed could be entrusted with the future of coffee in the community. Each time, once a seed had been chosen a single word arose in a chorus from the growers assembled: “kureme, kureme, kureme,” Amharic for “best of the best.”
This is the spirit that has animated our Direct Trade program from the very beginning -- tapping into the deep reservoirs of traditional knowledge in our effort to source the best of the best coffees from growers and progressive supply chain partners around the world who share our commitment to the idea of kureme.
Since its inception, Kurimi was established as our organic I-mark for Ethiopia.
TIKUR ANBESSA: The other Intelligentsia Organic I-Mark from Ethiopia
Tikur Anbessa is Amharic for Black Lion, unique to Ethiopia, and uniquely beautiful. It represents everything we expect in coffee from Southern Ethiopia. It was originally established in 2015 to showcase the best conventionally grown coffees from a region of Ethiopia different from the one where we were sourcing for our Kurimi I-mark. Then last year, the growers and mill delivering our Tikur Anbessa coffees also earned organic certification, making our Tikur Anbessa the second organic I-mark for Ethiopia.
- GROWER: Adam Overton and Rachel Samuel
- FARM: Gesha Village
- REGION: Bench Maji
- ELEVATION: 1950-2000 m
- VARIETIES: Ethiopia heirlooms
- HARVEST: December/January
About as far west as one can get in Ethiopia, just a few kilometers from the Sudanese border in the region known as Bench Maji, there is an incredible new coffee story unfolding. High on a plateau, under the canopy of native forest, an adventurer named Adam has planted heirloom Gesha trees from seed he found growing wild in a nearby forest called Gori Gesha. This is the original Gesha, a close relative of the seeds transported to Panama over half a century ago that set the coffee world on fire.
The place is at once both new and extremely old—the region is considered to be part of area where coffee first appeared on the earth, and Arabica coffee has been growing there for many thousands of years. The forest is full of towering, ancient trees and incredible biodiversity. In their shadows, small rows of recently planted coffee are already thriving and being cared for using a combination of traditional methods augmented with modern understanding of farm management. It is a farm with unfathomable potential, and the site of a beautiful revival that will likely be remembered decades from now for having added an important chapter to the specialty coffee saga.
Adam and his wife Rachel have been chasing the dream of building a world-class Ethiopian coffee farm for the better part of a decade. The seed from which Gesha Village came into being was planted in their minds during filming of a documentary about coffee in 2007. The more they learned about the industry, the more certain they were that producing coffee was exactly what they wanted to be doing. Over the next several years, they researched vigorously and traveled extensively to accumulate knowledge, visiting coffee farms in Panama and coffee experts in United States. Along the way, they befriended Willem Boot, who became a trusted advisor and invaluable source of wisdom as the project took shape.
The search for the right location in Ethiopia was long and patient affair, and after four long years. they found what they were looking for: a stunning, extremely remote patch of wild forestland with a teeming ecosystem stretched high along a ridgeline that offers breathtaking views of the expansive valley below. They knew instantly that it was the right place. They worked over the next four years tirelessly, and with considerable help from the local Meanit community, to integrate a no-holds-barred boutique coffee operation with the singular goal of producing coffees as memorable and beautiful as the place that they were conceived.
We have been to hundreds of farms over the last twenty years and have never seen one that bears any kind of resemblance to this. There is something downright magical about it, and we’re certain that as Adam and his family continue to explore their newfound passion, they will help us redefine the notion of exhilarating coffee.
Why such certainty? Three reasons.
Nature—the conditions here could hardly be more perfect for cultivating incredible coffee and these genetics are truly special.
Nurture—Adam and his team are devoted aesthetes, with an artists’ eye for detail and an uncompromising love for beautiful things. Those are two of the critical ingredients for success with quality.
Knowledge—they are driven by a natural curiosity, with an insatiable thirst for learning, and have already connected with some of the most progressive minds in coffee.
More On Intelligentsia And Gesha Village
For more perspective on Gesha Village, listen to this conversation between with Intelligentsia Vice President of Coffee and Ethiopia Green Coffee Buyer Geoff Watts on our first Buyer’s Notebook podcast back in 2016.