Looking for Direct Trade?

I’ve gotten a few inquiries on my travels about how farmers can either get paid more for their coffee, or establish relationships with U.S. buyers. I know a couple of roasters and one ex-U.S. importer, but not that many others who could help. If you know somebody looking for a new coffee to sample or origin relationship to start, please let me know.

The inquiries have come from a variety of people, ranging from world-class farms (actually, my favorite coffee ever, which I would love to be able to drink when I get back to the States) to collectors who want to raise prices for the farmers they work with, farmers that already know about specialty coffee but are trying to break into new markets like the U.S., and farmers who know nothing about specialty coffee, but know that they want a bigger slice of the pie for their labor.

If you or anybody you know is interested in starting new relationships and would like to be put in touch, please let me know. You can reach me by the contact page. I am not a broker and expect no payment, and I will try to match quality as my taste buds understand the term.

Gas Station Coffee in Yirgacheffe

When I arrived in Yirgacheffe, I started walking around to get my bearings, and I passed by a gas station. Thinking like an American, I assumed it would also sell water and some essentials, like soap and junk food. So on my way back to the hotel, I walked up to the gas station, and while I didn’t see any kind of convenience store attached, I did see what looked like a coffee service.

“Cool,” I thought, “there’s no supplies here, but how sweet would it be to have gas station coffee in Yirgacheffe?!” I resolved that I would come back to the station for a cup of coffee before I left town. But over the next few days, I passed by and noticed there was no coffee tray. Odd, but I chalked it up to bad timing. The next day was a holiday, after all, and maybe the other times were at the wrong hour of day. I remained on the lookout.

And so today, when I left the hotel to get some lunch, I spotted the tray for the first time in a while, and decided I should strike while the charcoal’s hot. Today would be the day I try gas station coffee. I approached and asked the magic words, “bunna alleh?” The woman looked at me and after a moment of hesitation told me to sit down. She put the jebena (coffee pot) back on the charcoal stove in the back and pulled up a chair for me. I slowly began to wonder if I had misinterpreted the coffee tray. Was this for customers and passers-by, or was this just for the folks working at the gas station? Well, I was getting coffee anyway, so I figured I would just enjoy my coffee.

The coffee took a long time to boil, but when it was ready, she offered me the cup with saucer and spoon, and as I began to hold it by the lip, she pulled up a plastic seat for me to place the coffee on. The cup looked bigger than normal coffee cups I’ve seen elsewhere, and I chalked this up to a universal rule of gas stations: more coffee. I didn’t see her put the sugar in, but she obviously had. And as I drank the cup, I noticed that the coffee was ground finer than usual, so that you could taste some of the grinds.

I finished my coffee and offered her a 5-birr note, but she refused. I realized that my language barrier had worked in my favor, as she figured it was easier to give me coffee for free than to explain that she doesn’t sell coffee. I awkwardly left, still unsure of how to say thanks. I guess I’ll bring them my unroasted green before I leave town.

The jebena is behind the camera in an unfinished building attached to the gas station. The coffee seems to follow a universal rule of gas station coffee: a larger volume of stronger coffee, from lower-quality grinds, designed to keep you awake. But it also broke one rule: this gas station coffee was free. Try finding that in the States!




Ordering Coffee in Ethiopia

Virtually everywhere in Ethiopia, you’ll see little trays like this one.



To order coffee, approach and ask for “andd bunna,” one coffee. If you’re not sure if they’re open for business, you can ask, “bunna alleh?” and the answer will almost always be yes.

The woman preparing the coffee—so far, always a woman—will move the kettle off the charcoal flame, pour some water into the jebena (the Ethiopian coffee pot you see on the left rear of the tray), which she will move back onto the flame, periodically pouring coffee out of the jebena to see if the coffee’s ready. I’m not quite sure what she is checking for, but my current guess is the temperature of the coffee and the color of the brew.

Some of the ashes from the flame will go into the ashtray that you see on the front left of the tray. I still haven’t learned what that ashtray is for, either. Current theories include heating up your coffee and for smoking customers to deposit their ashes.


There will also be condiments for the coffee. This always includes sugar (sukwa), and sometimes includes either salt (chew), or ten’adam, an herb that is apparently similar to Italian ruta. If you don’t specify, and the woman preparing the coffee doesn’t ask, you will get sugar in your coffee, most likely too much and, if they have it, ten’adam on the side. You can ask for no sugar by saying “yale sukwa,” or you can ask for a little by saying “tuhnnuhsh sukwa.”

Clockwise from upper left: with sugar, without (ten’adam on the side), with ten’adam, and with salt. The salt tastes good on the first sip, but is not so pleasant as you continue to drink. The ten’adam has a bitterness to it that somehow mitigates the bitterness in the coffee. Coffee on the roadside will cost 3 or 4 birr, about 15 to 20 cents. In a hotel, about 10 birr.

The coffee is typically not fresh, both in that it is usually ground well before it is brewed, and in that the same grounds are used for several cups of coffee. The grounds boil with water, as with Turkish coffee or kopi tubruk in Indonesia. As with these other methods, that typically means a coffee that is overextracted, tasting more bitter and “stronger,” even when less coffee is used.

Despite this, and despite all the other hurdles to making good coffee this way—the better beans are usually exported, and the remaining beans are roast and ground with old, manual methods that have little opportunity for consistency—I have on occasion had cups where you could taste some of the lemony notes that coffees from this region (Yirgacheffe) are known for, and even one cup where I felt I could detect a light body in a particularly strong cup, an attribute particularly prized by coffee geeks in the United States. It is more than a tad romantic to think that these attributes, though characteristic of Yirgacheffe coffees, are making it through to the coffee on the roadside, or even to think that coffee in Yirgacheffe comes from Yirgacheffe! But on the other hand, after coming all the way to Yirgacheffe to visit the most famous coffee origin in the world, I think I’m allowed to let a little romance interfere with my taste buds.

Yes, I’m still writing

Too much travel, and not enough staying still has kept me from putting together some thoughts. Some folks have asked if I’m still writing, and this post is intended to answer that question while I still have decent wifi. Yes, I’m still writing, albeit at a snail’s pace.

I’m in Dilla, Ethiopia, about an hour north of Yirgacheffe (!). I’ll be parked here for about a month while I catch up on some reading and writing, and, when internet allows, posting. In the meantime, enjoy the video below, which is what I was pointed to when I asked about coffee poetry in Addis Ababa. I believe the title translates to “boiling coffee.”

Coffee Map

In addition to the three posts those on the East Coast will wake up to, I’ve made some updates to the static pages on the blog. (See the menu in the upper right-hand corner.) I suspect what will be of the most interest to my friends and few subscribers, though, is the coffee map page, which shows the places I’ve had coffee along my travels. For now, most of the locations are simply city names, but I hope to get more granular as I go forward and also to go back and update the places I’ve been.

Check it out!

Pourover Lesson in Taoyuan

When Joan Obra at Rusty’s Hawaiian saw me try to make coffee using my Cafflano portable coffee brewing device, she knew I needed a lesson: the grind was too coarse and therefore the extraction time was too short, resulting in woefully underextracted coffee. (If only she had seen my previous attempts, in which I completely miscalculated the water to coffee ratio…)

As it happens, my first stop after Hawaii was Taipei, where Joan knows a coffee importer named Simon Hsieh who has top-notch technique. She put me in touch with Simon, who was kind enough to pick me up from the airport and show me around his climate-controlled warehouse in a super-secret location. Although I can’t disclose the location, I can say that the warehouse is near the airport, apparently because while many of Simon’s beans come in by sea, some of his best stuff is too good to risk losing to Somali pirates so it comes by plane. (Yes, really.)

Simon gave me a lesson in pourover technique, preparing the same freshly roasted Ethiopian Queen of Sheba natural-processed Ethiopian by pourover and then immersion. Because the coffee was only one day off roast, the immersion brewing really brought out the sweetness in the coffee. (If you’re in Taipei and want to try it, Simple Kaffa has the coffee on their menu, where they prepare it with a different immersion technique called the Clever.)

In case you’re wondering what I mean by pourover and immersion coffee, here’s a brief explanation. Immersion coffee works like a French press, where you steep coffee grinds in water and then filter them out. Pourover, by contrast, involves pouring water on top of coffee grinds and having the water pass through a filter. When coffee shops in the U.S. offer pourover coffee, they usually also mean to distinguish it from the “batch brew,” which is a similar method of brewing but in a bigger pot.  Like espresso, pourover is made on demand for each new order, but unlike espresso it takes more time. Whereas an espresso shot takes about 30 seconds from the time a barista pulls a switch to the time 9 bars of pressure squeeze the good stuff out of a little puck of coffee, pourover coffee takes between 2 and 4 minutes to produce a cup. For that reason and it because it’s usually using better beans, it costs more.

Now you might think, as I naively did, that there is not a lot of variety in how you pour water onto coffee in a filter, that if you’re pouring water onto coffee, the rate at which you do so or the shape of the grinds in the filter, or the pattern in which you pour, has little effect on the flavors that come out in the cup. It turns out that most people who work in coffee would think you’re wrong.

Simon has perfected a particular pourover technique that gives him a good extraction in 2 minutes. When I say “perfected,” I mean just that. He has stared at boiling water enough times that he can tell the temperature of it by the size of the bubbles. And while conventional wisdom would suggest that the grinder is the most important piece of machinery, he eschews the Porlexes sold in trendy coffee shops, which don’t have markings for the grind settings, and prefers to spend his equipment money on a kettle that gives him as much control over the stream of water as possible.

Here are the key principles I took away from my lesson:

  • The coffee should be wet first. I unfortunately didn’t write down whether Simon believes in the 20% rule (20% of the water), or the twice-the-weight rule (twice the weight of the coffee). I suspect he doesn’t think it makes a big difference.
  • The grind does not need to be as fine as most people recommend, but it should be adjusted based on the coffee and the pour so that the brewing time comes out right. (For Simon’s method, 2 minutes).
  • Lighter roasts need higher brewing temperatures.
  • The particular technique for pouring doesn’t matter too much, so long as it provides an even extraction. You can do this in concentric circles or in zig-zags, as long as you’re getting the same amount of water on each part of the coffee and controlling the agitation in the filter.
  • Depending on the shape of your filter, you should take care not to let water touch the edges of it, because it will break the crust that the coffee forms when you wet it initially.

He also gave me two pointers about tasting coffee, which I’ve been better at sticking to than I have his pouring pointers:

  • Smell the coffee around 70 degrees Celsius. When it’s too hot, you will have a hard time smelling the flavor aromas in the coffee.
  • Taste the coffee below 50 degrees Celsius. Body temperature is 37, so you still have plenty of time before the coffee gets cold.

I’ve noticed that with practice, some coffee drinkers can spot differences in coffee at higher temperatures, but I’m not there yet. I still need coffee to cool before I can taste what others taste sooner. That’s because differences are emphasized as a coffee cools. I’ve been told that defects in coffee are more apparent at colder temperatures. And, at the other end of the quality spectrum, I’ve noticed that a truly exceptional coffee can differentiate itself a lot more readily from the merely good coffees as they cool.

I had no kettle where I was staying in Taipei, but I’ve had some time in Australia and New Zealand to practice Simon’s principles with my Cafflano and also using a Kalita Wave dripper that I picked up in Japan. More ways to go, but there’s definite progress. Thanks, Simon!

My Favorite Coffee, Part 1

An interruption in my much-belated Taiwan posts to tell you about my favorite coffee.

People (almost entirely non-coffee people, mind you) keep asking me what my favorite coffee is. I think they’re expecting an answer in the form of a country or growing region, but coffee is more complex than that. Even two coffees from the same farm can taste completely different from one another. Moreover, it’s hard to compare coffees if you’re only having one cup of each, which I tend to do. Developing the kind of taste memory necessary for comparing coffees that way is certainly one of my goals, but for now it remains just that, a goal.

Which is all a very long-winded way of whining about the question because I don’t really have an answer. Until now: yesterday I attended Jakarta Coffee Week, and as I was getting ready to leave the event, I stopped at the booth for Smoking Barrels Coffee, a roaster based here in Jakarta, and I tried their Java Malabar, a washed coffee (which Indonesians confusingly call dry-hulled, more on that some other time) from the Mt. Malabar region of West Java. It smelled like  tobacco, but tasted wonderfully fruity. Seeing that I was impressed, the roaster, named Jon—Jakartans seem to have a lot of English names—suggested I try their  most popular coffee, which is from the same region, but grown at slightly higher altitude and using a different varietal of coffee. (Yellow Caturra instead of Sigarar Utang; I’d heard of the former but never before of the latter.)

It was love at first sip: there was a sudden explosion of flavors in my mouth, which Jon described as a variety of tropical fruits. In my opinion, that’s an even better description than the three particular tropical fruits that are listed on the bag (oranges, pineapples, and passionfruit).  To put it in my own words, it tasted like somebody took every Indonesian fruit except durian and put it in a coffee. The coffee was natural-processed, but the sweetness in the cup was remarkably clean, perhaps because the fruit flavors were so pronounced.

So now I finally do have an answer when people ask what my favorite coffee is: the Malabar Yellow Caturra from Smoking Barrels. In case (hope?) I get a new one along the way, though, I’ve called this post “Part 1.” Stay tuned.