Oskar Garberg, marketing coordinator:
Before I started working with coffee I was mainly interested in wine. I was fascinated by the history of wine and wanted to know everything about it: where a certain bottle came from, who produced it, how it had been cultivated and how the grapes had been vinified. Once I got into coffee and started working as a barista, I started looking at coffee in the same way. I wanted to know everything about it. I wanted to trace it’s origins to where it was grown, I wanted to know the people who worked with it and under which conditions they had produced my brew. The same questions that spur the development at Johan & Nyström. We strive for a coffee that is good in all aspects. Coffee berries grown with regards to nature and people and that have been processed into a coffee with amazing flavour. The origins and story is everything and we want ourselves and our customers to have an in depth knowledge of both.
If there is one truth within the world of coffee it is this: All coffee has it’s origins in Ethiopia. This is where the arabica plant, that we cultivate around the world, grows naturally in the forest. It is the place where coffee beans where first steeped in water and sipped like a tea and it’s also the first place where coffee beans in the 12th century where roasted and brewed as the drink we today recognise as coffee.
Since then, the coffee plant has travelled to Brazil, Central America and Indonesia in pursuit of the perfect soil, altitude and climate. But all of that already occurs naturally in Ethiopia. That is the reason why many of my favourite coffees come Ethiopia and why coffee growers around the world do everything to imitate the countries style and flavour. In theory, a specialty coffee merchant could source all of its coffee from Ethiopian farmers, but that is unfortunately impossible in todays market. Nowhere in the world is there such high potential for specialty coffee but at the same time such low outpoor.
Ethiopia and its coffee industry is a web of bureaucracy, poor infrastructure and corruption, leading to a small number of greedy individuals becoming rich and leaving the vast majority- the ones actually growing the coffee- in poverty. The Ethiopian government has centralised the coffee sales to a commodities exchange where coffee from all over the country is mixed and sold without traceability.
For us at Johan & Nyström that want long-term relationships with farmers and that want to trace the coffee down to the smallest plot of land this means its been very difficult to work with Ethiopian producers. Few work long-term or consider aspects such as working conditions, sustainability or quality. Even though coffee farming and drinking is an integral part of Ethiopian culture, the country only stands for a small percentage of the global market. Even so, there are cracks in the bureaucratic pavement. Organic or Fair-trade cooperations are allowed to sell their coffee without being mixed with others which means we can get the transparency we strive for. Similarly, coffee farmers that own their own land, drying and washing stations can be granted export licences enabling them to handle all of their sales themselves.
Three years ago I travelled to Ethiopia together with Jimmy Palm, one of our sales representatives and Lars Pilengrim, our main coffee buyer. We went in pursuit of the producers outside of the system.It was Jimmy and my first trip to the country and our excitement was palpable. Finally we would visit the motherland of coffee!
The first thing to hit me upon landing in the capital of Addis Abeba was the high altitude. All of us got a bit woozy. But that is really a good thing from a coffee perspective. Normally, when travelling to coffee farms you go to higher ground since that is where the best coffee grows. But Ethiopia in itself has an altitude of several thousand meters. We immediately understood the importance of coffee in the country. A lot of other coffee producing nations export most of their coffee, but in Addis Abeba even the local equivalent of Starbucks boasts Ethiopia coffee.
We met up with our local contact, supplier Meno, and hopped in a car with him. I had been briefed by colleagues that had previously travelled to Ethiopia that because of how large the country is and how far between the coffee farms, I could count on 10 hours a day in the car. Our driver had a single CD that he repeated until it felt like my heart was beating to an Ethiopian rhythm. We rode through endless dirt roads through varying landscapes and everywhere along the roads people called out a ›Yo, yo, yo!‹ of greeting as we swished by. Outside the window we sometimes saw enormous asphalt highways in a straight line east to west. China has invested billions in the country to extract natural resources and build roads in order to transport their finds, but they don’t expand the roads in any directions that don’t serve their purposes.
As we got closer to the farm the driver turned in to a road that seemed all but impassable. And after about a minute we got stuck. The tyres spun deeper into the brown mud. It took hours until we finally got unstuck, aided by a small tractor. It had gotten dark out by the time we arrived and the only thing we could see was the gentle tinkle of light from the houses of the farm workers.
As soon as we entered we were offered coffee, yet again reminding us of its importance in Ethiopia.
The process of brewing the coffee was similar to that of a Japanese tea ceremony; an intricate pattern of rituals to be done in a specific order. First the roasting on large iron skillets, then boiling in clay pots over open fire before tenderly being poured into cups. The process had an almost religious feel, but as I drank a first sip I had to fight the urge to spit the coffee out. At the bottom of the cup swam a couple of generous spoonfuls of salt which is what Ethiopians use to season the coffee.
The night was short, cold and damp and as we awoke at dawn we could for the first time see what the farm looked like. ›It looks like Narnia!‹, Jimmy exclaimed. All around us was leafy jungle interspersed with a winding dirt road > Or Jurassic Park<, said Lars. On all of the organic farms I had previously visited the farmers tried to promote biodiversity. Here all of that came naturally. The coffee trees grew wild, protected from the sun by taller trees foliage. It buzzed with animals and insects. I’d never seen anything like it.
During the following week, we continued our journey between coffee farms across the vast Ethiopian landscape. The driver continued playing his one CD. During the many sweaty hours spent in the car, Lars and Jimmy and I spoke of everything we saw. > People pay more for Ethiopian coffee than they do for any other specialty coffee, even though its the cheapest to produce and still people here live in poverty< said Lars. > Somewhere a greedy tycoon is raking in the cash< , said Jimmy.
We all shared a sort of collective feeling of guilt at being three privileged men from Sweden being chauffeured around the country with possessions that cost more than local people could scrape together in a lifetime. Even when we visited coops where all of the income is supposed to be shared equally, we saw that the money did not reach the bottom line.
At the end of our trip, we reached the area of Shakos and the coffee plantation of Welena. The owner Tesfaye Bekele has been able to avoid the governments system because he owns the land, drying and washing station.
We had gotten in contact with him through our Ethiopian exporter and recently set up a Direct-trade partnership. The partnership means that we pay substantially more than what he would get at the commodities exchange -this to create a longterm relationship.
As we drove in to the village, hundreds of children greeted us by singing and clapping their hands. This was a show of gratitude for the extra resources that our partnership had given them, which enabled the building of a new school in the area. Lars, Jimmy and I shared a look of guilt. The large disparity between the welfare we enjoy in Sweden and that of our colleagues in Ethiopia made itself clear throughout our trip. Even though the roastery we represented had done a lot of good for the area, we still couldn’t shake a feeling of shame at our privilege.
The children reached out to us and our guide Meno explained that they wanted pencils. >If I’d only known I would have brought a thousand<, I thought to myself. Meno handed us a few pencils for us to give to the children. we didn’t know what to do, think or feel.
Tesfaye Bekele is a man whose dress sense is both colourful and proper. He is open, kind and inquisitive. He is an agronomist by trade and has only worked as a coffee farmer for a few years, but what he lacks in experience, he makes up for in knowledge and passion for cultivation. He gave us the history of the area where the farm was located and explained that there had been a vast wildfire there fifteen years previously that had damaged all of the plant-life. Afterwards people had started cultivating corn and a local crop called Teff. Since none of those crops need shade to grow, the trees that had survived the fire where being cut down.
At that time Tesfaye worked for the Ethiopian governments department of natural resources and he saw how the local fauna was disappearing fast. He proposed that instead of corn and Teff, the local farmers should grow coffee trees that would thrive in the shade of the trees. His idea was met with scepticism, but instead of giving up, he bought five hectares of the land for himself and planted coffee trees there. After five years his idea had taken root in the local society and the coffee plantation now covers an are of five hundred hectares. His main goal is to make the area environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. To reach that goal his relationship with Johan & Nyström is very important. Welena plantation can circumvent the state rules and make sure that the earnings stay in the local community and is invested in things such as a new school.
During a tour of the plantation we saw new and modern drying and washing stations had been built. The trees that Tesfaye Bekele had saved cast protective shadow on the colourful coffee berries. Everything was organically certified and felt very natural. No trace was seen of the corn and teff that once threatened to take over the area.
Finally we got to taste the coffee from Welena. It was typically Ethiopian; Floral and light, almost tea like, with notes of citrus. We had tried the coffee before, but it was a very special experience to drink it on the farm where it was produced, in the country in which all coffee has its origins. We looked at each other and could all agree that it was a really good cup of coffee. I think Lars summarised it well when he said, > Ethiopia is a difficult country to access, but when you do, you can really find some treasures <. I could only agree. It was possible to find coffee that was good -in all aspects of the word.