By Bruce Milletto
The filming of The Passionate Harvest was
completed in December 1999 as our small crew spent over two weeks
in Ethiopiathe birthplace of coffee. Our warmest thanks go to
Judy Barral of the Ethiopian Highland Coffee Company, MIDROCK Ethiopia,
Allegro Coffee/Whole Foods Markets, Kevin Knox, Yehasab Aschalewour
coffee and botanical expertand, finally, Teshome Selamu, senior
marketing, information and PR director for the Ethiopian Coffee &
Tea Authority. He was also our guide, confidante and cameraman.
do I begin to describe one of the most amazing journeys I have ever
taken? How is it possible to articulate the feelings, thoughts and
enlightenment I gained from traveling in a country like Ethiopia?
When I arrived here I immediately feel my life would never be the
same again. I have traveled much of the world, but for a thousand
reasons Africa is dramatically different, and for lack of a better
word, more spellbinding than anywhere else I've been. Spending time
there promised to answer a hundred questions I have always asked about
myself, life and people, yet it promised to pose another thousand.
Ethiopia is the land of the legendary Kaldi,
the goat herder who noticed his goats acting unusually animated after
eating the wild red berries we now call coffee. For this reason alone,
it is remarkable for professionals to take a journey to this coffee
mecca. But this fact is merely the frosting on the cake. The people,
history, landscape, climate, wildlife, culturethe country itselfare
the true rewards.
The Coffee Ceremony
Ethiopians take much pride in their
culture, and, unlike many of their neighbors and most African nations,
Ethiopia has resisted change. Ethiopians have shown a limited desire
to adopt Western ways, and outside influences have yet to dramatically
influence their traditional culture.
Among the many inherited customs is the Ethiopian
Coffee Ceremony, an event that makes the country unique among producing
nations. Ethiopians show an appreciation for coffee that is almost
god-like in its tribute. Their homage to the beverage is sometimes
ornate, but always overtly ceremonial.
ritual begins by spreading a bed of straw and then strewing fresh,
colorful flowers on top. Amidst this confusion is the centerpiecethe
traditional black Ethiopian earthenware coffeepotwhich is filled
with water and placed on top of hot coals.
Nearby sits what looks like a hibachi grill, also
filled with hot wood coals. A large, open wok-shaped pan rests on
top, and inside the pan green coffee beans roast slowly. One personusually
a womanconducts the cooking and the ceremony. Normally, she
has a few assistants who fetch water at the proper time and fan the
coals to keep them hot. She stirs the green coffee beans constantly
so as not to burn them. Upon closer inspection, however, many are
over-roasted and some under-roasted.
The water reaches the appropriate temperature
at about the same time the beans finish cooking. The woman then dumps
the hot beans into a hollow stump and uses a crude, mallet-shaped
mortar with a long handle to crush them. Specialty coffee professionals
know the importance of a consistent grind in the preparation of coffee.
The archaic method used by Ethiopians, however, results in a grind
that can be called anything but even.
Finally, the woman dumps the coffee through the
small opening at the top of the coffee vessel and allows it to steep.
After only a few minutes, an assistant arrives with a tray of small,
demi-size cups, and the conductor of the ceremony pours and serves
the coffee to the family and friends who have waited and watched the
procedure for the past half-hour. They consume the beverage quickly.
Smiles and slurping generally accompany kudos about both taste and
At the first of the many coffee ceremonies
I attended, I remember thinking, "How is it possible, with what we
know about the importance of precise and even roasting and consistent
and proper grinding, that a process of brewing similar to the one
used to make cowboy coffee could result in a palatable beverage? Impossible...
the coffee experts say. I would have agreed until I tasted Ethiopian
coffee. A true and undeniable testimony to the quality of this coffee
is in the cup produced at this ceremony... one of the best cups of
coffee I have ever tasted.
Small is Beautiful
coffee in Ethiopia is grown by farmers and individuals who care for
their coffee like my Italian father babied his tomato plants. There
are no mega-zillion hectare farms or complex growing procedures. The
growers' love of the land and their love for the product results in
a crop, that is, in my opinion, unsurpassed in flavor and exuberance.
As our crew was filming the harvest on a small
quarter-acre plot, one landowner told us we must stop filming for
the day. We all wondered whythere looked to be many more ripe,
red cherries waiting to be picked. But this farmer knew his coffee
well, and he felt that every cherry that was ready had already been
harvested. He would not allow our film project to continue for the
sake of art... his coffee took precedence.
More than 90 percent of all Ethiopian coffee
is grown in the forest, in semi-forest conditions or in gardens. A
few corporate farms exist, but they can hardly be considered large
from a worldwide coffee perspective.
Garden coffee is grown in the vicinity of
the farmer's residence and is usually interspersed with other crops,
such as bananas or vegetables. The coffee is generally fertilized
with composted organic waste from the household.
Forest coffee is found in southwestern Ethiopia,
which is where arabica coffee originated. Forest coffee is self-sown
and grown under the full coverage of a natural forest canopy. It is
widely diverse in selection and highly resistant to disease.
For semi-forest, farmers acquire forestland and
thin the trees to obtain the correct balance between sunlight and
Plantation coffee farms are usually owned
by the state, but occasionally by individuals. Some of these farms
have become models for small growers, as many are quite well managed.
The production here is closer to moderately sized estates in other
producing countries, where coffee plants are properly spaced and pruned
and farmers apply chemical fertilizer. Overall, however, less than
five percent of Ethiopia's farmers currently use chemical fertilizers
coffee region we visited from Addis AbabaEthiopia's capital
and our home basewas an easy journey. We took numerous three-
to five-day treks to famous coffee-growing areas, such as Yirgacheffe
and Jimma. The worst road in the United States would be a super highway
One striking fact about Ethiopian travel is that
the roads are completely covered with people and animals. Our two
Land Rovers barely missed hitting thousands upon thousands of cows,
donkeys, goats, sheep and horses. I held my breathand at times
curled my toesas we almost ran over someone or something.
Our treks were never easy, but ease does not
usually equate with quality, substance or adventure. We had a brush
with a family of a dozen 3000-pound hippos (Africa's most dangerous
animal), which passed within a few feet of us by a river. We witnessed
monkeys jumping out of trees onto our cameras. We all experienced
food-related illness; I spent almost two days in bed with mine.
Each of our journeys was an adventure in and of
itself, marked with myriad unforgettable experiences and surprises.
Planning was sometimes difficult because of the many outside factors
that affected each excursion. Even though conditions in Ethiopia can
be rough, there is much to reward the traveler. I advise anyone traveling
in this country to enjoy the beauty of the simple. If you are traveling
as a photojournalist, keep you camera on and ready at all times. And,
finally, if you are traveling as a coffee lover, appreciate the beverage
slowlyit is the best this plant called coffee has to offer.
I will always remember the many small but unforgettable
experiences that recount the richness of this country and our journey.
One day, as we walked down the street of Yirgacheffe, my fellow film
crew member Robert asked," Bruce, have you looked behind us?"
As I turned around, I was astonished to see at least 50 people, mostly
smiling children, following us. What would happen, I thought, if an
elephant were to walk through the streets of Portland or Los Angeles?
People would rush from their homes and follow in amazement, watching
every detail and every action. So often in Ethiopia, we were that
Everywhere we wentsometimes to places that
seemed like they were in the middle of nowherea crowd of people
would surround us who wanted nothing more than our attention or our
return smiles. Everywhere I looked I saw happiness and wonderment.
Here lies the paradox of Ethiopia: a country by our standards so poor
in the material, yet so rich in an attitude of the heart. Ethiopia
taught me how to give and receive friendship without subsequent or
expected reciprocation, and that is what will forever be etched in
Note: The Passionate Harvest, a film
by Kenneth Davids and Bruce Milletto, produced and distributed by
Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup, will be available soon in NTSC and PAL
formats. The video will retail for $79.95. To order or for more information,
call Bellissimo @ 800-655-3955 or visit http:www.espresso101.com.
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