THE BEST WAY to describe the nature of the Extraordinary Coffee Workshop is one part meeting of the minds, one part family reunion, and one part perspective-enhancing travel that helps us all grow as coffee professionals and strengthen our partnerships with one another. Every year it changes location, and our ever-growing international collective of coffee producers comes together to learn and share. Over the past five years we’ve hosted the event in Colombia, El Salvador, Brazil and the US. The 6th annual ECW was our first in Africa and the most ambitious event we’ve ever planned.
For coffee professionals there is no place on earth more enthralling than Ethiopia. It is the birthplace of coffee, the origin of the species and a Mecca of sorts for those whose love for coffee borders on worship. Coffee there is intertwined in the fabric of life to such a degree as to be inseparable. Wherever one goes there is coffee being served, day and night. Most people roast their own—there are more ‘home roasters’ in Ethiopia than in the rest of the world combined—and brew it by hand. This is the place where both humankind and Coffea Arabica first appeared on the earth, and to this day live together in a way that is completely unlike anywhere else.
For all of these reasons, hosting the Extraordinary Coffee Workshop in Ethiopia was always a matter of when, not if. Turns out nobody could wait; when we polled farmers at the end of last year’s event in Brazil the response was overwhelmingly clear—this train was bound for Abyssinia.
Getting 30 farmers from 14 countries to Ethiopia is not easy. A dozen calls with travel agents, six trips to the Ethiopian Embassy in LA, eight trips to DHL and at least fifty new grey hairs were required to secure all of the necessary entry VISAs and coordinate the flights. Passports were flown back and forth across continents, racking up more travel miles in a couple weeks than the average American does in a lifetime. Two months of work went in to getting the whole trip planned, and with a more than a little help from our friends in Ethiopia we got all of the logistics hammered out and were prepared for what would be the most unforgettable ECW trip to date.
In the space of five days we got to know the capital city Addis Ababa, studied Ethiopia’s coffee industry and toured two of its most famous growing regions. Getting to them is the challenge due in equal measure to the long distances and difficult roads. Fortunately one of the most important elements of the ECW is the conversation and the exchange of knowledge that happens spontaneously in between programmed parts of the agenda. Our group includes some of the most accomplished and innovative coffee farmers in their respective countries, and the collective wisdom and innate curiosity they bring with them to these events leads to some incredible dialogue about the ways and means of making better coffee. To that end, a couple dozen cumulative hours of hanging out on the bus has a lot of upside.
The opening day was a whirlwind of activity — we kicked the morning off with a fascinating narrative tour through Ethiopia’s complex coffee history, led by one of the most respected figures in the local industry, the esteemed Abdullah Bagersh. Our minds nearly saturated with information, we headed across town to cup coffee and complement the intellectual load with a heavy dose of sensory stimulation. The plan was to experience the spectrum of flavors found in Ethiopia, so the coffees we had prepped represented a nice cross-section of regional diversity and processing styles. It was also a homecoming of sorts, as we slipped a Bolivian-grown coffee with Ethiopian roots (the stunning Takesi Geisha) on the table to see how it would perform next to its long-lost cousins. Later in the day we toured the ECX and closed the night with an unforgettable dinner at Yod Abyssinia.
During the following two days we made our way through Sidama and as far south as Yirgacheffe, visiting a number of cooperatives, farms and washing stations. The highlight, by far, was a morning spent at the Homacho Waeno cooperative, a long standing partner in our DT network and the source of the beloved 2014 edition of Kurimi. For the Intelli staff that had been savoring this coffee regularly since its arrival in June, this was a revelation of sorts; establishing the connection between the memories of drinking the coffee and the experience of being in the place it is produced can be deeply satisfying.
For the farmers who’ve long wondered what sort of magic lies behind the uniquely flavorful character of Ethiopian coffees it was an opportunity to look behind the curtain and begin to understand both the notable similarities and the dramatic differences between the conditions here and those back home in their own countries. Many dots were connected on this visit, and although coffee was what everyone had come to learn about the most powerful and lasting impression might have come instead from the people.
The remainder of our time in South was spent examining some of the practical things that matter most to the continued success of our ongoing partnership of farmers and roasters trying to grow together and get better at what we do, both as individuals and as a group. Whether we are discussing new QC protocols, shipping logistics, agronomy, processing techniques, ideas for pilot projects or sales projections, communication about details is one of the most critical aspects of our DT program. ECW is always an important opportunity for us to look at how things are functioning for everyone and workshop ways to improve. It is a time when we can collectively address both our frustrations and our aspirations in the context of our ongoing relationships with each other and with coffee quality, always with the express purpose of making progress towards our common goal.
Our final day together featured a first for ECW, a public symposium that was conceived as a way of giving back. Ethiopia provided us all with the gift of coffee, and what a gift it was. The impact coffee has had on the economic development of much of Latin America, and the countless ways it has influenced our lives are testaments to its value. As roasters and as farmers we depend on coffee — our businesses would not exist without it — and have so much to be thankful for. As a means of demonstrating our gratitude to the country that gave coffee to the world, we felt compelled to turn ECW outward and share the most important lessons we’ve learned over the last couple decades about creating success in the coffee trade with the Ethiopian coffee industry at large. We invited farmers, exporters, union leaders, government representatives and anyone we thought might have interest in hearing about strategies, ideas and methods that have led to more profitable and sustainable coffee production in other countries.
Attendees from Colombia, Honduras, Brazil, Bolivia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Rwanda, Kenya, and Honduras were asked to prepare presentations on things they’ve found invaluable in their individual efforts to progress as coffee growers or exporters. It was a day jam-packed with advice, examples, and stories from some of the most successful coffee producers in business, all of who spoke candidly and passionately about what they do, not because they were compelled but because they felt privileged to be in a position to share what they know with such an influential group representing both the present and future of the Ethiopian coffee industry and were as motivated as we were to give something back.
VICE PRESIDENT / GREEN COFFEE BUYER