ECW 2014: Ethiopia

ECW 2014: Ethiopia

By 2014, our Extraordinary Coffee Workshop had done two turns in the United States and visits to Brasil, Colombia and El Salvador.  It was time for the primal return to the place where it all started: Ethiopia.

The ECW format by then had settled comfortably into a format it mostly maintains today, including exploration of the host country’s culture, joint sensory exercises, field visits and conversations about quality.


Cultural Anthropology

ECW provides participants an opportunity to explore the culture of coffee’s origins, including its art, dance, food and drink.  These cultural markers do not affect coffee’s intrinsic quality, but they are symbols we draw on, consciously or unconsciously, when we enjoy coffees from a specific place.  Ethiopia’s cultural markers are so distinctive and ancient that they weigh heavily on our minds as we enjoy its exceptionally sweet and complex coffees.







ECW also explicitly considers each host country’s coffee culture, and the contributions it has made to global coffee culture.  And there can be little argument with the idea that no country has given more to global coffee culture than Ethiopia, which gave us Arabica coffee itself, as well as the most ancient and elegant of all coffee ceremonies.  The country’s forests are the source of coffee’s greatest genetic diversity, a source of inestimable flavor and wealth; it coffee ceremony is captivating and rich, even when led by a Bolivian.




When you work through three dozen Direct Trade partners scattered across more than one dozen countries, the opportunity for chainwide sensory calibration doesn’t come around very often.  That’s why we seize the opportunity at ECW to cup, and cup and cup some more together with our partners.  Cupping in Ethiopia, with easy access to its unrivaled diversity of varieties, refracted through the lenses of varied post-harvest processes to create a dizzying array of flavors, was too good to be true.








Field visits

And of course, there is no better place to be with a collection of some of the world’s most accomplished coffee farms than on coffee farms.  Something magical happens when growers from different countries get together in a coffee field.  The distances between their own farms somehow evaporate and they are transported to some strange interstitial space bound by their knowledge of and passion for coffee.  A former colleague used to tease me about the use of the term “origin” to describe the universe of places where coffee is grown.  He said it sounds a little like “Narnia.”  In this respect, maybe he was right: when ECW participants step onto a farm together, it is as if we had passed through the back of a supernatural wardrobe into a place where only coffee matters.  Adrenaline surges, attention is focused and conversations flow naturally about how things are done at home, how they are done in Ethiopia and the merits of each approach.   The same goes for the mill, where we buyers layer in our own perspectives on green coffee and processing practices to enrich the conversation even further. The experience was especially surreal in Ethiopia, where the coffee plants, unkempt, old and downright decrepit in comparison to the manicured farms of Brasil and Colombia, incongruously produced flavors sweeter and more floral than anything people produced back home.  Adding to the mystique were the outsized distanced participants traveled together to get there.







Communications are something it is easy to talk about but exceedingly hard to do well.  In a business like ours, which is centered on a commitment to continue to push the outer bounds of innovation and flavor in coffee to redefine the concept of quality, it is especially hard.  When you further consider that we source coffee from more than a dozen countries on three continents, communications become precarious indeed.  I like to think how many times communications break down in a parlor game of telephone among as few as six or eight family members or friends.  Now imagine communicating around elusive concepts of coffee quality across time zones, borders, cultural differences and language barriers.  Yikes!  Just as we do with our cupping exercises during ECW, we use the event to communicate as clearly as possible to achieve alignment around a shared definition of quality and other items relevant to our business and our trading relationships.  So we spend lots of time talking and listening, teaching and inspiring one another around an evolving concept of quality.  Ethiopia was unique in the diversity of ECW presenters and arguably had more content driven by members of our Direct Trade network than any other ECW event.


For more information on the origins of ECW, listen to Episode 103 of the Intelligentsia Sourcing Sessions, titled “ECW: The Magic Bus.”

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