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Few countries are as synonymous with coffee as Ethiopia, whose exports reach consumers all over the world. A few years ago, Ethiopia mandated that its coffee farmers sell their crops through a commodity exchange — a plan designed to help many of the country’s low-income farmers fetch better prices on the market. But that plan’s come under criticism from some who feel it’s ended direct trade for single origin coffee there and diluted the country’s brand. Fresh from a learning tour of Ethiopia, Kojo explores the links between the coffee American consumers drink and the economic fortunes of the farmers who grow it.
- Tim Carman Food Writer, The Washington Post
- Ato Tefera Derebew Agriculture Minister, Ethiopia
- Samuel Demisse Owner, Importer, Keffa Coffee (Towson, Md.)
- Joel Finkelstein Owner, Roaster, Qualia Coffee (Washington, D.C.)
- Solomon Edossa Chief Technical Adviser and Former Chief Information Officer, Ethiopian Commodity Exchange
Tracing Ethiopian Coffee Across The Globe
Few countries are as synonymous with coffee as Ethiopia, which is said to be the birthplace of Arabica coffee itself. When the Kojo team visited the country in January, it learned about the commodity exchange system through which the Ethiopian government requires coffee farmers to sell their crops.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's "Food Wednesday." Make that "Coffee Wednesday." Few countries are as synonymous with coffee as Ethiopia. It's the birthplace of the Arabica coffee plant itself. The ingredient behind so many of the world's most celebrated coffees. But, it's an open question as to whether coffee can be synonymous with economic success for many of the small farmers who grow it in Ethiopia.
MR. KOJO NNAMDICoffee that's ultimately consumed by customers in shops and stores and cities like Washington, D.C. A few years ago, the Ethiopian government began requiring farmers to sell their coffee through a central commodity exchange, a plan designed to inject fairness into their marketplace. And lift farmers up out of poverty. But, concerns remain about the consequences of limiting trade for single origin coffee, for buyers and farmers. And whether the system is diluting the celebrated brand of Ethiopian coffee itself.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio to discuss this is Tim Carman. He writes about food for The Washington Post. Tim, good to see you again.
MR. TIM CARMANGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Samuel Demisse. He is the owner of Keffa Coffee, a Maryland based importer of specialty grade coffee from Ethiopia. Samuel grew up on a coffee farm in Ethiopia. Samuel Demisse, thank you for joining us.
MR. SAMUEL DEMISSEThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from the studios of KUOW in Seattle, Washington is Joel Finkelstein. He is the owner of Qualia Coffee, a full service coffee shop here in Washington. But it also serves as the home of Fresh Off the Roast, a small batch coffee roasting company dedicated to sourcing recently harvested beans from around the world. Joel Finkelstein, thank you for joining us.
MR. JOEL FINKELSTEINSure thing. Good to be on again.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join us at -- join the conversation, that is, at 800-433-8850. What does Ethiopian coffee, as a brand, mean to you? Do you care about where the coffee you buy comes from, or the stories of the people who grew it? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Tim, I'll start with you. Part of the team of this show, including yours truly, traveled to Ethiopia last week as part of a learning tour put together by the International Aid Organization, CARE.
NNAMDIWe were there to learn about food security and about hunger, and issues that connect our communities here in Washington with those in Ethiopia itself. And we learned that when it comes to what we eat and drink, few things connect these places as much as Ethiopia's coffee, which carries a rather legendary brand. What does this brand mean to you?
CARMANWell, I will say Ethiopian coffee is probably my favorite coffee. And that's, I don't know, I guess that's like saying a hamburger is your favorite food, because there's so many different variations within. I mean, just to say Ethiopian coffee -- there's so many different farms, so many different plantations, so many different ways it's processed. So many different ways it's roasted. I'm sure Joel will talk about how the roasting brings out different characteristics.
CARMANBut, generally speaking, Ethiopian coffee, I love it. I love the sort of brightness of it. The fruitiness of it. And the more I get into trying different sort of preparations at home, I love all the different flavors that you can extract from it.
NNAMDIWe will get into the details of Tim Carman's preparations at home later in this broadcast, but Joel Finkelstein, what does the brand mean to you?
FINKELSTEINWell, I mean, really, you know, describing it as the birthplace of coffee is everything. Because, you know, we look at coffees from around the world, but originally, they all came from Ethiopia. And so some of the oldest trees, some of the real heritage varietals are there. And for a shop like mine, which is very focused on single origin coffee, that's where a lot of the complexity and interest comes in, because you're talking about some very unique trees.
FINKELSTEINAnd that's kind of what's going to add depth to the coffee.
NNAMDISamuel Demisse, you grew up in Ethiopia, but before I get to you and your experience, one more for Tim. There are dozens of species of coffee. What it is about Arabica coffee, in particular, that makes it special?
CARMANWell, I think maybe the two real bean experts could chime in on this, but I think, generally speaking, like the other major bean is robusta, and it typically is considered a much stronger bean, a more intense flavored bean. And, typically, has a lot more caffeine. So, I think there's more nuances in Arabica beans.
NNAMDIYou've been outed as a bean expert, Samuel, so go ahead.
DEMISSEYeah, for me, it's Arabica coffee is grown in very high altitude, as it takes a longer time to mature and to bloom. It has more flavor profile than a robusta coffee, and in terms of caffeine content, Arabica coffee has lower caffeine than robusta coffee.
FINKELSTEINWell, Arabica is definitely much tastier than robusta. It's a finicky plant compared with robusta, so it takes pretty specific growing conditions and a lot of care. But the other species, I believe, of coffee, are just -- they're hard to put into production.
NNAMDISamuel, as I was mentioning earlier, you grew up in Ethiopia. Where in the country are you from, and where did coffee fit into your life when you were growing up?
DEMISSEI'm from southwest part of Ethiopia, which is (word?) origin. Coffee, for me, is everything. It's like my heritage. It's like my tradition, and my family's been around in coffee for quite a long time, and I learned everything from my Dad.
NNAMDIYou grew up farming coffee?
DEMISSEI grew up in a farming family, yeah.
NNAMDIHow did you end up living in Maryland, setting up a business here in the United States? I read that your initial plans were to come to the US for a long vacation, a vacation that seems to have morphed into a very long term business plan.
DEMISSEWhat happened was I came to the United States, just for a long vacation, like you said Kojo. And I saw some really great opportunities in the specialty market, and I felt like there is a gap between Ethiopian coffee and the American market, and I had the confidence, and that's it. I can bring some specialty coffee beans, and introduce more to United States coffee roasters and coffee shops here.
NNAMDIHow do you go about deciding which beans from Ethiopia you want to import to the United States, to sell to people like Joel?
DEMISSEThat's a very good question. So, after the harvest, we receive a lot of samples from our suppliers, and we have a coffee (unintelligible) in Baltimore. We roast pretty light, according to (unintelligible) standards, and we kept all of the coffees, and we just only coffees cost really high, which is, in this case, about 90, 90 score. And then, we contract with our supplier for the year and bring it by Washington freight.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Samuel Demisse. He is the owner of Keffa Coffee, a Maryland based importer of specialty -- great coffee from Ethiopia. Tim Carman writes about food for The Washington Post. And Joel Finkelstein is the owner of Qualia Coffee, which is a full service coffee shop here in Washington, D.C. And we're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. How has the rise of specialty coffee in the US affected the way you perceive and the way you consume coffee?
NNAMDIYou can send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet at kojoshow. When we were traveling in Ethiopia last week, we learned that coffee, like so many other things inside that country, is a complicated story. A number of years ago, the Ethiopian government mandated that growers sell their crops through the country's new commodity exchange, a system hailed by many as an anti-poverty mechanism. Because it's designed to help guard farmers from abuse and to help them fetch decent prices. We visited the commodity exchange floor in Addis Ababa, as well as coffee warehouse facility in the southern city of Hawassa.
NNAMDIProducer Michael Martinez put together this audio package about what we learned and about what we saw.
MR. MICHAEL MARTINEZThis is the trading floor of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange in Addis Ababa, the place where the Ethiopian government requires coffee growers to sell their crops. It looks kind of like what you'd see on the trading floor in Chicago, buyers and sellers in different colored shirts, barking out bids, making deals. It was designed as a way to bring the country's small farmers into a modern marketplace. And to protect them and the people who buy their crops from risk. Traditionally, farmers were vulnerable. Many of them wouldn't even know the prices they'd be getting for their goods before they brought them to market.
MR. SOLOMON EDOSSAWhat this exchange has done is give people a big heart. The attitude that they can do anything.
MARTINEZThat's Solomon Edossa, a technical advisor to the exchange who is part of the team that launched it. He says that today, farmers of all stripes can verify prices on electronic boards posted across the country. The same information is even disseminated to farmers over text message and radio.
EDOSSAThere is no middle man that could play me, so I have a fair play. But when you look at it, the impact that it has on the farmer, on the farmer's livelihood, is that the farmer is gonna get the fair share of the proceeds, unlike how it used to be before, when he has no reliable means of getting the market information.
MARTINEZSo, what's in it for the buyers then? One big issue the system addresses is quality control. Previously, it was tough for them to know much about many of the products they were buying. If you want to see how the new system fixes this, you gotta go far away from the trading floor to warehouse facilities like the one the commodity exchange operates in the city of Hawassa.
MARTINEZThese are the places where farmers can bring their coffee to be sampled, weighed and graded. Trained cuppers evaluate coffees for their flavor, cleanness, and acidity. They spend each day sipping, spitting, grading. Here's Solomon Edossa.
EDOSSAThere is consistency and international standard in this practice applied to this. And there are three cuppers who basically cup or grade every sample that comes in.
MARTINEZEdossa says the commodity exchange, which is government owned but not funded, and allows trades for products like sesame, maize and wheat, was roughly a billion dollars a year. But coffee remains smack dab in the middle of the country's plans for economic growth. Agriculture Minister Ato Teferra Derebew says that while much of the country's coffee is grown for internal consumption, he sees Ethiopia dramatically ramping up exports in the years ahead.
MR. ATO TEFERRA DEREBEWAnd we have huge potential to expand. In fact, we are putting a vision to be one of top coffee producers and exporters in the coming seven, eight years.
MARTINEZWhether this leaves the farmers growing Ethiopia's most celebrated coffee crops in the best position to fetch top prices for their products is still an open question. But for the time being, the noise on the floor of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange rumbles on.
NNAMDIThat's producer Michael Martinez, who was on that trip to Ethiopia last week. Solomon Edossa, who helped to start that commodity exchange, maintains a home in this area, in the Silver Spring region, but I'm interested in hearing -- and you can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and you can see more about our visits, both to the commodity exchanges and the warehouses. And hear some of the sounds that you heard in that broadcast.
NNAMDIJoel, from the perspective of those who built this exchange, it's a system designed to help graduate farmers from poverty. From where you're sitting, what does it look like to you, and then the same question to you, Samuel. First you, Joel Finkelstein.
FINKELSTEINWell, it actually, unfortunately, broke down a lot of the relationships that had been developing between roasters, especially roasters, specifically, and the farms. I think the commodity exchange was really targeting, sort of, more the commodity grade coffee, sort of the large scale purchases. Whereas, from a specialty perspective, we're -- the two things you really need to know about us is we demand high quality, and we're willing to pay a high price for it. And there's no advantage to us for farmers not getting paid for their product.
FINKELSTEINBecause that means we get it this year, but we won't get it next year. Coffee's really a long term investment. So, yeah, so unfortunately, I mean, much of what happens in the specialty market is relationship based, and that's kind of difficult to do with this sort of -- the exchange sort of coming in between us and the farms.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Samuel?
DEMISSEI think in the past before the (word?) system, the system was like farmers to mid owners and mid owners to exporters. There was a connection between the exporter and mid owners. Right now, the connection is from commodity exchange which is -- commodity exchange is based on -- they always go on the region instead of going by mill name. So it's adding some value for high quality beans is still the big name when they come into the exchange employment, everyone was frustrated and we don't understand the system pretty well.
DEMISSEBut to be honest on my side when I learned more, the still high quality beans is getting high price.
NNAMDIWell, how about what Joel complains about? Under the system is it still possible for roasters to buy from specific growers whose products they happen to like the most?
DEMISSEThe growers are very small. Like, if they produce a bigger quantity, they are still exempted to, you know, be out of commodity exchange and sell directly to a roaster or coffee importers that grow the wallet. But still like if the grower produced like five bags, ten bags it's going to be really hard for them to differentiate that coffee and sell it for coffee roasters.
NNAMDIJoel, do you know, are there other countries with comparable systems in place for coffee?
FINKELSTEINI'm not really -- I mean, if you look at like Colombia as an example, you know, one of the ways they establish themselves at having high quality coffee is by having the government consolidate coffee from the entire country and then release it only of a certain quality level. And so within the specialty community became really known as, you know, boring coffee in a lot of ways.
FINKELSTEINSo Colombia's gone back now and is doing more and more individual -- you know, you can buy more and more coffee from Colombia that comes from a single estate. And I think that they learned that they were actually losing value in forcing everyone to go through the Juan Valdez system where it's -- you know, it's all kind of homogenized.
NNAMDISamuel, underscoring what you just said, how did your family's farm fare under the previous system? The people we spoke with at the commodity exchange said the old way of doing business exposed too many farmers to situations where they didn't even know what their products were worth and they were being ripped off by middle men.
DEMISSEAbsolutely. Yeah, I mean, commodity exchange system, they put a price display everywhere in the small city. And the farmers, they would have access to look at the price, what's happening every day. So...
NNAMDIYeah, they have the board all over the country. They can look at the price and see what the prices are.
DEMISSEYeah, yeah, I was impressed. I was there, like, a couple months ago and I saw, you know, the board everywhere. So in the past before that there's only -- they broadcast only on radio like 8:00. If they missed that one there is no way they going to go back and check their price. But this one it give them more -- like, you know, more knowledge about what's happening on the commodity price. And they can sell their price according to the commodity price, yeah.
NNAMDIHere's Courtney in Beltsville, Md. Courtney, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
COURTNEYHi. Good morning everyone. I have a question about with all these different systems in place, how can we as consumers encourage the -- and guarantee that we can find fair trade coffee, for example, or the direct trade system. I know that those may or may not apply to every country or system, but how can we do something where we know that the farmers are getting a fair share?
NNAMDIAny idea, Joel?
FINKELSTEINWell, I would say that if you stick to especially great coffee and you're looking for more information, I mean, fair trade is kind of a brand name. And it's a very simple way to understand the -- what is behind that coffee, where the money goes. But a lot of roasters I feel now are trying to give you a more elaborate or detailed story about where the coffee comes from. And, like I said, from a specialty perspective I want the farmers to do well. Because when they do well they produce better and better quality coffee every year.
FINKELSTEINYou know, the problem is if you want cheap coffee, if you want to get coffee from a large wholesale provider, I mean, you're getting a lower quality product, you're getting a cheaper product. And there's less assurance that the farmers are being fairly paid for that product.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Courtney. Here is Mike in Arlington, Va. Mike, your turn.
MIKEHi, Kojo. I'm a long-time listener, first-time caller. And Sam is a friend of mine. He's probably surprised to hear from me on the radio. I'm so proud as what he's doing. My question was that over the years I've heard that Starbucks was basically opposing the Ethiopian government efforts to trademark like to be -- types of local coffee beans. And there was a huge uproar about it. And I wonder, considering Starbucks generates a huge amount of profit, why would they have such opposition in light of that? And the many customers who spend five bucks a cup or more for a coffee, but yet these farmers are living abject poverty.
MIKEAnd it just seems, in terms of social justice, it's just not fair. It's hard for me to, you know, contain that. It could happen to Starbucks where many Ethiopians sip coffee. And I asked them about it, does it bother you, you know, considering that, you know, they spend quite a bit of money there. And do they ever watch the documentary that came about...
NNAMDIWell, for those people who have not watched it, back in 2007, Ethiopia had sought trademark status for its premium coffees according to the New York Times as part of an effort to get more of the retail dollar for its farmers. Starbucks took a stance against the Ethiopian government's move to trademark some types of local coffee beans. But eventually agreed to open a center in Ethiopia to help coffee farmers improve the profitability of their crops. Care to comment on that at all, Tim Carman?
CARMANThat's probably over my pay grad there.
NNAMDIHow about you, Samuel?
DEMISSEActually, the start was very good, but it didn't go that far. It was a one-time big news and the Starbucks demanding that they wouldn't sign.
DEMISSEAnd finally they signed the trademark argument. But we didn't see any market share for the farmers.
NNAMDIJoel, care to comment?
FINKELSTEINYeah, I mean, I think that -- yeah, I don't -- I honestly don't know much about that situation.
NNAMDIWell, then we'll move on. But, Mike, thank you very much for your call. Anything else you want to say to Samuel while you're on the air?
MIKEYeah, I'm proud of you. You're doing great. And I want to say that Sam himself on a personal level when he buys his coffee from Ethiopia, he prefers to pay more for the farmers because he believes that they should get more and have a sustenance and improve their lives. So I'm proud of him for that. And he's an unsung hero but he does it on a personal level.
NNAMDIThat's a part of his own history I guess. Thank you very much for your call, Mike. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we continue this Food Wednesday conversation on coffee with Tim Carman, Samuel Demisse and Joel Finkelstein. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think the culture of coffee in the United States is evolving? How so and why, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. On this Food Wednesday we're talking with Joel Finkelstein. He's the owner of Qualia Coffee. That's a full-service coffee shop here in Washington. Also serves as the home of Fresh Off the Roast, a small-batch coffee roasting company dedicated to sourcing recently harvested beans from around the world. He joins us in studio. I should say he joins us from studios at KUOW in Seattle, Washington. In our Washington studio, Samuel Demisse, owner of Keffa Coffee. That's a Maryland-based importer of specialty grade coffee from Ethiopia. And Tim Carman who writes about food for the Washington Post. We’re taking your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDITim, it seems that from the perspective of many consumers here in Washington, this is about how the system affects so-called specialty coffee. Before we go any farther, how is specialty coffee defined?
CARMANWell, it's a relatively new term. You know, there's -- it's also generally under the umbrella of third wave coffee which, if you consider like the big coffee manufacturers, the first wave like Folgers, Maxwell House, then Starbucks was the second wave and this is the third wave. And it -- I think it kind of fits in with the general atmosphere of increased knowledge of all forms of cooking and wine and beer. It's like -- I think in the last ten, twenty years in the United States you've seen an increase of people's knowledge, skill level, willingness or unwillingness I should say, to have sort of inferior meals and inferior drinks.
CARMANIt's like, you know, I can remember back in college, I'd be fine with a cup of freeze-dried, you know, Sanka coffee. I didn't know any difference. But the knowledge now is there where you -- I personally just would -- could never even imagine drinking that kind of coffee now. It's like I can't imagine not making my own coffee now, taking the ten, fifteen minutes that it takes to grind and produce my own coffee in a pour-over situation at home.
NNAMDIJoel, how is the market for these coffees evolving in the United States? And does the rise of what Tim calls the second wave, Starbucks, have anything to do with the story?
FINKELSTEINYeah, I think so. I think as people become more informed about good coffee or just, you know, acknowledge that it exists, which is sometimes a tough thing, that it evolves I think, you know, going back to Ethiopia and the growing process, it's really been made possible by the fact that agricultural processes have moved forward so much. If I was -- as a roaster and as a, you know, coffee shop owner, if I didn't have a good agricultural product to work with I couldn't really promote that as specialty grade.
FINKELSTEINAnd so I think as sort of the relationship between farmers and roasters grows and as the agricultural process evolves, you know, we're seeing a better and better product. And then that's going to trickle out to the population. You know, my philosophy is that anybody really can appreciate good coffee. Not everybody has access to it.
NNAMDIWell, here is Mary in Bethesda, Md. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYYes, hi. My favorite coffee is Dunkin Donuts coffee. And I don't claim to be a coffee connoisseur, but I was wondering could you shed some light on why that coffee tastes so good to many of us.
NNAMDITim Carman, a lot of people in blind tests shows it over Starbucks coffees.
CARMANYou know, I haven't had a Dunkin Donuts coffee in a while. I remember when Rachel Ray was marketing that and trying to make a name for Dunkin Donuts coffee. I had it back then and I did not care for it. But I'd like to do a side-by-side now that it's mentioned. I mean, you know, I think it points out that, you know, like everything else it's like subjective to taste. There -- some people love the dark roasted coffees that kind of dominate the bar at Starbucks. Some people don't.
CARMANAnd, you know, whether one is better than the other, it's -- you know, I guess in a coffee grading you can actually make an argument that one is better. But when it comes down to what's in your cup and what you prefer, I think it's all personal.
NNAMDIAny idea where Dunkin Donuts gets its coffee from, Joel?
FINKELSTEINI don't, and I suspect it's like some other large-scale products, it's a combination. So what we do is single origin, which by definition means it's from one country, but we are often looking at a regional specificity as well. Dunkin Donuts -- any kind of blending where you're using a number of different beans is really designed to give you a consistency of flavor. I mean, as an agricultural product, coffee really isn't a consistent -- doesn't have a consistent flavor.
FINKELSTEINAnd so in order to sort of impose this consistency on it, generally what they will do is bring coffee together from many different places. Because even if you take the same coffee from the same farm every year, it's still going to taste different.
NNAMDIGetting back to the ethical issues for a second raised by Starbucks' opposition initially to what the Ethiopian government was going to trademark, Joel, when it comes to these kinds of issues, what steps do you take to get information from people like Samuel about where you're buying your coffee and how it's grown? It seems so much of what got Starbucks in hot water was that the company had always tried so hard to advertise its commitment to so-called fair trade coffees.
FINKELSTEINWell, it's just a lot of conversations I'd say. You know, Sammy's -- and we do get coffee from Samuel but he has organized origin trips, which I have unfortunately not been able to partake in. But I have conversations with our importers and we have conversations with farmers because we want to know more. We also want to provide them feedback. So, I mean, one of the really nice things about a roaster being able to have that interaction with the farmer isn't just saying, I'm learning about where this coffee comes from. But it's saying, you know, this is what we would like to see in the future.
NNAMDIHere is Daweet in Arlington, Va. Daweet, your turn.
DAWEETHi, Kojo. This is Daweet. Yes, thank you for having me. And also I'd like to thank you and all the panelists for having this relevant and informative conversation. My question is related to the exchange. And I think it's great that farmers are being empowered in terms of getting the information on market prices. Yes, this is tied to international commodity prices. But I'm wondering if there's any unintended consequences when it comes to, for example, market crashes, any kind of panic?
DAWEETYou know, it seems like we're tying the farmers -- local farmers to the international commodity market. And I wonder if at any point they would be selling or be forced to sell their product for something -- for cheaper than what's profitable for individuals?
NNAMDIIs that a downside to this, Samuel Demisse?
DEMISSEYeah, I mean, it happens a couple times in the past. When the coffee prices, you know, start going up, farmers, they try to hold their coffee to get benefit from the market advantage. At the same time, when the coffee prices start going down, farmers, they want to sell really fast. But there is commodity -- we cannot do anything about that. It has to be posted. It has to be updated, the price, all the time. And, you know, it's both sides. There is good time and there're bad times. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down.
NNAMDIOne of the things we learned about when we were traveling in Ethiopia last week was the difference between so-called natural coffee and washed coffee. Can you explain the difference for us?
DEMISSEYeah, natural coffee is the red cherry picked up from the tree and dried on raised bed and without any water involvement. And when you talk about, like, washed coffee, washed coffee is like the same thing. The red cherry picked up and has to be washed and fermented and remove all the sludge and dried with a parchment under it, dried, baked. And when you come a test profilers like the washed coffee has more floral and citrus notes. It comes from the fermentation and natural coffee has more like berry and honey notes that comes from the dried sludge.
NNAMDIJoel, that brings up an interesting question. To what degree do you think consumers think of coffee as agricultural produce at all? A lot of us American consumers only come into contact with beans in their ground form let alone beans before they've even been roasted.
FINKELSTEINYeah, I mean, that's a tough one because we have a lot of people who come in the shop and have never seen unroasted coffee before and had no idea it was a seed of a fruit, you know, that it grew on a tree. It's like magically just appears in this ready-to-brew form. So, yeah, it's one of those things where the roasting and the coffee -- you know, the roasted coffee has always been separated. And, you know, you see signs everywhere that say fresh roasted but what does that even mean?
FINKELSTEINSo, yeah, I mean, we have tried to promote the idea of coffee as produce, but we're distributing our coffee through the storefront but through farmers markets and things like that to promote that idea. Once it's roasted it's also a lot better when it's fresh. And when it's harvested it's a lot better fresh. So, you know, that's important for the consumers to know. And they probably don't really know that in large part right now.
NNAMDITim Carman, overtime you have become a geek's geek in terms of how you make coffee for yourself at home, which you mentioned earlier. But what our listeners may not know is that you've stocked up on gadgets. How has this newfound obsession with brewing at home changed your perspective at all about the ingredients you use to brew your coffee and where they come from?
CARMANWell, it's been a fascinating few months. You know, I've had many conversations over the years with Joel and other, you know, coffee shop owners about freshness, about, you know, variations in bean flavors. But until you start really, you know, experimenting and trying, you don't really notice how much variation there can be from one bag to another. And I'll give you one example.
CARMANThere is this bean that I bought from Counter Culture which is this specialty coffee roaster in North Carolina -- sorry, Joel. And it was -- it's an Ethiopian baloia (sp?) sundried. And the first time I made it in December -- like, early December, I was doing various different sort of preparations using different methods. I was using a pour-over method, you know, which you just kind of have a drip cone filter in it pouring hot water, the right temperature of course. It has to be between 195 and 205.
CARMANAnd, you know, doing it the long -- the appropriate amount of time, extraction time. And it produced this fairly bright, fairly citrusy coffee. And, you know, another method, the siphon method, which I won't try to explain in a short amount of time, but produced a much more balanced chocolaty flavor. Now the next -- I bought another bag of the very same coffee a couple weeks later. And it has a decidedly different flavor. It tastes like blueberries. It tastes like milk chocolate and blueberries.
CARMANAnd it did this on both the siphon and pour-over. So the variation between, you know, what the coffee roaster calls the exact same bean in the space of less than a month was dramatic.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Joel?
FINKELSTEINYeah, I mean, roasting can have a big impact on the flavor profile. So, you know, the way we think of it is the natural flavors are there. So our job is to pull out those -- you know, make those natural flavors available in the brewing process. But the balance of flavors can really change depending on the roasting process. You know, the green coffee will change overtime. The roasted coffee will change overtime. And this is assuming you're using fresh coffee. Again, if the coffee's stale or it's been sitting around for a long time, it's not going to change. But, you know, we usually tell our customers to use it within two weeks and you'll notice a significant change over that -- even over that two weeks.
DEMISSEYeah, I agree with Joel. Same thing like freshness is the most important thing. The first thing, the most important thing is the bean has to be a fresh crop and newly fresh harvested. And after roast it has to be like a couple weeks. And different beans, they work pretty good on different brewing method. I sometimes like a pour-over. I sometime like French press. And I always like -- end of my day I always take a couple shot of espresso which is, you know, give me up for a couple hours. So...
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. If you'd like to, the number is 800-433-8850. It's a Food Wednesday conversation on Ethiopia and coffee. You can also shoot us an email to email@example.com or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Food Wednesday conversation on Ethiopia and coffee. We're talking with Tim Carman. He writes about food for the Washington Post. Samuel Demisse is the owner of Keffa Coffee. That's a Maryland-based importer of specialty grade coffee from Ethiopia. And Joel Finkelstein is the owner of Qualia Coffee. That's a full-service coffee shop here in Washington that also serves as the home of Fresh Off the Roast. That's a small batch coffee roasting company dedicated to sourcing recently harvested beans from around the world.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of recently harvested beans, Tim Carman, talk to us about the difficulty of finding those.
CARMANWell, I think this is a really important point. You know, it's like Joel and Samuel talk about the freshness of getting coffee off the roast and using those beans within two weeks, all of which I agree with. The problem is trying to find these beans. And, you know, you could go to Qualia and they will be fresh. And Joel, I think, takes them off the shelves after what, three or four days, they're that fresh. But not everyone has access to Qualia coffee. And I was -- I note this because I was recently at my local Whole Foods where they sell, you know, a local roaster, Ceremony. Not to pick on Ceremony. I think this is more about Whole Foods rotating stock than about the roaster.
CARMANBut Ceremony, to their credit, prints their roast dates on their bags. And I went through every bag at the local Whole Foods and none of them were fresher than like three weeks old which, you know, by most roster standards, that is stale coffee. And yet, they're going to keep that there until they sell them more than likely.
CARMANYou wanted to talk a little bit more bout specialty coffee, Sam?
DEMISSEYeah, specialty coffee for me is, first of all, where it came from, what altitude, you know, what variety...
DEMISSEYeah, altitude is the most important thing and where it's grown. So after that it's -- and how the farmers get the beans is how it has to be only red cherry beans and then how it is processed. And finally after harvest, how fast it came to the United States. We usually only bring containers like every 25 days. And we use port of Baltimore, which is the very closest port to Ethiopia. It takes about only 25 days on the water.
DEMISSEI had the chance to try some coffee out of the west coast and the coffee was kind of fetid. And I asked, you know, how long it took on the water transit. They said it's 60 days. So it's crossing a lot of different climate and killed the quality after all that hard work done by the farmers.
NNAMDIWhen you say you had a chance to taste some coffee, people should know the level of your expertise not only as a grower or an importer but as a taster. It's my understanding that you're one of only a few hundred people in the world with a so-called Q grader license for coffee. What does that mean and what did you have to do to obtain it?
DEMISSEOh, first you have to train your palate. You have to taste coffee almost three or four times a day and make your palate ready. Once it's ready you have to go to ACEE, which is headquartered in California, and you have to take a test which is a very, very intense test. And you have to taste coffee all day long for three days. And you have to grade according to their protocol. Once you pass you get the license and you'll be able to grade different coffees.
DEMISSEAnd then after that I also get a assistant Q grader license which is a higher label of Q grader. And the test for me is kind of, you know, like when you preserved it, you have to -- you should be able to explain what's the natural flavor of the coffee. It's very, very complicated but you have to...
NNAMDIYou were also the second place finisher at the 2011 and 2013 U.S. Cup Tasters Championship. That seems self explanatory but tell us what that's about.
DEMISSEThat is intense competition. It's like there are, like, around 60 competitors across the United States. And there are three sets of coffee, two are different and one is -- two are the same and one is different. And it's total out of 24 cups. And you have identify the different cups and that, like, limited time of time.
NNAMDIIt must be an ordeal. But here's Daweet in Alexandria, Va. Daweet, your turn.
DAWEETHi, Kojo. Thank you for letting me in on the show. My wife and I proudly own a coffee shop on Georgia Avenue (unintelligible). And it's Sam who delivers the coffee for us. And people are very happy and Sam is not only the supplier. He's also educator. And for once we know now we are educating other people. And people appreciate that. So -- and his credential prove that. And I just want to say that and thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. There are a lot of people who want to get in on this conversation. Here's Gatacho in McLean, Va. Gatacho, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GATACHOThanks, Kojo, for allowing me to come on your show. The Ethiopian coffee is the highest quality coffee in the world because of the altitude it grows in. And the lower side of Ethiopia which is Harare, Harare coffee is very unique. Unique even in terms of Ethiopia. Now the quality comes from the altitude where it grows. And Ethiopia is in the higher altitude. And you can see the Nile -- even the Nile River flows to the other side of the earth. So it is like a roast in eastern Africa. It's like a top of the whole entire of Africa. So that altitude matters on the growth of the coffee.
GATACHOSo -- and one of the most important things that I wanted to mention is that coffee has become a health food now. It is in all health food stores, coffee is sold, the use of lowering the cholesterol, bladder movement and all kinds of ailments. It's very, very healthy for all kinds of disease. And there's a lot of research going on. But Ethiopia's coffee as all that it is has given rise to the rest of the wallet. And it's going to be wonderful to see what comes next.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We got this email from Gary. "Can't coffee be too fresh? Cherries on a tree ripen at different times and when it's picked or will affect flavor. Lots of processes sing prior to exporting when it's not as fresh as greens. Too fresh roasted coffee needs to rest so there needs to be time after roasting." Can you comment on that?
DEMISSEYeah, it needs to be -- like, after roasting it has to be a time out, a couple days.
NNAMDIOh, okay. There was a study that came out a little more than a year ago that left a lot of people worried about whether wild Arabica coffee grown in places like Ethiopia would eventually become extinct. What concerns do you have about the possibility of this happening and what would be the significance of losing wild coffee? It's my understanding that most people haven't ever tasted wild coffee at all.
DEMISSEI think the most important thing is we have to pay the right price for this wild coffee to keep it, you know, like the farmers producing this coffee. If they're not getting the right price they can -- I don't think they can keep producing this coffee. So we've got to make sure the farmers get benefitted from this wild coffee.
NNAMDIJoel, care to answer that too?
FINKELSTEINYeah, I mean, there's all kinds of environmental insults to coffee. I mean, in Central -- in Latin America we're seeing a lot of, you know, problems because of global warming. Certain what's called rust there is moving farther and farther up the mountain and affecting coffee that's generally the higher grade coffee. And the wild coffees that I was talking about before, like the Arabica's easy, is something you can put into production. It's something that can be grown in a fairly predictable way. But obviously a lot of the genetic diversity comes from the wild trees. And so that would sort of limit the variety that we're seeing.
NNAMDITo what extent do wild coffees represent a kind of undiscovered territory of flavors that people don't know about yet?
DEMISSEThe flavor should be something very different, like extremely floral. When you smell it, it has different fragrance and aromas. Like, you feel like you're smelling like a kind of perfume. It's a highly profile -- highly floral and it has a lot of complexities. So when you talk about, like, the complexities, it's not even one thing. It has to be body, acidity, different flavor profile. It has to be balanced so it has to be extremely floral.
NNAMDIHere is Maron in Washington, D.C. Maron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARONHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I have a college-aged son who is a budding barista. And he's having a really hard time kind of breaking in to the whole coffee shop job environment. So I'm -- sorry, my son is -- I'm wondering if the panel has any advice for my son about getting a job, learning how to make coffee professionally and what they think of the whole phenomenon itself.
NNAMDIWell, that's fascinating because Tim Carman started essentially on his own.
CARMANSure. And that -- I can't even hear -- so, I mean, I think it's -- that's where you start. You just start at home and you get obsessed to buy it. And you learn all the different variations and, you know, roasts of coffee and methods and age of coffee and all that different things. But, I mean, as far as far as getting a job, I mean, you know, I think we're still a fairly limited specialty coffee market in D.C. We've got -- I mean, I think that increases -- it seems to be increasing almost by the month with each new specialty coffee shop that opens.
CARMANBut by and large I know Joel's up in the Seattle area. And there's probably per capita far more coffee shops than there are here, certainly specialty coffee shops. I mean, we're inundated with, you know, Starbucks. But it's not the kind of coffee that we're talking about.
NNAMDIJoel, any advice for Maron on her son's entry point?
FINKELSTEINI mean, I think, like Tim says, you know, there's a lot of information on the internet. I'd say like 12 years ago I didn't know anything about coffee. And now I own a coffee shop. But, you know, persistence -- like any other job persistence is important. But self education is also going to be a value to anyone looking to hire.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Blaze, we're running out of time. Very quick, but Blaze you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BLAZEHello, Kojo and guests, panel. This question I guess is probably more for Sam. I was wondering, what would you say the difference in the taste might be when coffee is prepared in the traditional Ethiopian manner. I don't know, you know, the wording for it but, you know, like say it was made on the fire in a little pot with the little ceremonial cups.
NNAMDIWe had quite a bit of that while we were in Ethiopia, but here's Sam.
DEMISSETo be honest, if the beans is really good whether you roast it in a traditional or whether you roast it in, you know, like in a professional coffee roasting machine, it tastes pretty close. It tastes really good. Roasting is the most important part but Ethiopian way of roasting on the pan, and I had it, you know, for almost all of my life and it always tastes really good.
NNAMDIAnd finally here's Tabobal in Tacoma Park, Md. Tabobal, you're on the air. We only have about one minutes.
TABOBALHi, Kojo. First, thank you very much for doing such a show. Unfortunately, I wish I were there. I am a founder of a place of coffee. It's a new business that established to connect 240,000 small coffee farmers directly with the market and providing them opportunity to invest and own. It's a model the White House recognized as the champion of change. And Edible D.C., a food magazine in D.C. has recognized a lot of the 16 game changes.
TABOBALThe conversation about Ethiopia, Ethiopian coffee and farmers isn't complete without -- in the absence of the perspective of (word?) coffee. I look forward -- just wanted to share that with you.
NNAMDIThank you. It's something we will be talking about later. Tim Carman, good to see you.
CARMANGood to see you.
NNAMDITim Carman writes about food for the Washington Post. Samuel Demisse is the owner of Keffa Coffee. That's a Maryland-based importer of specialty grade coffee from Ethiopia. And Joel Finkelstein is the owner of Qualia coffee. That's a full-service coffee shop here in Washington that also serves as the home of Fresh Off the Roast, a small batch coffee roasting company dedicated to sourcing recently harvested beans from around the world. Thank you all for joining us and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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