By Anna Perreira
In February of 2012, one month before launching Yellow Brick Coffee, I was presented with an opportunity to travel to Ethiopia to source coffee. Along with some of the best roasters in the United States, I traveled by caravan through the famous regions of Sidama and Yigacheffe, as well as the lesser known regions of Amaro and Dila. Drinking water, kettles and other cupping necessities were hauled on van rooftops.
On the farms, we were greeted with ceremonial coffee freshly roasted over an open fire, stirred with a stick, ground with the biggest imaginable mortar and pestle and brewed in a traditional jebena. In more formal ceremonies including local dignitaries, we shared popcorn and bananas. At each stop, we had a unique opportunity to cup local coffees in front of the their producers and other local professional cuppers (called “luiquorers”, locally), always sharing our cupping notes. It was fascinating to notice the American comments consistent on notes of fruit, while the locals seemed focused more on identifying notes of spices.
Ethiopia opened my eyes to the unique cupping notes produced by the complex supply chain involving farmers, pickers, washing stations, the local region’s varietals and terroir. Beyond sourcing, we had the opportunity to discuss pricing structure with coffee producers and other industry professionals. We held a discussion about pricing structure and the supply chain where we highlighted all of those who look to profit from the sale of coffee.
At the time, there were only three ways to export coffee from Ethiopia: larger private estates, Coops, or the ECX (Ethiopian Commodity Exchange) through which small land holders would deliver their coffee to be mixed in with coffee form other land holders and then processed. The idea of coffee being processed, sorted and exported such that it was traceable for the small business coffee farmer was the dream, but at that point, was not possible. Though Ethiopia was (and still is) commonly known as "the birth place of coffee", some serious steps needed to be taken in order to improve traceability.
We visited schools, where we were greeted with energetic songs and met with some of the local kids. At one of the facilities we stayed in a beautiful hut and watched kids play soccer just outside. In Amaro, a generous local landholder, Asnaketch Thomas, let me stay in her home - maybe because I was the only woman on the trip. Her story is so unique and impressive that one of my travel mates, a publisher, talked about partnering with her for a biography.
Sourcing coffee in Ethiopia inspired me to prioritize transparency and traceability forefront in YBC’s sourcing practices. The experience as a whole, the people, the warmth and the idea that small-farm traceable coffee was just beginning to become a possibility made transparency even more necessary. This trip was the impetus to sharing the story or the farmer. I don’t get the opportunity to meet most of the coffee producers with whom we work, nor travel as much as I did when we launched, but I do love that we can honor their stories from afar.