The organically certified Choche Coffee Farmers Cooperative and its 844 members collectively own two wet milling stations and one dry huller. With a huge debt of gratitude, I was invited to spend a week on one of them. Nestled on the side of a sloping southeast-facing aspect with a gurgling brook at the bottom, the wet milling station is perfectly situated to catch the best of the daytime sun. I arrived just before nightfall and erected the tent with the help of the burly site guardsman, Demesse, and his son, Solomon, on high ground to catch the view of the sunrise over the numerous rows of drying beds that fanned out below. By a stroke of luck, they had only just started processing the red cherries a week ago; I had made it just in time for the early buna (coffee) harvest.
Unzipping the tent porch to a dawn chorus the next day, hundreds of beads of morning dew hung from the chicken wire of the trestle tables, sparkling like diamonds in the early golden light. In the shade trees, deep red flowers appeared to burn brightly as if they had been ignited by the sun’s first rays. In contrast to the scorched landscape of the south, everything was a fertile shade of verdant green. On the hillside opposite, crowds of people wrapped in white shawls gathered at a natural spring to collect water and bathe the sick (It is widely believed that the spring water has the power to heal the mentally ill). The soothing melody of women singing in unison completed the enchanted setting. A group of white Egrets flew noisily overhead, snapping me out of my spellbound, drowsy trance.
It didn’t take long before I was invited for a morning brew. This was no ‘ordinary’ coffee – if such a thing exists. Painstakingly prepared by Demesse’s daughter Buzio, it was to be the daily ritual that I, and my taste buds, looked forward to with relish each morning. From green bean to coffee cup, the parchment (the remaining white, silvery skin that encases the bean) was first removed; then roasted on a metal plate over the gentle licking flames of an open fire. Afterwards, Buzio pounded the roasted beans into a coarse grind by means of sheer brute force using a mogatcha (Amharic for a large wooden mortar and pestle). She finally brewed the coffee in a large earthen jabana (coffee pot); a process that overall, took well over an hour. The aromatic coffee was then poured into small cups and taken with either salt or sugar. Served with a simple but wholesome breakfast of cooked maize, it was well worth the wait because the coffee was – and I am not exaggerating here – to die for; the combined result of an organic product that had been locally grown, washed, dried, prepared and consumed all within a few square kilometres of each other. The coffee was so fresh (good body, balanced taste with sharp acidity and winey, citrus notes) that the complex array of oils floated on its silky surface, refracting the morning light into tiny, miniature rainbow-coloured islands.
The rhythms of the day on the wet mill station soon became a familiar ebb and flow of activity, and I found that I quickly settled into the daily routine. Above all, I did not wish to be treated like a ‘faranji’ (foreigner) or receive any special treatment. I was there to work; pitch in, and help out where needed. Most mornings were spent amongst the rows of fifty-odd foot long trestle tables where the washed coffee was left out to dry in the baking hot sun. Under the shade of our rustic peaked straw hats, a dozen of us worked along each side of the drying beds, chatting and joking – often about the ups and downs of Premier League football which could be considered in many respects a matter of religious importance in the country. The process of sifting by hand through the drying beans still encased in their protective skin of parchment for defects that did not make the grade was a relaxed, unhurried affair. Nothing went to waste and the defect beans were subsequently separated and destined for domestic consumption. There was a genuine shared sense of pride in the work and in classic moments of spontaneity, we all burst into a chorus of Choche Buna Bureadu! (Orominya for ‘beautiful Choche coffee’).
The afternoons were a relatively lazy affair. It was too hot to work under the intense heat of the sun so it was a good time to test the coffee. Each day the wet mill foreman, Jerbose, and milling station manager, Galy, would produce two old but lovingly maintained contraptions: The first was a bulky British-made steel ‘mini huller’ (manufactured in a time when the UK used to actually make things; so it must have been well over half a century old. How it got there is anyone’s guess…) to remove the parchment. The other device, a Danish 1960’s analogue ‘coffee tester’ was used density to measure the moisture content of each batch of processed coffee. Once the measurements were recorded, a small quantity was sent to the cupping laboratory in Jimma for grading. Like rabbits out of a hat, bags of the leafy narcotic, chat, were then produced and the late-afternoon hours were whiled away chewing and erm, chatting, accompanied by another round of fresh coffee.