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Dispatches

Art-world rebel Damien Hirst, by the numbers; cultivating a taste for greatness in Ethiopian coffee; on the road with the spirit of Mark Twain; a Swiss watchmaker whose time has come; woking and talking with Katie Leclerc

ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA

BEHIND THE BEANS
The messy business of high-end coffee exporting

 

NOISILY SLURPING A MOUTHFUL of coffee and expectorating it into a nearby spittoon, Omar Bagersh somehow manages to leave his crisp white shirt unmarred. “There is no neater way to do this,” apologizes the 40-something Ethiopian coffee trader. On his tasting schedule today are three varietals: Yirgacheffe, Lekempti and Harrar, each named for the highlands in which the beans were grown. Yirgacheffe beans always top the charts, Bagersh says, and here in his lab they bear an index card that reads “Grade Two,” meaning they’re just one step from perfect.

Of the 336 million pounds of green coffee beans exported each year from Ethiopia, a small percentage will be worthy of boutique prices. This is the domain of Bagersh and his brother, third-generation coffee traders who seek out farmers’ blue-ribbon batches by taste-testing samples from almost every 50-pound jute bag that comes through their warehouses. In other words, they’re trying to hit the jackpot one sack at a time. “Every lot is different,” Bagersh says. “Even within the same lot, you can find variations.”

Most beans fail the test, but occasionally the brothers strike gold. One example is their Idido Misty Valley, which was “a flyaway success in the U.S. and had a cultlike following,” Bagersh says. That batch recently ran out, however, and the variables that made it exceptional (like soil, water and handling) are impossible to re-create — so the brothers are back on the hunt.

Aiming to take the guesswork out of their business, they’ve also begun shifting from exporting to growing. That’s at odds with tradition: Ethiopians generally make a strong class distinction between those who trade and those who work with their hands. (Even playing an instrument can be considered lower-class for this reason.) Undeterred, the Bagershes planted several hectares on their own farm in western Ethiopia and plan to harvest their first sellable crop this season. It’s their hope that they’ll be able to consistently produce some of the finest coffee in the world.

“Life is too short to drink bad coffee,” Bagersh says, shaking his head, as he fills another cup. — RACHEL SLADE

ILLUSTRATIONS BY PETER OUMANSKI

One Response to “Dispatches”

  1. James Hayes-Bohanan Says:
    March 13th, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Thank you for including this report — far too few people recognize the human stories behind coffee and the many other consumables that the world economy brings to us from around the world.

    It is appropriate that you use the phrase “strike gold.” It brings to mind the 2006 film Black Gold, also about the high stakes involved in finding premium markets for Ethiopian coffee.

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