Ethiopia: One More Cup of Coffee before the Desert

Text: Ramona Schwarz • Photography: Herbert Schwarz, Ramona Schwarz

After an extreme experience in 2001, I was forever done with Ethiopia. Nonetheless, ten years later, I went back with my husband, Herbert, in search of the best coffee in the world. Much to my surprise, I saw the country from an exciting new angle. My old picture of Ethiopia and all the clichés were outdated, and they wouldn’t fit together with the optimistic mood of the people and their positive anticipation of the future. Accompanied by a professional film crew, an interpreter, and (on occasion) armed soldiers, we documented our 2,700-mile adventure.

The story begins with a symbolic cup of coffee in Addis Ababa on 11/11/11. At least according to our calendar. Not only do the Ethiopians have a completely different concept of time, but they also follow a nontraditional calendar. On landing here, we are in the year 2004 and suddenly seven years younger. The Café Tomoca is the capital’s top address for “buna.” In this legendary 1950s Italian-style coffee bar, we are sipping several rounds of “Welcome to Ethiopia macchiatos.” Inhaling up to 800 aromas that a coffee bean stores and then releases when it’s ground is a very sensory experience.

Life’s Too Short to Drink Bad Coffee

According to statistics, the average German consumes 150 liters of coffee per year. This means that Germans drink more coffee than beer. They are not alone, for on a bigger, global scale, the world drinks about 2 billion cups of coffee every day. Herbert and I are self-confessed caffeine junkies. We have agreed on one simple thing: Life is too short to drink bad coffee. That’s why we started buying green (raw) beans and roasting them at home in our garage some time ago. After a certain amount of experimentation with varieties and strengths, we found what we consider to be the best coffee in the world. It‘s called Yirgacheffe, which comes from a region in Ethiopia by the same name and is made from 100 percent Arabica beans. This region is exactly where we are heading now.

Life on the Road, African Style

As dawn breaks, we see Addis disappearing in our rearview mirrors. A paved road frequented by ox carts, donkeys, chickens, and auto rickshaws from Indian manufacturer Bajaj takes us south to the coffee plantations. Women in colorful dresses gracefully carry heavy loads on their heads. The traffic is typically African—chaotic but demonstrating a certain degree of consideration. Bundles of firewood, green coffee beans, and bunches of false bananas (an Ethiopian staple) are sold at the roadside.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the March/April 2014 back issue.