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When I shook the hand of Eyod Tekalign Tolina, who heads up economy and business issues for the Ethiopian embassy, in the chancery’s elevator on Tuesday morning, I had just hoofed it a half mile in the cold, frosty weather. He told me my hands were freezing. “Perfectly timed weather to try some Ethiopian coffee,” I replied, sparking a smile from Tolina. I was at the embassy to try some coffee at a press event to announce a licensing deal with a local distributor to sell unroasted Harar coffee from Ethiopia at 120 Giant supermarket locations in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
When the elevator doors opened on a lower level overlooking a wooded ridge behind the embassy complex, the strong smell of incense greeted us. I thought to myself: Is that what Ethiopian coffee smells like? Not quite.
Sonia Bunch, propriater of Silver Spring-based Pride of Ethiopia, and Tolina told us about the deep affinity Ethiopians have for coffee, the origins of which can be traced back to when, according to legend, a goat herder from Kaffa noticed how excited his animals got after eating the coffee plant’s red berries.
But there’s one key difference in how Ethiopians enjoy their coffee that may seem like too much work for Americans. The beans are roasted at home as part of a ceremony, complete with incense. Not your quick and easy cup of Joe, for sure.
Bunch, keeping in mind that roughly 200,000 to 300,000 Ethiopians live in D.C. area, is selling the beans unroasted, the way most Ethiopians—and a growing segment of home-roasting American consumers—prefer.
An affiliated company of Bunch’s already sells Ethiopian coffee at Giant, but it’s a Yirgacheffe blended with coffee from Central America. “After one year of doing taste tests in Giant and communicating with people who drink coffee, we kept on hearing one message from the Ethiopian community over and over again and it was message I couldn’t ignore,” Bunch says. “They wanted to see the Harar coffee in Giant. … [A]fter a hundred e-mails and several comments from Ethiopian coffee drinkers who follow us, we decided to respond and to bring in the Harar.”
Tolina calls the Giant-Pride of Ethiopia deal “an entry point,” something that fosters the “love affair” his people have with coffee. (He also stressed how deals like this help small farmers in Ethiopia, whose government has tried in recent years to reduce poverty, increase access to safe drinking water, and cut infant mortality.) There’s already an established local Ethiopian market that wants easier access to unroasted Harar beans, and there’s enough of a current niche interest from home-roasting Americans, so there’s room for growth. Coffee lovers in Saudi Arabia and Japan seek out Harar coffee, and the Ethiopian embassy would like the same to happen the United States.
Following remarks from Bunch and Tolina, we sampled some of the coffee being prepared in traditional Ethiopian style in the next room, complete with roasting pot for the beans, a jebana pot for serving, and in this case, a bowl of popcorn for snacking.
As Bunch says, Harar is a coffee “that doesn’t bite back.” I was able to enjoy my cup without sugar, though it is customary to have some sweetener. I wanted to taste the coffee in its purest form and didn’t need sugar to complement the rich and deep characteristics of the Harar beans. It had a smooth finish to stand on its own.
Bunch says a 12-oz container of unroasted Harar beans from Pride of Ethiopia will retail for just under $10, a price point Bunch says Ethiopian consumers indicated they would be willing to pay for high-quality coffee from their homeland.
Will home-roasting coffee catch on with American who have been pampered by Starbucks or a Keurig cup machine? That will take some time, for sure. But waiting for excellent coffee is totally worth the time invested.
Photos by Michael E. Grass