Weeks before our trip Jerad would keep asking me “Gabe, are you ready for this trip or what?” I always had this blank stare on my face. I never felt entirely prepared, knowing that I was headed into an entirely different world. This trip was exploratory for Sightglass, we knew that we’d learn a lot from it. This kept us very excited and a little terrified too, but completely open to a new and ultimately life changing experience.
We were going to Ethiopia and Kenya to be present in a place where we source coffee. To see with our own eyes and experience firsthand the producers that grow, harvest and process the coffees we roast and sell. We wanted to better understand the complex and often time-consuming logistics of getting coffee out of these countries. The trip also gave us the opportunity to start connecting with specific areas and people that we feel have the potential or ability to deliver excellent coffee.
Once you land in Ethiopia and you get over the initial culture clash and jet lag, the first thing that you notice is the people. Always when traveling, my goal is to connect to the people first and foremost. In Ethiopia it was easy—the people were so open, welcoming and always smiling. First, we headed west from Addis Ababa to Jimma on bumpy red clay roads, then headed towards the Kenyan border to Shakiso. Along the way we stopped by several mills, trying to keep our heads together amidst the beauty of the landscape and the genuine sense of welcome from the people working in the mills. The kids we would drive by would scream “You, you, you, you, you!” at us and wave and laugh and run beside the car as long as their legs could stand it. The playfulness of their energy and the curiosity for our arrival was beyond the language barrier. We understood their excitement, as we were excited to be there with them as well. At every mill, we were offered coffee by way of the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony called Bahalawibuna. This is something that is unique to Ethiopia. They LIVE coffee. It is rich in their history, and is in their blood. Coffee was meant to grow in Ethiopia; it’s obvious in the cup. Coffee trees grow wild in dense forests but you still need people to be good stewards of the land and process.
After 6 days in Ethiopia, we were off to Kenya. Our first stop was C. Dormans, a 63 year-old coffee exporter in Nairobi, Kenya.
Sightglass has been working with Dormans for two years. The reason for our visit to the lab was to meet and strengthen relationships with people we’d only ever known via emails. On a daily basis, Dormans cups 200 – 250 coffees to evaluate what they will bid on and purchase at auction from the different factories (mills are called factories in Kenya). Their expertise and wide-ranging knowledge has largely shaped the Kenyan coffee we experience and it was a great opportunity to talk with them about what we may be looking for in the future.
The Kangunu mill located in the Embu District of Kenya’s Eastern Province was our first priority as we are currently roasting and serving this coffee. The Kangunu cooperative has approximately 1,900 members and 200,000 coffee trees. As we walked the farms, the gnarled aged trees stood out sharply. A shocking 150,000 of the Kangunu trees were 25-30 years old and some trees we saw were even older! These trees are preserved and nurtured by the co-op’s agronomist Julius, who both advises the farmers and proactively helps maintain the operation.
While at Kangunu, we were able to see the new harvest in motion as entire families came to the mill from sunrise to sunset to drop off their coffee cherry. They do a first sorting, to pick out any under- or over-ripes, foreign material or defective cherries. They weigh this sorted selection and the farmers get an advance based on the weight. The mill then puts the coffee cherry through a meticulous depulping, washing and drying process. In Kenya, the mills are extremely watchful of the entire process. They keep detailed notes and each step is measured and tight. The cleanness of their process can definitely be tasted in the Kenyan coffees we offer.
I’ve been challenged to even describe what we saw and experienced beyond this post. It was truly an indescribable trip filled with those transformative moments when you feel so wholly out of your own skin, apart from everything you know. The opportunity to see and understand a new part of the world and its people left me humbled. I was reminded that coffee is a medium that links so many people together and grateful that it is Sightglass’ medium. My only return gift is to bring back amazing coffees that have never been seen nor tasted before. You’ll have to just wait and see what we will have in store but I am sure it will be something pretty damn tasty.