East Africa is responsible for America's favorite morning brew
For most people in the United States, coffee is synonymous with chains like Starbucks, or third wave cafes boasting Panamanian pour overs — not necessarily the continent of Africa.
But the place where coffee originated, and where the most diverse varieties of coffee thrive, is Ethiopia and South Sudan, as recently confirmed by a research team led by coffee genetics expert and president of the International Women's Coffee Alliance Sarada Krishnan.
These countries are important from a scientific perspective, Krishnan explains, because they are a link to coffee's past and hold the genetic traits that, under climate change, are the keys to sustaining coffee's future.
But what also should be celebrated, she says, is that the region also gave the world the culture of coffee. "Before coffee spread into Yemen and around the world, drinking coffee was a communal event celebrated in Ethiopia."
This connection is something Kenfe Bellay, the owner of Washington D.C.'s landmark coffeehouse Sidamo Coffee and Tea, knows well. For the last 16 years, he has been sharing the ritualized form of consumption — known as the coffee ceremony — with visitors, helping them understand the deeper meaning coffee holds for his homeland. In the United States, he says, "you grab coffee and you run. But in Ethiopia, they don't want to finish it so fast. They want to have more time to talk each other, to exchange information, and to enjoy their coffee."
In the traditional coffee ceremony, neighbors are called, frankincense is burned, and fresh green coffee beans are passed around for everyone to inspect before they are roasted to a deep brown on a flat, cast-iron griddle. As the coffee is prepared, Bellay explains, people catch up on information about the community and the world around them. "Coffee is not only to drink. The main part is the social [element] where anything—including the gossip—can be discussed."
After the roasted beans cool, they are typically ground with a mukecha and zenezena (mortar and pestle) and boiled in a clay coffee pot with a long, thin neck (resembling ones favored for pour overs) known as a jebena. The boil, he says, concentrates the flavor.
From the jebena, three pours of coffee are poured into small, palm-sized cups. The first offering is dark and strong; the second, cut with water and re-boiled, is slightly weaker; and the third, to which more water is added, resembles more of an infusion. All, Bellay says, give people time to experience the diverse flavors of coffees that vary from place to place.
"The Yirgacheffe is very fruity with the citric finishing, the Harrar is stronger with a mocha finishing, whereas the coffee from Sidamo is spicier, with a medium body," he says."
Flavor is what proved transformative for self-described coffee nerd, MC, and entrepreneur Bartholomew Jones. It started with a coffee from Burundi, he explains, that "tasted like a strawberry flavored latte. I said, 'Hey, I didn't want any flavoring in here. What did you guys do?' And they said, 'No, that's just the coffee. This Burundi coffee has a really heavy strawberry note.'"
That olfactory revelation inspired Jones "to figure out why [it tasted different]—and what other coffees would taste like if they were treated with the care that something Black deserves."
The culmination of this curiosity is the North Memphis storefront Cxffeeblack, a venture he cofounded with his wife Renata Henderson as "a social experiment ... to reclaim the Black history of coffee, and reimagine its Black future."
The site includes a roastery, and what Jones describes as an alternative to coffeehouses that can be perceived as marks of sophistication—or gentrification. "There are four horsemen of the gentrification apocalypse," he says, "craft breweries, small ladies walking tinier dogs, a Whole Foods, and a coffee shop." And this is why, he stresses, his joint is a coffee club, not a coffee shop. "You'll see people coming up who have a lot of money, and people coming up who live in the neighborhood who don't have any money, but everybody has access. Everybody is enjoying."
The conviviality Jones felt when participating in the coffee ceremony on his trip to Ethiopia "confirmed everything I knew about how Black coffee was in its origin, and how Black it could be in the future if folks from the diaspora [were to] reclaim it and reengage with it on our own terms."
And that is exactly what Jones aims to do in North Memphis: celebrate the African roots of coffee from crop to cup. "Even though so much of our past has been taken from us, coffee represents a way to connect through that oppression," he says. "Not just as something where you have to leave your culture at the door."
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