Yesterday, I visited Ya Bunna, a small specialty coffee company in Addis. The trip was organized by the Community Liaison Office of the Embassy (again) and I almost missed it. My ride didn’t show up and Paul is in South Africa for work, so I had an uncomfortable decision to make. Do I give up and stay home or do I drive?
You see, we had just gotten our car the previous weekend and had driven it twice – once to bring it home and another time to take Max to the doctor because he was sick. Paul drove both times. But now he wasn’t home, so I couldn’t get him to give me a ride. I had contemplated driving in Addis, some day, maybe but not for a while. Because driving in Addis is a total free-for-all and because I am a chicken, that’s why. All of a sudden I had to drive or I was going to miss this trip and I really wanted to go.
“Do one thing every day that scares you,” I remembered reading somewhere. Driving fit the bill, so off I went. I took the ring road, which is pretty much the only route I felt somewhat confident about. It’s a highway, kinda, except people do crazy stuff on it like jumping the fences and crossing without looking, exercising, sleeping (that’s right, often with body parts sticking out in the lanes), driving their donkeys, sheep, goats or cows down the road, playing soccer, driving with unsecured cargo or cargo three times as high as their vehicle - you know, fun stuff like that. So yeah, driving was a white knuckle, nerve-racking experience but I am happy to report that I didn’t wreck the car and I didn’t kill anyone, so I call it a success. Plus, I got to do go on the trip, which was pretty cool.
Ya Bunna is a relatively new husband-and-wife operation. The company is very small but they are truly passionate about coffee in general and especially about Ethiopian coffee, so it was fascinating to talk to them and taste their coffees.
I have to admit I had a very selfish reason for going. There are two coffee trees in our back yard and we have been harvesting and roasting the coffee but didn’t really know what we were doing, so I wanted to learn to do it right. And learn I did. A lot. So I thought I’d share what I learned here:
Apparently, the only coffee variety you are allowed to grow in Ethiopia is Arabica. This is where Arabica originated. Robusta, the other well-known coffee variety, is grown elsewhere in the world and in Africa (in places like Sudan and Rwanda). Robusta is hardier and has a higher caffeine content but its flavor is not as good, so Arabica is often added to it to improve the flavor. There are many different types of Arabica grown in Ethiopia and their flavor varies depending on which part of the country they are grown in.
You harvest the coffee berries when they are bright red. If they are not quite ripe enough, the coffee will taste bitter, if they are over-ripe, it will have a sweeter fermented taste. People who can’t afford to buy actual coffee, make “coffee” out of the dried fruit (or even the leaves) instead which costs a lot less than coffee but also packs a caffeine punch. I recently tasted the the coffee berries in our back yard and they actually taste very good. They are sweet but not overwhelmingly so. They taste kinda like cherries but not as sweet. I am going to try making “coffee” out of the berries with the next batch of coffee I pick in my yard. But I digress…
So, after you harvest the coffee berries, you either peel the fruit pulp, wash the coffee beans and sun dry for about two weeks or you sun dry it without washing, (fruit and all). The washed coffee is more expensive than the dry coffee but the dry coffee is a little sweeter because it dries with the fruit pulp on it. Most of Ya Bunna’s coffee is dry.
Coffee is harvested between November and March to avoid the rainy season, which makes it impossible to properly sun dry the coffee. It takes an average coffee plant 3-5 years to bear enough fruit to be viable and the coffee is the best around the 6th-7th year. Coffee is a tropical plant. It likes shade and high altitude but it doesn’t like frost (which happens sometimes in the highlands of Ethiopia).
Apparently, with coffee, as with other things, size doesn’t matter, ha! A lot of manufacturers worldwide sort coffee beans by size but size has nothing to do with the quality or flavor of the coffee. It’s where and how it’s grown and how it’s roasted that matters. Also, dark roast makes all coffees taste pretty much the same (burnt). In order to appreciate the flavor of coffee or taste the difference between the various different kinds, you have to get medium roast. Coffee manufacturers sometimes dark roast their coffee and/or add cardamom and other spices in an effort to improve/mask its flavor.
In Ethiopia, you have to have an export license (which is hard to get) to export coffee. The best coffee is grown for export and is used to generate foreign currency. You are not allowed to sell export grade coffee in Ethiopia. There is a concern in Ethiopia that chat (khat), a mild narcotic, may displace coffee cultivation because it pays better and the demand for it is growing faster than that for coffee.
What Ya Bunna does is not rocket science but they do have a scientific approach to it. The husband immigrated to the U.S. with his family at the end of the Derg Regime (a totalitarian government which ruled Ethiopia between 1974 and 1987). He finished high school and got his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the U.S. He is a biochemist by training and brings that background to the making of coffee. Ya Bunna buys coffee from Ethiopian growers and then sorts it meticulously separating under-ripe beans and beans damaged by frost or pests. They end up with three grades coffee.
A Ya Bunna employee sorting raw coffee beans from a farm in Wollega.
The lowest grade coffee (the under-ripe, frost- and pest-damaged beans) they never even roast. They sell it raw on the local market where there’s a lot of demand for it. Ethiopia is a poor country but coffee is so ingrained in the culture that everyone drinks it all the time. There are coffee stands all over the Ethiopia, where the raw coffee beans are roasted in a pan over a brazier, ground by hand and made in special clay pots over the brazier. Of course, there are also fancy cafes with expensive espresso machines and high-end grinders but the vast majority of people drink brazier coffee made either at home or on the street. They are not as concerned about the quality of the beans – they need the caffeine and even the lowest grade coffee provides plenty of that for very little money.
Ya Bunna’s three grades of coffee (raw) – first grade loose in the bucket, second grade is at the top of the picture and third grade in the bottom left (the picture is not great but you can kinda see the dark and imperfect beans).
The second grade is good coffee but not great. It may have slightly under-ripe or over-ripe beans. It is usually bought by the hotels in Addis. The first grade contains only the very best beans and it goes for export. While other coffee companies in Ethiopia make coffee blends, Ya Bunna specializes in single-origin coffee. They are all about flavor and get really excited about the mocha flavor of the highly-prized Harrar coffee (which is hardest to get), the slightly spicy and citrus-y profile of Sidamo coffee, and the creaminess of Tepi cofee. And because flavor is so important to them, all their coffees are medium-roast.
And this is what medium roast coffee looks like (sorry the picture is a little blurry).
Ya Bunna roasts their coffee in a gas coffee roasting machine from Turkey. Gas heats the beans evenly and the result is uniformly roasted beans. They have their eyes on a U.S-made roasting machine but it is substantially more expensive and for a larger scale operation, so they will have to grow the business before they can afford it. Their current machine has a spinner, so the coffee is constantly moving while it’s being roasted, which also helps roast the coffee uniformly. Coffee expands when heated and makes a popping sound similar to popcorn. Each bean pops twice - once at about 172 – 174 Celsius (which is the beginning of the medium roast) and a second time at around 187 Celsius (the beginning of the dark roast).
I have never been a coffee snob but I am afraid I will become one after my tour in Ethiopia. I still drink my giant cup of instant coffee with milk (no sugar, no water) in the morning but I have grown to appreciate the awesome coffees offered at the nicer cafes in town. I was never a dark-roast fan but now I am definitely a medium-roast convert. Something that I sort of knew but Ya Bunna reminded me is that it’s best to buy beans as ground coffee doesn’t last very long (only about 3 months). Beans last about 6-9 months, if stored well.
If you want to roast coffee at home, you can do so in a pan over a burner but you have to stir the coffee constantly and watch it closely to make sure it doesn’t burn. I have some of my home-grown coffee drying right now and am looking forward to roasting it in about a week. I get to grow, harvest and roast my own coffee and now I know how to do it right. How cool is that?!!!
So, all in all, I had a wonderful time at Ya Bunna. They were preparing to go to the Specialty Coffee Association of America trade show in Seattle in a couple of weeks and are already talking to U.S. companies about exporting to the U.S. They are thinking about solidifying their brand and eventually buying a coffee farm. I am excited about their future and look forward to seeing their coffee in the U.S.
I will leave you with one parting thought. I asked the owner what’s the best coffee in the world. He said it depends - some people like earthy flavor, others like spicy and citrus-y. Some, like many Southern Ethiopians like their coffee sweet, while the highlanders like it unsweet. He said his personal favorite is Bale coffee but again it’s in the taste buds of the drinker. He said that to determine if a coffee is good, you should order a single shot of espresso. If you taste buds get excited, it’s good coffee. (He also said that in a good shop espresso, will never be dark-roast).