Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ya Bunna (Coffee)

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.

IMG_2560 The owners of Ya Bunna

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.

IMG_2523A 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.

IMG_2526 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.

IMG_2546And 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).

IMG_2567 Checking the coffee to make sure it’s not getting too dark.

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).

Thursday, March 19, 2015


I have been meaning to write about our trip to Lalibela but we have been getting our shipments and were busy unpacking, so I had to set blogging aside for a while. Our UAB (Unaccompanied Air Baggage – 700 lb of stuff from the U.S.) came the day before we went to Lalibela. The following Friday came our HHE (our largest shipment – 7200 lbs of stuff from India). Our Consumables (food, cosmetics, cleaning products, etc.) came the next Friday. The Friday after that was when our car made it to Addis but we didn’t get to take it home because it had to undergo a bunch of administrative mumbo-jumbo. We did see it though and we can’t wait to finally get our hands on it. Maybe tomorrow, we are told. So we have been busy unpacking a boatload of boxes. We are not completely done but the house is livable and I really need to blog about Lalibela.

So, in early February, we took a CLO trip to Lalibela. CLO is the Community Liaison Office at the Embassy and they organize various activities for the Embassy employees and their families, including trips. Since we don’t have our car yet, we have taken every CLO trip since we got here. Lalibela was our first CLO trip in Ethiopia and our first one outside of Addis.

Lalibela is located about 700 km/435 miles north of Addis but the terrain is quite rough and it takes a couple of days to get there by car, so we flew. I hear there are direct flights from Addis to Lalibela but we took the scenic route. We flew through Bahir Dar on the way there and through Gondar on the way back. A direct flight would have been preferable but flying through Bahir Dar and Gondar gave as an opportunity to see more of Ethiopia. We got to see lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and headwaters of the Blue Nile. You can see it on the map below located between Bahir Dar and Gondar.

Ethiopia is quite mountainous and it takes seeing it from the air to understand why it was isolated for a long time and why it was never really colonized. The Italians tried but weren’t very successful. We were there during the dry season and things looked quite parched.

There were tiny villages, made up of tukuls (traditional round houses with thatched roofs), which looked really quaint to me (that’s why I chose a picture of one for my new blog header). Life there is light years from life in Addis. People have very little and live very modestly.

It took us about 40 minutes to get from the airport to Lalibela and we stopped on the way at a scenic overlook where girls were selling local crafts.


We also saw a naked guy in the middle of the road. Not sure what his deal was but we saw him in the same spot on the way back two days later. Things that make you go Hmmm…

We stayed at the Mountain View hotel, which was nice. Not luxurious but with a beautiful view of the valley outside Lalibela.

We got to the hotel around noon, dropped our stuff off, grabbed a quick lunch and went on a tour of the town.

Lalibela was named after a priest who became a king. He ruled Ethiopia in late 12th/early 13th century right after Jerusalem was captured by a Muslim army. People from his kingdom would take the long and difficult journey all the way to Jerusalem to see the Holy sights but after Jerusalem was captured, he wanted to give his people a pilgrimage alternative closer to home. So he built a New Jerusalem in the area which was known as Roha at the time and made it the capital of the kingdom. The town has a number of Biblical features including a river Jordan, which is where people get baptized (though it was dry when we were there) and 11 churches cut out of the sheer rock. I had seen pictures of the churches before we went to visit but didn’t really understand how they were built nor did I have any appreciation of the gargantuan effort it must have taken to build them until I saw them in person.

Lalibela is one of the most important religious sites for Ehiopian Orthodox Christians. Even now people from all over Ethiopia flock to Lalibela on religious holidays, especially around Ethiopian Christmas when the place is teaming with people. Many of them walk hundreds of miles to get there. And as I said earlier, the terrain is rough, its elevation is roughly 2,500 m/8,200 ft, so it takes real dedication to make the long walk.

The most famous and my favorite of the 11 churches was the St. George, which is shaped like a cross and is just amazing. There is a trench which turns into a tunnel that wraps around the the huge rock the church is cut out of and that’s how you get down to the entrance of the church. It looks like this (you can also kinda see it at the top right in the next picture):

All 11 churches are active, so there were priests and pilgrims everywhere. It was interesting to observe and try to understand their culture and the way they worship. I am not going to go into a detailed description of each church because it took us the better part of two days to see them all but they were all neat. Here are my favorite moments of our time there:


This pool is famous because it is said to have special powers – if you want children, all you have to do is go to Lalibela and dip yourself in it three times. Offspring guaranteed!

IMG_2002 Young priest playing the drum.

Pilgrims – the white cotton scarves with embroidered silk borders are very traditional and worn in the country as well as in Addis. Women have to cover their heads when they enter a church and most of them wear scarves like these. They protect women from the cold in the mornings and the evenings and from the intense sun mid-day.  The borders can be narrow and simple using just one color or wide and elaborate with beautiful, colorful designs.

IMG_2207 Reading the Bible is a very popular pastime among young and old.
Men also wear scarves though theirs are usually larger and not as fine or richly decorated.
IMG_2214  This young mom had the most beautiful smile.
Priests – they often wear turbans on their heads and crosses, which can be made of wood, iron or
silver. Some are small and plane, others large and with very intricate designs.
IMG_2165 Heavy door
IMG_2184  Churches
IMG_2249 A young artist
The best restaurant in town – Ben Ababa

No trip in Ethiopia would be complete without a coffee ceremony.
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