Almost every specialty coffee lover, whether professional or enthusiast, can remember the cup that changed everything. Coffee is just coffee, until you encounter berries, flowers, and a multitude of other sensory experiences you never expected from your morning cup. Talking with other coffee lovers, I’ve found, more often than not, that life-changing cup came from Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is the motherland of Coffea arabica. The plant is indigenous to the country and it’s still home to 99% of the plants’s genetic diversity. Ethiopia is also home to the oldest coffee culture. While in many places coffee is simply a cash crop, in Ethiopia it’s a central part of life.
Yet, in spite of this, information about Ethiopian coffee is not readily available. You might have a region, the process, a grade, and if you’re lucky, a washing station. Even less information is available about the forests of Kafa, where wild coffee trees still grow.
That was until Jeff Koehler wrote Where the Wild Coffee Grows: the Untold Story of Coffee from the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your Cup. Koehler set out to write a book about the original coffee drinking culture, but he discovered a story that in many ways holds the keys to coffee’s future as well.
Where the Wild Coffee Grows is a story in three parts: In the Forest, Out of the Forest, Back to the Forest. Koehler takes his readers deep into the heart of Ethiopia, to a place where coffee is not farmed as much foraged for. It is here in Kafa, once a proud kingdom, that coffee evolved as part of the local ecosystem, or as Koehler puts it, earned it’s place in the forest. In Kafa, wild trees grow up to 30 feet high and are covered by moss, almost unrecognizable from the neat rows of trimmed shrubs one finds on a conventional coffee farm. Locals gather coffee cherries and wild honey based on a complicated system of foraging rights, passed from generation to generation within families. Here coffee is “wof zerash” or “sown by the birds.”
From Kafa, Koehler goes on a journey through history that takes us through the terraced coffee plantations of Ottoman-controlled Yemen, to the greenhouses in Holland where Coffea arabica was first classified as a plant species (this misnomer would mislead Europeans into thinking coffee was originally from the Arabian peninsula for centuries.)
The greater significance of Ethiopia’s wild coffee is felt acutely as Koehler goes to Central America. Here, the lack of genetic diversity leaves coffee trees susceptible to fungi and disease, as seen so severely in Guatemala, where coffee production has been decimated in recent decades. Positively, the rediscovering of an heirloom Ethiopian variety, Geisha, in Panama created an unprecedented boom for local producers, as auction lots of the aromatic coffee break price records year after year.
Koehler’s prose is as articulate as it is meticulously researched. Looking through the bibliography, one gets the impression many of these resources are being cited for the first time in generations, if ever. From 18th century travel journals to academic research projects, no stone is left unturned.
In the hands of a less skilled author, the discussion of seed banks, plant breeding, and developing world bureaucracies might feel tedious, but Where the Wild Coffee Grows moves with an urgency that drawls the reader in. Through Koehler’s pen, the reader feels the gravity, if not anxiety, as World Coffee Research scientists are barred from visiting wild coffee forests in Sudan due to local conflicts. By the time they’re able to return, there might be no wild coffee left. Back in Kafa, the reader feels the frustration as local research stations, underfunded and mismanaged, fall into disrepair. At times the situation in Kafa appears bleak, both for the wild coffee and the people that depend on it for survival, but Koehler maintains a sense of hope.
From the complex ecosystem of the forest, to the intricacies of the local folk religion, (complete with animal sacrifices), Koehler writes with a reverential awe of Kafa and the people that live there. Thanks to Koehler’s vivid prose and compelling photography, one feels as if they too have traveled deep into the heart of Ethiopia’s cloud forests, and tasted the source of all coffee.
Put simply, Where the Wild Coffee Grows is the best book on coffee I’ve ever read. It belongs in every café and on every barista’s bookshelf. Certainly, it’s required reading for any coffee professional, but the strength of Koehler’s writing makes it a compelling story for anyone who’s ever enjoyed a cup.