The Grossest Coffee on the Planet?

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We’ve covered crazy high-end coffees before. One of the world’s most expensive coffees, kopi luwak, comes from Indonesia, where the beans are harvested from the feces of the wild civet. Apparently something amazing happens to the beans in the digestion process, or at least the coffee world would have us believe so.

Then there’s Black Ivory Coffee, which of course comes to us thanks to elephant dung. The elephants stomachs are apparently like a “natural slow cooker” for the beans.

But now there’s a new coffee contender on the block, and you don’t have to travel to the other side of the world. All you have to do is make your way to… you guessed it, Portlandia.

Just outside of Portland, Oregon in Estacada a man is dabbling in the effects of sending coffee beans through his own digestive system. That’s right everyone: human poop coffee.

If you’re not thoroughly grossed out to stop reading yet, you’ll be thrilled to know that there are plenty of people out there that want the stuff. Randy Goldman, a home coffee roaster, wanted to experiment with the “kopi luwak process,” advertising his beans on Craigslist. The story of course went viral – turns out people are into fecal coffee – and soon the demand outweighed the supply.

But fortunately some coffee bloggers got in on the game and documented the whole process, noting that the end result was “musky and fruit-forward,” but not really up there with the world’s best cups. Goldman agrees, noting that the fecal-coffee connection is less about the taste and more about the novel process that somehow helps with marketing. “I didn’t think it’d do much for the taste, but I see Kopi Luwak selling and selling and know that the consumer wants to drink shit. So be it.”

You’ll be hard-pressed to get some though: Goldman has over 40 people on his wait list for the next batch. Looks like you’ll just have to stick to the normal coffee shops of Portland instead.

Medieval monasteries on Lake Tana, Ethiopia

The Christian communities of Ethiopia have an eye for dramatic settings. From the sweeping views of Debre Libanos to the many monasteries perched atop sheer cliffs, the surroundings of a holy place are often as beautiful as the place itself.

It makes sense from a religious point of view. If you’re going to spend your life celebrating Creation, where better to do it than a place where Creation is at its most awesome or serene?

This is certainly true of the monasteries and nunneries on the islands of Lake Tana. These religious communities are set in a placid lake surrounded by green hills and fields. At 65 km (40 miles) in diameter it’s the largest lake in Ethiopia and has been a center of worship for more than 500 years.

Hiring a boat is pretty straightforward at the lakeside town of Bahir Dar, and our first stop is a peninsula a few miles along the coast where stands the 16th century church of Ura Kidane Mihret. The boat docks at a little pier and my wife and I take a narrow path through a dense forest. Coffee grows everywhere under the shade of the forest canopy. I’ve never seen coffee growing before. Splitting open one of the red berries I find the bean inside, a pale yellow, sticky thing that bears little resemblance to the roasted beans I’m used to. We drink Ethiopian coffee every morning at home so it’s nice to see where it comes from.

We climb a hill and pass though a simple stone gate. In the yard the monks are busy laying the foundation for a new building. All the monks have to work hard, either at farms on the mainland or helping out around the church and monastery. The church itself is deceptively simple on the outside–a large, round building topped by an elaborate cross–but when we pass through the tall wooden doors we’re stopped short by brilliantly colorful paintings reaching from floor to ceiling.

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The outer wall of the church shelters an inner wall that encloses the worship area and holy of holies. Every inch of this wall is covered in paintings. Some scenes are familiar, like the Crucifixion and St. George defeating the dragon. Others are strange to us, coming from holy books that have been discarded by or lost to the Western tradition, like the Miracle of Mary and the Kebre Negast. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church includes many such books in their canon. The books of Enoch and Jubilees were translated into Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopian language still used in church services, but were lost to the West and survive in the New Testament only in a few quotations. If it wasn’t for ancient Ethiopian translators, these books would be almost entirely unknown.

The paintings are vivid, showing scenes of miracles and worship. Mary is a popular figure and every phase of her flight to Egypt is shown in detail. There’s also a brilliant painting of all the souls in Hell being freed after the Crucifixion.

The paintings sometimes take interesting twists to familiar themes. For example, the common image of St. George killing the dragon has a unique legend attached to it in Ethiopia. There once was a village that worshiped the dragon and made human sacrifices to it every day. A maiden named Brutawit was going to be sacrificed and St. George told her that if she believed in God that she would be saved. She was, thanks to George’s skill with a lance, and she took the dead beast back to the village to show that God was more powerful than the dragon. The entire village then converted to Christianity.

A short boat ride away is the island monastery of Kibran Gabrael. Like many monasteries, it’s off-limits to women so my wife hung out in a shady grove while I went to see the monastery’s famous library of medieval manuscripts. The monastery is quiet, most of the monks being on the mainland tending crops, but the librarian is in and he leads me to a little building stuffed with books. As a dedicated bibliophile I’ve been to some of the great libraries of the world and looked through many rare illuminated manuscripts, but I was very impressed with what I saw on this peaceful little island. The level of artistry in the books is equal to any of the great works of medieval France or Italy, yet completely different in style. The librarian opens up book after book of sturdy goatskin, showing me richly colored paintings of Bible scenes. Each of the Gospels has its own book, and there’s a hefty New and Old Testament that weighs in at 17 kilos (38 pounds)! Also in the library are a selection of icons. When a monk goes off on his own to pray in solitude for a few days, the abbot gives him a book to read and an icon to meditate on. Thus the monks get some fine art to admire and think about while they are cut off from the rest of humanity.

Lake Tana has several other monasteries and churches other than the ones I mention here. Some take an entire day trip by boat to visit. Someone seriously interested in seeing them all would need about a week to do it properly. Hopefully some day I’ll go back and write about them all here.

Next stop: Gondar–Ethiopia’s Camelot!

You can read the rest of the Ethiopia series here.

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony

We’ve all heard of the Japanese tea ceremony, but in Ethiopia they have an elaborate ceremony for that other great caffeinated beverage–coffee.

The Ethiopians discovered coffee, surely the greatest of their many cultural achievements, so it’s not surprising they developed a ritual around it.

It was my wife’s birthday last week so I took her to Madrid’s one and only Ethiopian restaurant, Mesob Restaurante Etíope on Calle Manuela Malasaña. Madrileños will know that Malasaña is one of the best barrios in town for eating out, and I’m happy to say this outpost of East African culture is holding its own against some tough competition.

We arrived at the restaurant to find the settings laid out on a mat in front of our table. A portable stove, some handmade pitchers, and an incense burner were the main items. Our hostess sat on a wooden, three-legged stool and filled a small pot with unroasted coffee beans. She fired up the stove and started roasting them over the open flame.

As she shook the pot back and forth to turn the beans, she explained that the coffee ceremony is one of the cornerstones of social life in Ethiopia. Women go from house to house to see friends and end up attending four or five coffee ceremonies a day. She was also kind enough to teach me some Amharic and not smile too much at my bad pronunciation.

The beans were beginning to roast now and occasionally she took the pot off the flames and wafted the steam under our noses. Heaven! To keep us from going crazy waiting for the coffee she brought out some fatiira, which is sort of like a crepe made with honey. It’s a common dish for breakfast or at a coffee ceremony. As we munched she finished roasting the beans and lit an incense burner, which she passed close to our faces so we could get a good whiff. Then she ground up the beans and put them in a ceramic pitcher called a javena.

The javena went onto the stove and she poured some hot water into it. Not too much, mind you, because Ethiopian coffee is best served strong. We each got a nice cup and our hostess went back to making another javena of coffee. It’s interesting that only just enough is made at a time for each person to get a small cup. That way none goes to waste. You can, of course, just keep filling the javena if you want more coffee. We each had three cups but I’m sure the workers who carved all those churches at Lalibela out of sold rock probably drank more!

The whole ceremony took about an hour. I found it very relaxing, with the smell of the roasting beans and incense filling the air, and the soft rattle of the beans as they were shaken in the pot. The coffee was great, of course, but the best part was chatting with our hostess about life in Ethiopia and learning some Amharic in preparation for our trip in February. I’ll be interested to see if the coffee ceremonies are any different in the various regions of Ethiopia.

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In the Heart of Central America: Cowboys and coffee in Copan, Honduras

Located in the northwest of Honduras, just a few miles from the Guatemalan border, the area known as Copan has a landscape of lush green rolling hills, coffee plantations and cattle ranches. This is pure cowboy country. In Copan Ruins, horses clip-clop softy over the stone streets and the jangle of spurs can be heard as men in boots, jeans and cowboy hats wander through town. A few miles away, cowboy Carlos Castejon warmly welcomes guests to his family’s coffee, cardamom, and cattle ranch to learn about the farm’s production.

Finca el Cisne has been owned Carlos’ family since 1885. What started as a simple farm growing Arabica coffee, corn, and beans, has grown to encompass 800 hectares (40% of which is primary forest). Visitors to the Finca will drive for nearly twenty minutes from the start of the family’s land to the main house, passing by the dwellings of Carlos’ employees who live on the land. In 2002 Carlos decided to expand the farm’s operations to include agritourism. With a subtle, quick wit, a penchant for teasing his guests (in a good-natured way) while providing an interesting and informative experience, and a clear passion for his home country, Carlos is the perfect host.

While in Honduras, I was able to spend a day at the Finca, which starts with a stop at Carlos’ rustic guesthouse. Equipped with five rooms, running water and electricity, the guesthouse is very basic but inviting. Guests who chose to come just for the day will arrive at 8am and depart at 6pm. With transportation from town the outing costs $64 per person. Once you arrive at the Finca, you’ll get to sample some of Carlos’ coffee and a light breakfast prepared from ingredients grown on the farm, such as mashed banana stuffed with beans and served with cheese, an unusual combination that was actually delicious.

From there Carlos took my group on a tour, stopping to point out the many fruits grown on the property, including passion-fruit, mango, mandarin, avocado, banana, plantain, breadfruit, starfruit, lime and grapefruit. Along the way, he’d reach for a fruit, sliver off a piece with his knife, and pass out samples.

Then we were off to the coffee mill to learn about how coffee is produced from start to finish. First Carlos showed us the fruit, which blooms in stages from January to April and begins ripening in December. When the fruit turns red, it is handpicked and the beans are extracted from the fruit (which is used for compost) by machine. The beans are fermented, washed, and then cycled through a series of troughs that allow the low-quality beans to run off and the higher quality (heavier) beans to remain until they are pushed through.

The beans are then spread on the ground to sun dry (and then often moved to a drum to machine dry) and the finished green beans are extracted from their shells. The majority of the beans will be exported while they are still green and then roasted to the taste of their destination country.

While all of this was fascinating for me (and the smell of the coffee was making me rethink my aversion to caffeine), I was anxious to get to the next part….the horseback riding. So Carlos led us over to a small pasture where several horses were saddled and waiting. As the most experienced in the group, I was given the horse Carlos normally rides, while he rode a younger horse that he was training.

With Carlos and another guide we set out to explore the property. Again Carlos would stop, point out the many fruits and edible flowers growing around us, and offer up tasty samples. We walked and trotted our way along a dirt road and then entered a field where Carlos gave us the go-ahead to pick up a little speed. I leaned forward, gave my horse some free rein, and we were off, galloping through the brush and up a hill. After an exhilarating ride to the top, my horse simply stopped and waited for the rest of the group to catch up.

For another hour we explored the property, taking in the views of the rolling green valley below, passing cows and horses grazing in the fields, and again and again taking off at a breathtaking but controlled gallop through the countryside. I can honestly say it was the single best horseback riding experience I have ever had while traveling. All too soon it was time to head back to the house for lunch.

We wandered around the main house gawking at photos of Carlo’s ancestors with jaguars they shot on the property to keep them from eating the cattle. We sat down to a lunch of traditional Honduran food (the menu for which changes based on seasonal availability). We started with coffee (of course), fresh orange juice, and a bean soup with fresh-made corn tortillas and cheese. Then heaping plates of food were served family-style, including potatoes, watercress salad, braised beef, and more beans, tortillas, and fresh cheese. A sweet plantain in a syrup of cardamom from the farm was served for dessert. To complete the day, and to help soothe any sore muscles from the ride, Carlos takes guests to the local hot springs for a relaxing soak.

There are other coffee tours in Copan, and I had the opportunity to do another one during my time in the region. But this one was the best. The tour was informative and, thanks to Carlos’ humor and passion, very entertaining. Lunch was delicious, the property was beautiful, and I think there is no better way to see this area of cowboys and coffee plantations than on the back of a horse.

This trip was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but the views express are entirely my own.

You can read other posts from my series on Honduras here.