By Bruce Milletto

The filming of The Passionate Harvest was completed in December 1999 as our small crew spent over two weeks in Ethiopia—the birthplace of coffee. Our warmest thanks go to Judy Barral of the Ethiopian Highland Coffee Company, MIDROCK Ethiopia, Allegro Coffee/Whole Foods Markets, Kevin Knox, Yehasab Aschalew—our coffee and botanical expert—and, finally, Teshome Selamu, senior marketing, information and PR director for the Ethiopian Coffee & Tea Authority. He was also our guide, confidante and cameraman.

How do I begin to describe one of the most amazing journeys I have ever taken? How is it possible to articulate the feelings, thoughts and enlightenment I gained from traveling in a country like Ethiopia? When I arrived here I immediately feel my life would never be the same again. I have traveled much of the world, but for a thousand reasons Africa is dramatically different, and for lack of a better word, more spellbinding than anywhere else I've been. Spending time there promised to answer a hundred questions I have always asked about myself, life and people, yet it promised to pose another thousand.

Ethiopia is the land of the legendary Kaldi, the goat herder who noticed his goats acting unusually animated after eating the wild red berries we now call coffee. For this reason alone, it is remarkable for professionals to take a journey to this coffee mecca. But this fact is merely the frosting on the cake. The people, history, landscape, climate, wildlife, culture—the country itself—are the true rewards.

The Coffee Ceremony
Ethiopians take much pride in their culture, and, unlike many of their neighbors and most African nations, Ethiopia has resisted change. Ethiopians have shown a limited desire to adopt Western ways, and outside influences have yet to dramatically influence their traditional culture.

Among the many inherited customs is the Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, an event that makes the country unique among producing nations. Ethiopians show an appreciation for coffee that is almost god-like in its tribute. Their homage to the beverage is sometimes ornate, but always overtly ceremonial.

The ritual begins by spreading a bed of straw and then strewing fresh, colorful flowers on top. Amidst this confusion is the centerpiece—the traditional black Ethiopian earthenware coffeepot—which is filled with water and placed on top of hot coals.

Nearby sits what looks like a hibachi grill, also filled with hot wood coals. A large, open wok-shaped pan rests on top, and inside the pan green coffee beans roast slowly. One person—usually a woman—conducts the cooking and the ceremony. Normally, she has a few assistants who fetch water at the proper time and fan the coals to keep them hot. She stirs the green coffee beans constantly so as not to burn them. Upon closer inspection, however, many are over-roasted and some under-roasted.

The water reaches the appropriate temperature at about the same time the beans finish cooking. The woman then dumps the hot beans into a hollow stump and uses a crude, mallet-shaped mortar with a long handle to crush them. Specialty coffee professionals know the importance of a consistent grind in the preparation of coffee. The archaic method used by Ethiopians, however, results in a grind that can be called anything but even.

Finally, the woman dumps the coffee through the small opening at the top of the coffee vessel and allows it to steep. After only a few minutes, an assistant arrives with a tray of small, demi-size cups, and the conductor of the ceremony pours and serves the coffee to the family and friends who have waited and watched the procedure for the past half-hour. They consume the beverage quickly. Smiles and slurping generally accompany kudos about both taste and flavor.

At the first of the many coffee ceremonies I attended, I remember thinking, "How is it possible, with what we know about the importance of precise and even roasting and consistent and proper grinding, that a process of brewing similar to the one used to make cowboy coffee could result in a palatable beverage? Impossible... the coffee experts say. I would have agreed until I tasted Ethiopian coffee. A true and undeniable testimony to the quality of this coffee is in the cup produced at this ceremony... one of the best cups of coffee I have ever tasted.

Small is Beautiful
Most coffee in Ethiopia is grown by farmers and individuals who care for their coffee like my Italian father babied his tomato plants. There are no mega-zillion hectare farms or complex growing procedures. The growers' love of the land and their love for the product results in a crop, that is, in my opinion, unsurpassed in flavor and exuberance.

As our crew was filming the harvest on a small quarter-acre plot, one landowner told us we must stop filming for the day. We all wondered why—there looked to be many more ripe, red cherries waiting to be picked. But this farmer knew his coffee well, and he felt that every cherry that was ready had already been harvested. He would not allow our film project to continue for the sake of art... his coffee took precedence.

More than 90 percent of all Ethiopian coffee is grown in the forest, in semi-forest conditions or in gardens. A few corporate farms exist, but they can hardly be considered large from a worldwide coffee perspective.

Garden coffee is grown in the vicinity of the farmer's residence and is usually interspersed with other crops, such as bananas or vegetables. The coffee is generally fertilized with composted organic waste from the household.

Forest coffee is found in southwestern Ethiopia, which is where arabica coffee originated. Forest coffee is self-sown and grown under the full coverage of a natural forest canopy. It is widely diverse in selection and highly resistant to disease.

For semi-forest, farmers acquire forestland and thin the trees to obtain the correct balance between sunlight and shade.

Plantation coffee farms are usually owned by the state, but occasionally by individuals. Some of these farms have become models for small growers, as many are quite well managed. The production here is closer to moderately sized estates in other producing countries, where coffee plants are properly spaced and pruned and farmers apply chemical fertilizer. Overall, however, less than five percent of Ethiopia's farmers currently use chemical fertilizers or herbicides.

Filming Adventures
No coffee region we visited from Addis Ababa–Ethiopia's capital and our home base–was an easy journey. We took numerous three- to five-day treks to famous coffee-growing areas, such as Yirgacheffe and Jimma. The worst road in the United States would be a super highway in Ethiopia.

One striking fact about Ethiopian travel is that the roads are completely covered with people and animals. Our two Land Rovers barely missed hitting thousands upon thousands of cows, donkeys, goats, sheep and horses. I held my breath–and at times curled my toes–as we almost ran over someone or something.

Our treks were never easy, but ease does not usually equate with quality, substance or adventure. We had a brush with a family of a dozen 3000-pound hippos (Africa's most dangerous animal), which passed within a few feet of us by a river. We witnessed monkeys jumping out of trees onto our cameras. We all experienced food-related illness; I spent almost two days in bed with mine.

Each of our journeys was an adventure in and of itself, marked with myriad unforgettable experiences and surprises. Planning was sometimes difficult because of the many outside factors that affected each excursion. Even though conditions in Ethiopia can be rough, there is much to reward the traveler. I advise anyone traveling in this country to enjoy the beauty of the simple. If you are traveling as a photojournalist, keep you camera on and ready at all times. And, finally, if you are traveling as a coffee lover, appreciate the beverage slowly—it is the best this plant called coffee has to offer.

I will always remember the many small but unforgettable experiences that recount the richness of this country and our journey. One day, as we walked down the street of Yirgacheffe, my fellow film crew member Robert asked," Bruce, have you looked behind us?" As I turned around, I was astonished to see at least 50 people, mostly smiling children, following us. What would happen, I thought, if an elephant were to walk through the streets of Portland or Los Angeles? People would rush from their homes and follow in amazement, watching every detail and every action. So often in Ethiopia, we were that elephant.

Everywhere we went—sometimes to places that seemed like they were in the middle of nowhere—a crowd of people would surround us who wanted nothing more than our attention or our return smiles. Everywhere I looked I saw happiness and wonderment. Here lies the paradox of Ethiopia: a country by our standards so poor in the material, yet so rich in an attitude of the heart. Ethiopia taught me how to give and receive friendship without subsequent or expected reciprocation, and that is what will forever be etched in my memory.

Note: The Passionate Harvest, a film by Kenneth Davids and Bruce Milletto, produced and distributed by Bellissimo Coffee InfoGroup, will be available soon in NTSC and PAL formats. The video will retail for $79.95. To order or for more information, call Bellissimo @ 800-655-3955 or visit

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