MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In recent years, a specialty class of coffee has emerged, taking inspiration from the world of wine. These coffees aren't just blends from a general area like Kenya or Guatemala, but single-origin roasts. They boast the unique flavors and aromas of a specific farm or mountaintop.
Coffee aficionados pay top dollar for this, and professional coffee prospectors travel far and wide to discover the next champion bean. As NPR's Gregory Warner explains, from the farmer's perspective, it takes more than just luck to become that next discovery.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Coffee lovers will go to some extreme lengths these days.
TOM OWEN: So I'm here in Papua, New Guinea, trying to find the real, original Blue Mountain coffee.
WARNER: You might have seen one of those homemade coffee-adventure videos.
OWEN: This is what you have to do to find a good coffee. Can't sit in an office, call up an importer. You've got to do the real work.
WARNER: This is actually a parody filmed by Tom Owen, who really does travel the globe buying coffee for the specialty supplier Sweet Maria's. But his parody captures the narrative of this kind of journey to the source, known as direct trade. It's almost always told as a Marco Polo story.
OWEN: Oh, it's tough.
WARNER: But to the farmers who hope to be that next discovery, the emergence of this new coffee aristocracy is less Marco Polo, more of a Cinderella challenge - how to get your coffee bean to the ball.
(SOUNDBITE OF THUMPS)
WARNER: The yellowed highlands around the city of Jimma, in Ethiopia, are where coffee was discovered in the eighth century. But by the end of the 20th century, its reputation had become as shaky as a car ride on its mountain roads.
Carl Cervone, a coffee agronomist for the New York-based NGO TechnoServe, says most of the coffee here is labeled disparagingly as Jimma 5 because it's got all five major defects that come from poor farming. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: TechnoServe is based in Washington, D.C.]
CARL CERVONE: The types of defects that you have include overripe beans, which are called foxies; under-ripe beans, which will be called quakers.
WARNER: There's also cracked beans, and beans chewed by insects and...
CERVONE: The worst of them all, which is called a stinker, which means that you've left a bean fermenting for much longer than it should, and it becomes rotten. And it's basically like putting a rotten egg in an omelet. It kind of ruins the entire cup.
WARNER: Jimma 5 was so bad, it became the name for bad.
CERVONE: Exactly. It was the trade term for bad coffee from Ethiopia.
WARNER: And yet, ask one of the farmers here, like Haleuya Habagaro; she'll tell you her coffee isn't just not bad, it's exquisite.
HALEUYA HABAGARO: (Through translator) When I roast the coffee, people come to ask where that strong, fruity smell is coming from. It's like when you hold an orange.
WARNER: So how did her citrus-y coffee get such a sludge-y reputation, commanding even lower prices than the Jimma 5 baseline? She blames the local buyers. See, her farm is on the wrong side of a river that swells dangerously by the end of the rainy season, when coffee is ready for harvest. Farmers were too poor to build a real bridge. So once they got their mules and their sacks of beans across those waters, they were loathe to turn back home. Haleuya's neighbor, Sintayehu Abasimel, says local traders would lure them across with phony prices.
SINTAYEHU ABASIMEL: In the morning, they announce that, please pick your coffee; the price will - it goes up, so pick your coffee. They announce in the morning. But late in the afternoon, no, the coffee price down.
WARNER: Now, he would have been happy to find other buyers, but his farm was too remote. And to even be considered by one of the elite roasting companies, his beans, like Cinderella, quite literally needed a bath.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)
WARNER: See, farmers here have been harvesting coffee the same way for a thousand years. The coffee fruit is picked, and it's dried. That's fine for Folgers. But if you want to sell to a fancy brand - like Stumptown or Sweet Maria's - you have to first wash off the pulpy fruit; leave only the pit - that is, the coffee bean - on the drying rack. And to do this, you need to buy a rather expensive washing machine.
And so 113 farmers on the wrong side of the river - that is, some of the worst-paid farmers in the land of bad coffee - formed a cooperative. They called it Duromina, which roughly translates to "make us rich." And they secured a loan with the help of the NGO TechnoServe, which also provided training. When the coffee prospectors from America arrived, the farmers were ready.
(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE VIDEO)
WARNER: Now, this encounter - captured on video by a farmer's cellphone - is sort of the mirror image of all those coffee discovery videos on the Internet. You see the destination of the journey but this time, from the farmers' perspective, not the explorers'.
Both have traveled the long distance, only from different directions. On the video, you can see dozens of farmers from the collective encircling two white guys; one of them, actually, Tom Owen, the Sweet Maria's buyer. Then the visitors, to everybody's surprise, use a gadget plugged into their pickup truck's cigarette lighter to roast the beans; and then brew several cups of espresso, right there on the muddy main street.
There's a lot of nervous laughter from the farmers. This is the moment of truth. And then the next part is hard to hear, but Tom Owen says, that's good coffee.
OWEN: That's a good coffee.
WARNER: Clean, sweet.
ABASIMEL: Clean? Sweet?
WARNER: The next year, the name Duromina was on the label of one of Stumptown's top-selling, single-origin roasts; boasting complex notes of jasmine sweet hops and nectarine. With the infusion of new income and some help from the government, the village repaired the roads, brought in electricity, and built a bridge over that river that kept them in poverty for so long - a bridge that now, of course, takes their beans right past the city of Jimma, straight through to Seattle.
Gregory Warner, NPR News.