Coffee's East African roots are celebrated at Black-owned coffee shops America owes its favorite beverage to East Africa, says a Memphis coffee shop owner whose trip to Ethiopia transformed his understanding of the beverage.

East Africa is responsible for America's favorite morning brew

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Where does your coffee come from? The flavor may tell you a story, and the coffee shop may tell you another. Simran Sethi reports.

SIMRAN SETHI, BYLINE: For most Americans, coffee starts at Starbucks with a caffeine jolt from a tall, dark roast or frothy frappe. But what woke up entrepreneur Bartholomew Jones was a simple pour-over that changed how he understood coffee.

BARTHOLOMEW JONES: It tasted like a strawberry-flavored latte, and I said, hey, I didn't want any flavoring in here. What did you guys do? And they said, no, that's just the coffee. I was like, what? They're like, yeah, this Burundi coffee has, like, a really heavy strawberry note. And that led me down this journey of wanting to figure out what would other coffee tastes like if they were treated with the care that something Black deserves?

SETHI: That reference to something Black was part of his transformation. From that initial Burundian brew, Jones learned that coffee originated in Africa, specifically Ethiopia and South Sudan, and then he started to notice another blind spot in cafes and what they symbolize when they move into neighborhoods like his.

JONES: They're like four horsemen of the gentrification apocalypse. You have, like, craft breweries, small ladies walking tinier dogs, a Whole Foods and a coffee shop.

SETHI: So he and his wife, Renata Henderson, decided to create an alternative, a North Memphis coffee business called Cxffeeblack, where African coffee and African American culture are front and center.

JONES: As you walk in, you'll smell coffee brewing. You'll see people hanging out playing spades. You might see some local rappers making beats or kicking a freestyle in the corner with some of the homies.

SETHI: And you'll hear Jones himself - like in this Juneteenth virtual block party featured on YouTube.


JONES: (Rapping) Coffee stay Black just like me - don't need no sugar, don't no cream. Coffee stay Black just like me.

SETHI: Those rhymes are straight from his coffeehouse, a place where...

JONES: You'll see the coffee that my wife roasts every other day. You'll see pictures up from our trip to Ethiopia.

SETHI: Ethiopia, the country where coffee originated and the culture of preparation and connecting through coffee began...


SETHI: ...Through the coffee ceremony you're hearing now. It's a ritual that's still practiced in Ethiopia and by Ethiopian immigrants the world over, including in Washington, D.C. That's where, for the last 16 years, the owner of Sidamo Coffee and Tea, Kenfe Bellay, has been giving customers a taste of his home - small pours of coffee shared three times, served alongside aromatic frankincense, and instead of sugar...

KENFE BELLAY: There is a spiced butter, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and so on.

SETHI: And what's also an essential part of the ceremony?

BELLAY: They will take time to enjoy their coffee.

SETHI: Time, as opposed to the grab-and-go coffee culture we prioritize here in the United States. It's that sense of communion that precedes the coffee culture forged in Europe that led Bartholomew Jones to see the beverage as his birthright when he visited Ethiopia for the first time.

JONES: The experience really confirmed everything I knew about how Black coffee was in its origin and how Black it could be in the future. And even though so much of our past has been taken from us, like, coffee represents a way to connect through that oppression and not just as something where you have to leave your culture at the door.

SETHI: No matter who you are or how you take your coffee, it's Black.

For NPR News, I'm Simran Sethi.


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