By JEFF KOEHLER
In 2015, I published a book about the world’s finest tea. Darjeeling tells the story of a plant that was smuggled out of one place and planted in another, where it found its perfect home—in this case, from China to the eastern Indian Himalayas. It is the story of why it was taken there, how it got there, why it did so well, the culture that grew up around it, and the problems that it is facing today.
While writing Darjeeling, I thought a lot about origins, about certain crops in their original home versus an adopted one. The plant that particularly captured my attention was Arabica coffee, whose center of origin and diversity is the montane forests of Ethiopia.
Today, the natural range of wild coffee is restricted to the cool, forested highlands, predominately in the southwest of the country. These isolated forests a few hundred miles from Addis Ababa are a mosaic of deep valleys, dense woodlands, and hamlets of subsistence farmers. Locals forage for coffee in the wild and cultivate it in their gardens. They buy it, sell it, hoard it until prices go up, and, in the meantime, drink numerous cups of it a day.
This place is not only the home of coffee — it is also the original coffee culture.
Historians generally credit Arabs, Turks, or Sufi monks with developing and refining the brewing process, or even inventing it. Yet those living around the forests where coffee grew wild undoubtedly were the first to prepare it. They utilized everything in the forests, including the bright red fruits with two energy-giving seeds inside.
Initially, I thought it would be fascinating to do a book about the forests and culture of this coffee Eden, namely focused on the area of Kafa.
But the more I learned about the problems that cultivated Arabica is currently facing, especially in Latin America—in part due to its incredible lack of genetic diversity—the more I realized how connected the past of coffee was to its future.
One of the unique keys to help Arabica cope with climate change and diseases, and even finding valuable new traits like naturally decaffeinated coffee, is back in those coffee forests where genetic diversity is greatest. These forests are important natural gene banks—but they are endangered by climate change and deforestation.
That story made for a very different book, one that was more complex—and more interesting. It also gave me the three-part structure for the book: In the Forest, Out of the Forest, and Back to the Forest.
But if I found the structure quite early, the ending took much longer.
I had met one of the region’s most important spiritual leaders on a previous trip to Kafa, and returned to spend more time with him on my final visit. The gepetato—literally “king of the hill”— taught me about Kafa’s important traditional religious practices, where the elemental spirits live in the undisturbed parts of the forest. Such beliefs require the presence of dense woods for the spirits to dwell. It is a form of eco-theology: forests were not cut, and the deepest parts could not even be entered. Listening to the gepetato, I began to see that this spiritual element might ultimately help save the invaluable collection of genetic diversity within the cloud forests.
Among the groves of wild Arabica, coffee has never been simply a drink, and, after all of these years, its mystique hasn’t vanished. The gepetato, like many other people, leads sacrifices during the ripen phases and before the harvest, leaving offerings in the forest for the spirits.
Even making coffee itself is sacred: “Preparing coffee is a like a form of praying,” he told me. He tips a bit by the door frame as a small offering to Showe Kollo, the spirit of the land. It is a libation in the purest sense.
As I worked on the book, I saw that coffee hasn’t lost its mystique elsewhere around the globe either. For many—even most—of those who cannot pass the day with a cup or two or three, coffee retains its romance, allure, and magic.
Jeff Koehler is the author of the award-winning non-fiction book Darjeeling. His newest book, Where the Wild Coffee Grows, is available for purchase in the SCA Store in Amsterdam.