A long way to go for a cup of coffee

I felt myself falling off the side of Mt. Elgon in Uganda, my foot and arm lovingly, firmly, desperately wrapped around the roll bar of a Toyota Tacoma, gravity winning, a good burn in my core as the sun’s last rays disappeared, leaving the valley below in darkness.

The truck lurched forward over a rock, returning us more or less to even, while the steep dropoff to my right remained, though at less noticeable in the fast-encroaching night.

With the truck’s cabin full, the other five of us hung on in the truck’s bed. Somewhere on this mountain was coffee, we were told, and though we had arrived late, and though the truck we had been using couldn’t make it up this unforgiving mountain, necessitating a last-minute switch and a seemingly too-crowded Toyota, we were going to find that coffee.

That coffee was a plantation of Arabica coffee that grows at higher altitudes than its family member, Robusta, and is used for specialty coffee. The coffee from the mountain was I falling off and the surrounding area had been judged by a number of coffee experts to be the third-best in the world. And we were going to hold on for dear life to find it.

Then, we stopped. We jumped over the side and looked to where the truck’s head beams were illuminating. There, in what felt like the dead of night, shone bright, red cherries.

That evening, as we prepared to spend the night in a hotel that was open but not open for business, in a hotel that opted for purple light instead of white, I was handed a bag of green coffee beans from the plantation we had just got back from visiting. These fully processed beans are one step away from being drinkable. They transport better this way and will keep longer. 

I don’t know that much about coffee, I tell them. They are the farmer’s sons, the ones running the Mount Elgon Coffee and Honey Co-operative. The farmer, who is also a radiologist, is like a lot of Ugandans. Something else, and a farmer.

I know more about coffee now than I did when, years ago with my one-time business partner, we pitched each other coffee-themed business ideas. Though we finally settled on trying to launch a Los Angeles-themed greeting card company in 24 hours, the coffee shops we frequented inspired a number of fun ideas (how hard could it be to make energy bars from coffee?).

But when I think about coffee, tasting and roasting it, importing and selling it, I feel like there’s still so much I don’t know.

Especially roasting. I just know that the more freshly roasted a coffee is, the better it tastes.

So what was I going to do with a bag of unroasted beans?

The only thing that came to mind in the moment: since I would soon be in Pennsylvania, I offered to take the beans with me to the one coffee roaster I knew of in Philadelphia.

Did they have an importer in the United States, I asked. They shook their heads. 

I also don’t know that much about coffee importing. All I know is that I had the space enough to import this single bag of coffee.

We got off the train in Philadelphia a month later. 

It was tempting to stay on the train. After all, the train we were on was going where we needed to go. We would be on a bus later to New York, but this train was going straight through. The idea of Philadelphia had seemed so convenient when I was a continent and an ocean away. Now with bags of luggage and temperatures in the low 30s, it seemed less convenient.

Fifteen chilly minutes later, we opened the door to this coffee shop, the one I used to have a coffee subscription from when I lived in Los Angeles, the one a brother’s friend helped establish, and I handed over the packet of beans to the baristas.

We sat down for a cup of coffee while we waited to go find the bus terminal. Not coffee from the beans I brought, but coffee that had also traveled a distance, too. This is maybe too far to come for a cup of coffee, I thought. But it’s very good.

Across from us was a wall of Vibrant’s coffees.

Coffees from Ethiopia. Peru. Kenya. Guatemala. Nicaragua.

And now, in the back of the shop, coffee from Uganda.

Who knows what happens from here. We’re still waiting to hear back from the roaster about the quality. If anything, we’ll get feedback I can share with the farmers. If anything, they’ll get something they can use to get a little bit better, so the next batch, the next year, the next time they get a chance to import a batch of coffee, even if it’s just in someone’s carry-on luggage, that coffee has the chance to be good enough to find its way onto a shelf with bags from Ethiopia, Peru, Kenya, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

It’s easy to have seen the start of this journey. It’s less clear where it goes. The journey for the bag of coffee is finished, but if it starts a relationship, if this process encourages an improved practice, if it inspires further investment of time and energy, the journey’s just starting.

Soon after, our coffees finished, we get in a car and go to the bus station and get on the bus. The Philadelphia destination that had been the point of that stop was now just another part of our own journey.

Later on in the bus, we found ourselves stuck in traffic to New York. I wondered for a moment if it wouldn’t all have been easier to have just stayed on that train and gone straight through without stopping. Had it been worth the effort just to drop off a bag of unroasted coffee?

After having followed through on a promise to deliver the coffee from the hands of the farmers from a mountain in Uganda to the baristas for a roaster in a city in the US, I’m reminded that there’s still plenty I don’t know that much about coffee.

But I know more about coffee than I did.

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