Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu — the pioneering and enterprising creator of the SoleRebels footwear brand — believes the future of a truly sustainable specialty coffee market can be found in coffee’s birthplace, her native Ethiopia.
After more than a decade of building SoleRebels into a global footwear and leather goods brand that combines traditional Ethiopian craftsmanship and materials with fresh new designs while also paying top dollar throughout the supply chain, Alemu late last year launched an equally ambitious coffee venture called Garden of Coffee.
The company has just opened its first branded roastery café in the Bole area of Addis Ababa, occupying approximately 10,000 square feet that serve as something of an immersive shrine to Ethiopian coffee culture and craft. Alemu described the facility as far more than merely a new retail storefront; her company’s goal is to completely redefine the seed-to-cup coffee journey by promoting what she calls “Origin Trade.”
“It goes way beyond commodity pricing , Fair Trade or direct trade. It’s a total realignment of the value chain,” Alemu told Daily Coffee News. “If ever there was a category ripe for a radical realignment and, yes, disruption, the coffee market is it. Does it make sense for Ethiopia, the producer and in fact the originator of the finest, most legendary Arabicas on the planet, to ship our magical raw green beans thousands of miles for roasting when we can produce the absolute finest roasts right here using our own talented roasting artisans? We think everyone would agree it does not.”
Alemu said Garden of Coffee plans to open similar roastery cafés in two major markets in the United States within the next four to six months before “growing from there.” She also said the company plans to open in Germany, China, Japan, the U.K. and Australia. Growing the Ethiopian-owned brand featuring Ethiopian products that are carried through the production chain entirely by Ethiopians to such a scale is unprecedented in other origin countries in the coffee sector, Alemu contends.
Said Alemu, “Other coffee companies source coffee globally, import it and roast according to their own interpretations. They are disconnected from the coffee origins in significant ways.”
At the Addis roastery café, opened two weeks ago, customers have the ability to choose coffees roasted to order on site and on demand by skilled workers using the traditional Ethiopian pan-roasting method. Consumers choose between three bag sizes, for which roasters in the shop adjust their pan sizes — 250-gram, 500-gram and 1-kilo-capacity — to suit each individual order. A wide selection of green coffees from a range of prominent Ethiopian coffee regions is available, and customers can try sample roasts before specifying one of six predefined roast levels.
“We believe that our business model and our methodologies are the ultimate interplay between tradition and technology,” Alemu said. “We deploy technology to allow our artisan roasters to hand roast while precisely measuring heat, barometric pressure, humidity, allowing them to adjust for natural acidity and specific characteristics of the beans. We meticulously monitor the temperature of the roasting beans and the ambient environment to ensure consistency in every coffee we deliver.”
At the café bar, customers can order from a vast range of already roasted coffees, with each cup served showing the specific region within which the coffee was grown. Signage within the café celebrates and highlights individual coffee varietals and growing regions.
For each region, we have developed specific graphics and iconography that reflect the origin,” said Alemu. “For example, for Harrar, the icon is a multicolored woven basket that Harrar is famed for. For Wolega, Sidama, Jimma and Yirgacheffe, we use tapestry icons that pay homage to the hand-woven fabric traditions of these regions using the traditional colors that region uses.”
Each packaged bag from Garden of Coffee, meanwhile, includes a map showing where the coffee was grown, processing method, coffee varietal, roast level, roast date, the name of the coffee roaster, and, for to-order roasts, the name of the recipient.
All these elements, Alemu said, are designed to promote a more exciting, hands-on and authentic Ethiopian coffee experience that she believes will resonate with consumers across the globe.
“Garden of Coffee is about allowing coffee lovers to live coffee,” she said. “In Ethiopia, we don’t just grow coffee. We live coffee each and every day. It’s embedded in the DNA of our daily life. Coffee personifies Ethiopia and we in turn personify it. We want to showcase and share that magic with people everywhere on the planet.”