Harar has always held a special place in my heart. One of the very first coffee trips I ever took involved meeting The Man in Harar, Mohamed Abdullahi Ogsadey, quite literally a Somali King with four wives and nearly 50 children. I was seven. For years, Royal Coffee was the exclusive carrier of the world renowned Harar Horse mark, the result of a serendipitous connection over Telex Machine in the 1980’s between my father, Bob, and Mr. Ogsadey. Whenever anyone says “blueberries” at a cupping table, my mind immediately returns to the heady Moka-Harar flavors of the mid 1990’s. I can still recall driving into dusty villages in East Harar as a teenager with Mr. Ogsadey, with literally the entire community coming out to see him and pay respect, the children chanting his name. Hell, I even have a poem tattooed on my back written by the first European to ever set foot inside the walls of the Old City of Harar, Sir Richard Burton, who traveled there disguised as an Arab trader in 1854.
148 years later, as a Senior in High School, I traveled along with Rashid Abdullahi, Mr. Ogsadey’s nephew and right-hand man, to visit a site in East Harar called Masira, where MAO had initiated a raised-bed drying protocol. At this time, most Ethiopian naturals were still dried in thick layers on cement patios, even in Yirgacheffe. In Harar, the standard was (and still is, in most places) to simply dry the cherries directly on the dirt between the coffee trees. This project was very exciting. As good as Harar Horse had always been, it was poised to be even better. But by 2006, the year I graduated college and started working at Royal full-time, Mr. Ogsadey had passed away (of a heart attack while driving himself, where else, through East Harar) and the coffee trade was about to have a bomb dropped on it in the form of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. The long and short of the ECX was that it greatly improved price transparency and has led to higher cherry prices for farmers, particularly over the past few seasons, but all at the expense of traceability. The ECX made it technically illegal for an exporter to be both involved at the farm or mill level and involved in the exporting of coffee. Abdullah Bagersh’s famous Misty Valley mill (now called Aricha), had to be sold. Countless ground-level projects, including MAO’s raised bed initiatives, were essentially scrapped as exporter involvement and crucial funding dried up.
Royal Coffee has continued to buy Harar, from Rashid Abdullahi, under the mark of Queen City. In reality, this coffee has been only a faint echo of past glories, with quality dependent on what Rashid could buy in the ECX auction. His frustration at knowing East Harar like the back of his hand, but not being able to access the top producing communities over the past-decade has been palpable. In truth, the only coffees we’ve been able to buy from Ethiopia with any semblance of traceability below the high-level regional distinctions of Yirgacheffe, Sidama, etc have had to come through the quasi-governmental Cooperative Unions, or been the result of cloak and dagger tactics by certain less-than-entirely-above-board exporters willing to “shepherd” the coffee through the ECX warehouses. I made my peace with it long ago on the justification that higher cherry prices for farmers and better quality for roasters more than offset any moral or legal qualms.
Fortunately, this year new rules are in place opening the door once again to direct sales by mills to foreign buyers, and greatly loosening the restrictions on exporter involvement at the ground level. It only took ten years, but the ECX seems to have finally gotten it right. As a result of this opening, Rashid is once again on the ground in East Harar with a new raised-bed project called Nafisifi. We cupped it yesterday and were struck by the Ripe Blueberry and Concord Grape flavors we encountered. Somewhere, Mr. Ogsadey is smiling down enjoying a giant steaming plate of Goden Kibe Mitmita (spicy ribs). Our Nafisifi container will hit the water next month. (Editor’s note: the coffee is arrived, and can be found online in this link!) Look out for an interview with Rashid and more information on the project in the coming weeks.
In Oakland CA, my home town, there’s a bar with a Harar Horse bag proudly displayed high up on the walls. I swear I didn’t put it there, but it gives me goosebumps each time I look up at it. Of all the hundreds of thousands of unique coffee bags in the world, they chose that one?!?! I have a bag of Nafisifi set aside as a prize for the first person to correctly identify the bar and bag location.
In my 10 plus years roasting coffee, the Harar Horse is hands down my most memorable for myself, my husband and my customers.
Everything about it was unique. From the hand sewn bag to the little courtesy card tucked among the gorgeous beans. I knew I had something special before me.
I respect all the coffees I roast but there was something different about the Horse. I started to develop a relationship with it similar to a family member. The energy felt paternal. It reminded me of my late Father, something I could never find explanation for. Then I found out about Ogsadey and it all made sense. His presence spread far beyond the borders of Ethiopia.
(The three items I cherish above all else in the roast house is the first Harar Horse jute bag, the little courtesy card and the last three pounds of green beans I couldn’t bring myself to roast.)
In 1974 I spent a few days at the farm of a Swiss family up and west of Harar. Might you or Rashid be able to tell me more about them. It was revolutionary times. They were given the place by HIM, according to the story I got
Exciting news! Ahh…the blueberries…there still hasn’t been anything like Mr. Ogsadey’s beans. I’ve also managed to hang on to a “Horse” bag and a few of the square yellow cards as fond souvenirs. But a return of the coffee is way better!
Thanks for the comments. It is hard to describe the emotional attachment people had to MAO Horse, but Catfish’ note makes it pretty clear. Mr. Ogsadey was indeed a great man, who accomplished a lot at a time when Ethiopia was in the grip of a very repressive government, the communist Derg under Mengistu. They even took away Ogsadey’s coffee business for a time, but then gave it back when they realized he could run it far better than they could. For a long time he still told us to be careful what was said to him on the phone, because they had the lines tapped (hence the Telex). He could be reserved, almost statuesque; an imposing figure to be sure. Meals at his home in Dire Dawa followed an extremely predictable script. Bob and I would arrive and someone would bring out the hand washing pan for us. We’d sit at his dining room table and eat Goat Ribs and Spaghetti (whether lunch or dinner, I can say with surety this was always the same, every single time). Mr. Ogsadey would ensure that right at the moment of maximum satiety, another rack was plopped on your plate. “Small one, small one” he’d chuckle. After dinner, we’d sit on his low Arabian style couches and let the satellite TV wash over us. Typically it was Al Jazeera, but occasionally Monday Night Football or SpongeBob SquarePants. 20 minutes, then OK, thank you for coming, see you in the morning, off to bed. There were other times he could be incredibly accessible and human. He once came to stay with us in Oakland, and my mother served him coffee out of my Albanian Grandmother’s antique tea set. His heartfelt, genuine reaction to this little kindness said an awful lot about him. There was another time in Dire Dawa when I was about 17 that Bob came down with food poisoning and was out of commission. I spent the evening with Ogsadey and Rashid discussing theology, specifically the story of the Archangel Gabriel and how it exists in the holy texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This was right after the Sep 11th attacks, and we concluded that violence in the name of religion defeats the entire purpose of believing in a higher power (if that’s your thing…it certainly was Ogsadey’s). To be able to have known this man and spent time with him at such a young age is one of the great fortunes of my life.
It’s fun going down memory lane…my son has a very good memory.
Last year I read two very interesting books which mentioned Ethiopian Harrar. First, Patti Smith’s amazing memoir Just Kid’s. Patti is a real coffee lover, as well as a huge admirer of the famous French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud’s mercurial life involved taking Paris by storm and becoming an over night bad boy literary celebrity before reaching the age of 20. In her book she reminisces, over a cup of Harrar, how Rimbaud suddenly gave up writing at the peak of his popularity,and eventually traveled to Yemen, and later to Harrar where he became only the third European to ever set foot the medieval walled city in 1884. Why? Well,he became the first European Harrar coffee exporter….So, the second book I read was a biography on his life.
Years ago, having been “enlightened” by a dear friend who had learned how to roast on a 14″ cast iron frying pan on the side burner on his barbecue, by being handed a cup of fresh roasted French press coffee.. the first cup I’d ever had that was better than garbagewater…. I determined to “figure this out”. Hah!! Dreamer!! I found and read Home Coffee Roasting, and in the back section “resources” Royal Coffee were listed as importers that would 1) sell to anyone who asked and 2) split bags upon request. So called, ready to purchase my first bag. What is your company name again? Well, I don’t have a company I’m just a regular guy. Sorry, we can’t talk to you. Wed like to help so if you ever start a company please call us back. Found one bag elsewhere, a good coffee, and on that basis I started a company AND called Royal back. I still remember adding one bag of MAO Horse to my first order, which I picked up myself at their warehouse. It instantly became a staple. I got a few other lots as the years went by, then it disappeared.. NO ONE had it. Now I know why.
Somehow, about a quarter of that first bag got orhpaned, lost in the shuffle around here, and after reading some of the articles here by Jen and others on roasting OLD coffees, I remembered that orhpaned bag of MAO Horse…. and began to play with it, taking what Jen had written even further down the old plank road. While my results never rose to the level of my early gross ignorance in roasting days (the coffee when I tried this last year was somehwere near ten years in jute!!!) the results were still very satisfying. The classic blueberry was unmistakably still there, though significantly subdued. I still have a couple of those bags, and some of those cards. Hat’s off to Royal for recommending a legendary classes as part of my first order!! Most would try and reserve such jewels for someone who would know and respect such a coffee. But, getting this amongst some other greats (India Royal Mysore, Yemen Mocca Sanani, and a great Java linger in my mind even today) honed my palate and appreciation for great coffees right out of the gate.
Thanks, Nicholas, for this amazing and wonderful account of YOUR earliest memories with this coffee. Your offer of a bag of the “new stuff” to the first to idenfy the locaion of that Horse bag is unfairly tantalising for we who are so far removed from Emoryville and surrounds. Talk about torment!!!!! One day I expect I’ll be involved in my own retail coffee establishment and put one of MY bags up on a wall… along with some other legendary bags. I will definitely have to watch out and see if I can’t get at least one of the new crop once it is in store here on the West Coast.
Great article, Max. I still display a 25-year old Horse bag printed in olive green instead of the more common darker shade. Because I’m a stamp collector, I set this one aside as something special. Yes, that is nuts, but some of us still act like that. In addition, I saved the yellow cards because they were printed by letterpress. That means a guy in a little print shop set type into a friggin’ wooden block, daubed it with ink and pressed it onto yellow card stock, the same set-up Gutenberg was using a few years back. It’s nice to know that this method is still around, just in case an electromagnetic pulse fries our green boards. Greg Boberts, Equator Coffee.