In the “bean belt” looping Africa, Asia, and the Americas, coffee provides more than a jolt—it’s an economic lifeline and a cultural bedrock.
Kim Elena Ionescu stewards that link between bean and barista as a buyer and sustainability manager for North Carolina roaster Counter Culture Coffee, working one-on-one with growers and helping to set environmental standards for the coffee trade.
Her hunt for the planet’s best beans has taken her from Bolivia to Ethiopia. Steeped in ritual, her adventures are anything but stale. She shares a few highlights here:
Katie Knorovsky: In your opinion, where is the world’s best coffee grown? How do you find the coffee growers you work with?
Kim Elena Ionescu: The best-tasting coffee comes from high elevations, which means transit to rural, mountainous areas. On one trip to Peru, I flew to Cusco and had a 14-hour drive ahead of me, through the night on dirt roads in a pickup in the Andes.
Another time, in Mexico, I arrived four hours tardy to a coffee co-op meeting. First my group left at least an hour late; then we stopped along the route to hunt for chinch bugs. And when we smelled a vat of chicharrónes [fried pork rinds] while passing through a town, the guy driving decided we had to stop for lunch.
KK: How do you prepare for your travels?
KEI: I pack light and always wear shoes with good tread, so I can hike at a moment’s notice. I’ll get plunked down by car on the first day, and then everything is on foot. That might mean five hours of hiking in the rain in Peru. I’ve learned to pack snacks and let go—to trust I’ll get where I’m going when I get there. I try to call on that inner peace in other frustrating situations, in travel or at home.
KK: What’s your approach when it comes to working with growers around the world?
KEI: Face-to-face is always the best way to create trust. Being a woman sometimes works to my advantage, especially with female growers. I don’t make promises I don’t keep. I always come back. And I don’t wear sunglasses. Smallholder producers never do, and it’s important to see people’s eyes.
KK: What’s your favorite aspect of coffee culture?
KEI: I love rituals. When I visited the Yirgacheffe cooperative in Ethiopia, a grower set up a coffee ceremony in his earthen house.
His daughter roasted the coffee on a clay plate on a bed of coals, pushing around the beans quickly as they roasted. Burning frankincense filled the air. She heated water in a long-necked jebena. Once the coffee was roasted, she ground it with a mortar and pestle and added it to the hot water to boil together. Then she poured the coffee into little cups shaped like tulips, which keep the sludge at the bottom—there’s no filtration.
Compared with the tropics, where you might see people selling fruits or newspapers at road crossings, in Ethiopia it’s women roasting, grinding, and selling little cups of coffee.
Oftentimes, the coffee served in this ritual is heavily sweetened and not always delicious, but it’s still one of my favorite ways to drink coffee. The ceremony gives me goose bumps. Favorites aren’t always about quality but about the experience and the memory.
Katie Knorovsky, on Twitter @TravKatieK, is an associate editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine. This piece first appeared in Traveler’s June/July 2014 issue.