Monday, February 1, 2016


I’m very excited to relaunch The Coffee Experiment; the composition of the new website better reflects my writing and the original idea that sparked this project. You will notice a new menu to the left, which are the new focuses of The Coffee Experiment: Conversations, Travel, Design, and Coffee 101.

I was always more interested in the social aspect of coffee — the way that it universally brings people together — than the coffee itself. CONVERSATIONS will focus on the people I have coffee with. The TRAVEL section will be a place I can write about travel, both coffee related and otherwise. I spend much of my time in coffee shops, writing, meeting people, or simply being. I am very inspired by the design of coffee spaces, the way they can be artful, while also serving as the gathering spaces for communities. Thus, the DESIGN section will focus on the architecture of coffee spaces, in every form. I still love to drink good coffee; COFFEE 101 will remain a place to write about coffee drinks and brewing methods that I enjoy.


Monday, April 22, 2013

Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music, and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda.A CONVERSATION WITH RABBI JEFFREY SUMMIT

A growing group of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Mbale, Uganda have sought to create change in their own community, by taking on a lofty goal: interfaith peace through coffee and music.  Led by Jewish musician J.J Keki, the cooperative calls themselves Peace Kawomera, or “Delicious Peace.”  They grow, pick and process organic coffee, side-by-side, in a country that remains divided by religious and ethnic barriers.  Music is a strong part of Ugandan culture, used for communicative and joyous purposes; the farmers of Peace Kawomera follow in this tradition, writing and performing songs which promote their peaceful worldview, educate those around them, and celebrate the crop that brings them economic prosperity.

In 2001, J.J. Keki was invited to visit the states on a lecture tour.  While in line at the World Trade Center to view New York City’s skyline from above, he found himself in the midst of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, running for survival after witnessing the first plane strike the towers.  After Keki’s experience in New York, he returned to Uganda on a mission: to use his gifts and the resources around him to promote religious peace.  Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, a research ethnomusicologist and Jewish Chaplain at Tufts University in Boston, met Keki while recording his Grammy nominated album, Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2005).  After being introduced by a friend to a recording of Peace Kawomera’s songs, Summit felt compelled to visit Mbale to hear the music himself.

Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music, and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2013) was recorded and produced by Summit.  Speaking to the rabbi by phone, the day after two bombs tore through crowded streets during the Boston Marathon, I remarked on the timeliness of the album’s release. “What better thing to put into the world right now, a project about peace,” I said. “You know, I wish it wasn’t so relevant,” he replied, clearly shaken by the events of the previous day.

In a short documentary filmed by Rabbi Summit in Uganda, Keki explains his driving philosophy: “Whatever you have, use it for peace.  If you have music, use music,” he says.  “We have coffee,” he explains.  And coffee may just be the perfect crop for peace.  He holds a ripe coffee cherry in his hand, peeling the skin to expose two beans inside.  “We should copy the example of coffee to bring peace” Keki says.  “You see this one?” he asks. “Two beans in each coffee. Which means it is friendly, it doesn’t want to live alone.”

Rabbi Summit traveled to Uganda three separate times, recording 400 farmers.  “Recording in East Africa is its’ own special challenge,” Summit told me.  Originally they set up recording sessions right in the middle of the vibrant, chaotic goings-on of the village, which, though beautiful and authentic, proved to be “very distracting” while recording.  “We [along with recording engineer John Servies] were out in the bush,” Rabbi Summit recalls, recording in rural landscapes, as well as finding acoustic solace in synagogues, mosques, and churches.  The music itself is a layering of women’s choral voices, African guitar music, and indigenous instruments — including the tube fiddle, shaker, and wooden xylophone — and even a Casio keyboard.

The songs are performed at community events, in an effort to attract others to join the cooperative.  Sung in various languages — including English, Swahili, Arabic, and Hebrew — the impact is far reaching.  These songs are used as engaging ways to transmit information.  Many are educational or instructional, such as “In Uganda, everyone grows coffee,” and “Construct a processing factory;” others celebrate peace, such as “Let all religions come together.”

An integral part of the success of Peace Kowomera is Fair Trade.  “It’s not just about paying people more,” Summit explained.  It helps fund important practices, including providing credit for famers to expand their coffee farms, preventing harmful child labor, and protecting the environment.  The benefits of Fair Trade are less obvious when the volatile coffee market is high, Summit told me.  “Coffee prices dip precipitously,” he explains. During these market lows is when large companies, taking advantage of desperate circumstances, offer attractively higher prices to farmers.  This short-sighted relief does not maintain stability; if during the the following year, the market jumps again, the farmer will sustain large cuts to prices.  Fair Trade provides a stable income, helping farmers weather the highs and lows of the market.  Most importantly, “For many farmers, the Fair Trade price is literally the difference between abject poverty and being able to afford malaria medication, basic health care, and school fees for their children,” Summit writes in the liner notes of the album.

The results of Keki’s efforts are nothing short of astounding.  In the liner notes of “Delicious Peace,” Rabbi Summit tells the story of two farmers of Peace Kawomera –Patrick, a Christian, and Mohamud, a Muslim — sitting down to lunch.  They told Rabbi Summit about their childhood, under the dictatorship of Idi Amin, when they were not permitted to socialize with people of other faiths.  “When I asked if it was usual for a Christian and Muslim to eat together, they both laughed and said that even four years ago, before they joined the cooperative, it would have been inconceivable to them,” Rabbi Summit writes; he notes that outside of the cooperative, tensions and divisions are still present, an acknowledgement that interfaith cooperation remains an issue in Uganda.

How can we work to overcome religious and ethnic divisions in our own communities?  The answer is shockingly simple, according to these farmers.  “These communities have made peace a priority,” Summit explained.   They often speak of the importance of “being one” with others.  Summit recalls a time he was lectured about America’s fighting in Afghanistan.  “They didn’t understand,” he says, why we couldn’t “be one person” with all people.

Indeed, perhaps all citizens of the world should see the world as such.

Purchase Delicious Peace through Smithsonian Folkways, here.  All proceeds go towards supporting the children of Peace Kawomera members. Buy a bag of Delicious Peace coffee through Thanksgiving Coffee Company, here.

All photographs below taken by photojournalist Richard Sobol.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


“I’m not passionate about coffee.” These words flow out from a grin that Todd Carmichael always seems to have, both honest and a little devious; this grin reflects his child-like enthusiasm for everything, as well as his awareness that most of what he says will probably shock you.

“Passion dies out. Coffee is who I am. I am dedicated to coffee.” One thing I quickly learned from spending time with Todd at his Philadelphia roasting plant was that his ideas, no matter how wild or aspirational they may sound, will likely materialize before your eyes — just give it a few weeks, maybe months. His ideas bounce off the walls as much as he does, it’s hard to keep up. Once the idea is sparked, he is relentless in the execution. One of his many ideas that proved successful: he and partner (and Frenchman) JP Iberti’s successful roastery La Colombe Torrefaction, which they built with bare hands in Philadelphia in 1993.

That dedication also led him across Antarctica, the first American to trek from the coast to the South Pole, solo and unaided. He has visited nearly half the world’s countries, including Ethiopia, where he adopted his three daughters. He most recently traveled to Haiti, where he rented a truck and trudged up mountains, following the terrain to seek out a coffee plantation he didn’t know was there, but intuitively knew he’d find — the Blue Forest plantation.  Since then he’s been the first American to export large amounts of Haitian coffee to the US in nearly thirty years. I met with a Haitian farmer from Blue Forest in New York named Robinson. Never in his wildest imagination would he have thought he’d wind up in New York City, meeting many of the greatest chefs of our time, all who served his coffee in their restaurants — the coffee he and others labored over for years. This is just a day in the life with Todd.

In the mid ’90s, La Colombe was the first of its kind — a sophisticated coffee roaster that elevated coffee to a more unique experience, one where different flavors and notes were brought out with great roasting and concern for origin. They called it “culinary coffee.” Todd and JP opened up their first cafe near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and immediately built up accounts with restaurants in Philadelphia and New York City.

Founded on a certain ethos (both Todd and JP come from farming families) their focus was, and always has been, farmers. “Early on we decided that whatever became of coffee, whatever pressures were on us, we would first and foremost do right by the farmers,” Todd explained. “To us that meant – and means – sticking with our source farms through thick and thin, lukewarm cuppings and the like, frost, rot, disease or bumper crop. We were in it with them.” La Colombe has a certain trademark taste. “I tend towards smoky flavors in food, and I like the same to come out in my coffee,” Carmichael told me. He and JP roast dark, enough to make it smoky while maintaining the complex flavors.

La Colombe may have brought us culinary coffee, but a few years later a new movement emerged, later deemed the “Third Wave.” So Todd, a writer himself, took to Esquire in 2010 to create some dialogue on a movement he felt alienated from. Not one to soften a blow, he published a guide, “7 Steps to Avoid the Horrible Hipster Coffee Trend”, and recently broke the news that “Stumptown Sold Out,” referring to Sorenson’s controversial transaction with a private equity fund. “It was never against Third Wave, per se. It was more about extreme hipsterism,” Carmichael explained. What followed suit was a barrage of intense hate directed at Todd and his coffee, circulating the Internet.

When I arrived at Philadelphia train station to spend some time with Todd, this current controversy was unraveling. Todd’s assistant, Renee, was waiting to take me to the La Colombe roastery. She’s equally quick-witted, a friend of Todd’s since his youthful, wild days; one could imagine she’s seen him through it all.

I arrived at the compound to find a large operation unfolding. The building itself, a converted warehouse, is big, mostly taken over by large machinery. There are desk jobs, too: I met people from branding and sales, as well as roasters and packers. It was a warm, family environment, each person an important cog in the La Colombe machine.

Todd immediately ushered me in, and began the tour — he moves fast, and conversation never ceased. He was  kind, funny, animated, and honest; his passion and enthusiasm is evident, if not a bit overwhelming.  He could talk at length about his expeditions and adventures, about coffee, music, and Ethiopia. He can simultaneously provide the perfect sound-byte while remaining authentic.

In one room, there were vintage espresso machines that Todd collects, repairs, and sometimes, sells. In another, a distillery for whiskey. Coffee was being roasted as well, of course.

La Colombe is rapidly growing due to an endless stream of creativity and quality. They have collaborations with companies and individuals — Leonardo DiCaprio being one of them — to bolster their humanitarian efforts affecting both coffee farmers and climate change. They have new coffee shops popping up in nearly every big city (Chicago, L.A., D.C., more still in New York and Philadelphia).

Carmichael and Iberti recently set up a bottling plant at their Philly roastery to create Pure Black, a cold-brewed coffee. Steeped for 16 hours, then pressed and filtered twice, it’s a rich and strong cold brew drink in a beautifully designed bottle.

Below, some photos of Todd and JP, as well as a few from my trip to Philly to tour the roastery.