The Coffee Prophet
Local coffee roaster transforming the lives of Ethiopian farmers and his local community through a newly formed benefit corporation
For Tebabu Assefa, native of Ethiopia and local coffee visionary, a simple proverb sums up his life’s work: buno dabo naw (“Coffee is our bread”). As the creator of Blessed Coffee—one of the nation’s first benefit corporations—no one better understands how coffee, both the beans and the beverage, are critical to the survival of Ethiopia’s identity and economic health.
In addition to co-founding Blessed with his wife, Sara, in 2010 in Takoma Park, Maryland, Tebabu is also the company’s self-appointed “chief storyteller.” His aim is to dispel the American notion that Coffea arabica is just a collection of caffeine molecules for our morning commute. For Tebabu, coffee is also the currency that feeds (or fails to feed) families, the beverage that binds Ethiopian communities and, in Blessed Coffee’s case, a crop that can improve lives both locally and abroad.
Tebabu even has a name for the beneficial cycle he is creating: “virtuous exchange.”
It all starts with a superior product. Blessed Coffee’s current trio of single-origin whole-bean coffees are sourced directly from Ethiopian farmers, 100% organically shade grown, and are roasted locally in Silver Spring to exacting specifications.
“It’s one notch up from fair trade. ‘Fair’ is not enough,” says Tebabu, a compact 50-year-old whose black eyes percolate when he talks about the ideals behind his business. “All the players have to benefit—from the grower to the consumer and everyone in between.”
For Tebabu, coffee is also the currency that feeds (or fails to feed) families, the beverage that binds Ethiopian communities and, in Blessed Coffee’s case, a crop that can improve lives both locally and abroad
Besides the feel-good vibe in every bag, Blessed Coffee may just be the best deal going for an ultra-premium coffee. Blessed Coffee beans are on par in quality with other single-origin beans like Kona and Jamaican Blue Mountain yet cost a fraction of the price. And their near-perfect roasting profiles—uniquely bold and balanced—are no fluke. It took Tebabu and Sara over four years to get the flavors just right. Harrar, the lightest in the trio, is marketed as a dessert coffee since its high acidity and citrusy floral notes cut through rich desserts. The more assertive yirgacheffe offers a balanced medium roast. The trio is rounded out by sidamo, a deeply roasted powerhouse, flush with dark chocolate and deeply caramelized sugar, that is perfect for espresso.
The virtuous exchange concept benefits the DC area just as much as it does the farmers. Under the revolutionary Benefit Corporation designation passed in Maryland in 2010, Tebabu is free to build a nonprofit organization with a for-profit sector that simultaneously benefits both the community and his shareholders.
This past April, Blessed Coffee sold beans and coffee by the cup at the Takoma Farmers Market and donated 25% of the profit to two charities within walking distance. Tebabu credits the legislation for making his social entrepreneurship goals legitimate and giving his business “a tremendous marketing platform.” Although the business is only wholesale beans for the moment, Tebabu’s next step will be launching a small coffee shop in Takoma Park in which community members and the farmers themselves can buy shares. “Business by the people, for the people!” Tebabu says.
Local support for the project runs deep. “Tebabu is one of those rare people who recognizes no restrictions on life,” says Terry Seamens, Takoma Park City Council member. “He sees farmers suffering in Ethiopia and knows that he can resolve their plight. He sees Takoma Park community groups needing additional resources to serve our most vulnerable neighbors, and Tebabu knows he has a solution.” For Tebabu, achieving these goals circles back to the belief that coffee is as vital as bread. “In Ethiopia, coffee is a relationship-building beverage,” Tebabu says. “It is a social binding experience.” He is referring to the centuries-old custom of the community coffee ceremony, a ritual that still takes place daily in small villages throughout the country. Akin to the Japanese tea ceremony in pageantry and ritual, the Ethiopian version sees the same grounds brewed three times by the matriarch of the house over the course of 90 minutes. The last pour, baraka or “blessed”, is the weakest cup but also the most important: It is when the eldest in the household wishes good tidings to the entire community, as Blessed Coffee intends to do for ours.