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How an Ethiopian-born entrepreneur is brewing Baltimore's coffee culture

White Marsh resident Samuel Demisse isn’t your average coffee connoisseur — the owner and founder of Keffa Coffee is a purist of sorts. He rises every morning around 7 a.m. to indulge in his own stash, freshly brewing three specialty coffees to start his day sans milk and sugar. Later that afternoon, he participates in a “cupping” ritual with his staff, a mix of duty and pleasure.

The session starts with the group steeping freshly ground coffee in water heated between 195 and 202 degrees Fahrenheit. They wave the aromas to their noses and slowly settle spoons into their cups before slurping — surveying the quality and noting the flavors similar to a wine tasting.

By day’s end, Demisse is on at least his 10th cup.

Coffee is a lifestyle for the Ethiopian-born entrepreneur, whose Jonestown-based wholesale company sells 2.5 million pounds of specialty coffee beans a year. It’s a passion he hopes to spread across Baltimore, a city he says hasn’t lived up to its caffeinated potential.

“There’s not a lot of coffee shops or roasters [in Baltimore] compared to a city like New York or Philadelphia, where on every block you’re going to see an amazing independent coffee shop,” said Demisse, 47.

He’s among a community of coffee professionals evangelizing the beverage’s allure through public and industry events, cultivating a customer base that values its complexities.

“Baltimore, we're just behind,” Demisse said. “But now it's time to pick it up.”

Originally from Ethiopia, Demisse was born just outside of Kaffa, a Southwestern Ethiopian province known as one of the places where coffee originated. The story goes that a goat herder in the region discovered coffee beans after noticing that his animals were energetic after eating them. The townspeople became infatuated with coffee beans, and much later, Demisse, did, too.

When Demisse was 17 and studying to be a chemist, his college town began experiencing unrest and instability, he said. His father, worrying about his safety, proposed that he join his coffee business. Demisse spent around 10 years traveling around the world learning about the coffee market and helping his father with farming and exporting.

He launched Keffa, named for the province where he grew up, in 2006 after noticing a dearth of Ethiopian coffee imports in the U.S. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau, $395 million worth of coffee was imported to Maryland in 2017, making it the state’s 11th-most-imported commodity that year.)

Keffa now imports more than 30 varieties of coffee from 10 countries — including El Salvador, Kenya, Colombia, Rwandaand Peru — and ships to 450 customers around the globe. Locally, Keffa distributes to companies like OneDo Coffee in Canton, and Ceremony Coffee Roasters, which has coffee shops in Mount Vernon, Harbor Point, Annapolis and Washington.

Vincent Iatesta, the president and CEO of Ceremony Coffee Roasters, said he began purchasing Ethiopian coffee from Demisse more than a decade ago.

“It’s been fun to watch him grow and really make his mark on specialty coffee,” Iatesta said, noting Demisse’s role in brewing Baltimore’s coffee community.

Through Keffa, he has organized events, parties and friendly competitions throughout the year, inviting coffee roasters from New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Virginia to give them a view of Baltimore. Demisse, who has placed in the top three of the U.S. Coffee Cup Tasters Championship four times, hosts an annual class for a coffee tasters certification program. And on Friday nights in November, Demisse plans to host public cupping sessions to discuss the beverage’s depths, from its traceable and often international origins to its varied flavor profiles — acidity, fruit notes, or hints of chocolate or caramel.

He hopes to see Baltimore’s coffee scene evolve like Denver’s, for example. It similarly started with a few coffee roasters and grew to include more stores and shops.

The emerging coffee roasters in the area, like Aveley Farms Coffee in Baltimore County and OneDo in the city, have been evidence of growth, he said.

Even though the price of coffee is at an all-time low and production is at a high, Demisse said, “specialty coffee is booming,” with customers valuing unique qualities in ways similar to that of well-aged or sought-after wines.

Slower growth in demand compared to the rate of coffee production has forced companies to become more creative with how they use, present and serve coffee. Creating signature spins on the average joe, such as a variety of lattes, cold brews and beer infusions has helped, he said. But Demisse is convinced that specialty coffee is not affected by dips in the market, and that specialty coffee can be enjoyed without the frills.

OneDo co-owner Gloria Hwang agreed. Hwang currently serves up around five different coffees from Keffa. She’s learned more about the depths of coffee from Demisse, which has allowed her to provide more variety for customers.

“We try every day to make it something different. We wanted to offer something to the community, something better,” said Hwang, adding that Keffa Coffee has added something special. “It’s about getting together more with each other, not just coffee, but through the coffee.”

For Demisse, that’s a part of his plan — seeing people in the city congregate over the beverage that he characterizes as complex, flavorful and affordable.

“I want to see that coffee culture [grow],” he said.

If you go

Keffa Coffee will host free public cupping events weekly, where attendees will get to sample a variety of coffees and discuss the local coffee community. 10 a.m.-11 a.m. Fridays through November. 7 S. High St. For more information, visit keffacoffe.com or call 410-878-2874.

An expert’s guide to enjoying coffee

Samuel Demisse, founder of wholesale company Keffa Coffee, likes to keep his brew fresh and simple. Here are some tips on how to make your next cup of coffee your best:

Don’t put coffee beans in the refrigerator or freezer. It could freeze the chemical compounds that give coffee its flavor, which can evaporate as the beans get back to room temperate. Instead, heed the coffee’s shelf life, which is typically around four weeks for roasted beans.

Buy coffee beans whole, grind them yourself, and brew them within 15 minutes of grinding. Ground coffee can fall flat or lose flavor and aroma easily if it is stored too long, Demisse said. The best bet is to keep your beans in a whole state when storing them.

Make sure the temperature and brew time are right. Brewing coffee is just like baking or cooking, Demisse said. The best temperature, depending on the type of coffee, is between 195 and 202 degrees Fahrenheit. As for the brewing time, Demisse and his staff swear by steeping coffee for between 3 and 4 minutes. Too long can result in over-extraction and bitter notes or unpleasant flavors.

Abide by the water-to-coffee ratio. While many brands measure in ounces, Demisse says it’s best to measure both coffee and water in grams. The perfect ratio, according to Demisse, is 16 grams of water for every gram of coffee.

Don’t default to adding milk and sugar. Most people add sweeteners to the coffee when the flavor is too dark or harsh, but when the there’s freshly ground beans and a good roast profile, it’s not needed. Instead, Demisse advises java drinkers to enjoy the natural flavor of the coffee, which can have varying acidity levels, and hints of fruit and chocolate. At Keffa, “we don’t add anything,” he said.

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