I have spent the past year traveling the globe with Seattle coffee roaster Caffé Vita in their search for coffee, and I have the more enviable and slippery task of seeking out stories. Many Grist readers know that coffee is the second most heavily traded commodity on the planet, but unlike the elephant in the pole position (oil), we hear very little about the realities of the cherry-red fruit on which we are also dependent.

As long as Grist lets me, I will throw out some thoughts from the coffee road, and the other “tablemaking” adventures in which I routinely find myself. Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee (although Yemen likes to take credit as well) and many a book could be written about what separates coffee production in Ethiopia from the rest of the bean-producing countries. Coffee is essential to the culture — over 50 percent of the crop stays in country. It is not a colonial crop, and the passionate relationship to the bean results in some unprecedented global showdowns. But today I am pondering the tension between the two main stimulants in the land of Sheba.

Khat (pronounced chaat), or any of the 30 names it commonly goes by, is a leafy green bush that is native to East Africa. The leaves of the plant are chewed by a large sector of the East African population — khat is sold roadside, in cafes, in small villages, and on most city blocks in Addis Ababa. It has been called a “mild cocaine” and compared to ephedra and diet pills. Reportedly, it has been used widely in Ethiopia before coffee was discovered by the fair shepherd Kaldi. During a one-pot feast in Addis, coffee world celebrity Tadesse Meskela commented, “You can tell a khat farm from a coffee farm by one simple fact — the khat farmer will have a concrete home and a satellite dish; the coffee farmers still live in mud huts.” Below is a khat ceremony I happened to catch on film — I cleverly edited myself out of the chewing ritual just in case the DEA decided to detain me à la Amy Winehouse.


khat ceremony (also spelled chat, quat, etc) from hebberoy on Vimeo.

The ritual I filmed is filled with fervor and happiness, and it’s not dissimilar to the traditional coffee ceremony that millions of Ethiopians take part in daily. These gentlemen are coffee pickers, and they rely on khat to get through the long, grueling, repetitive hours of the harvest. The shaky translation of the khat ceremony I received confirmed that they are thanking God for khat, for the joy it gives them, for the energy and strength it instills.

But coffee plants are being routinely ripped out of the ground in Harrar, Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, and many lesser known growing regions. If you have tasted an excellent Harrar, you are likely devastated at the thought of any loss of this bean — Harrar has the other-worldly brilliance of a well-crafted Amarone or Sauterne. It is a treasure.

Coffee is a stimulant that our Western sensibility can accept, and khat seems at first blush to be a bad thing: a harmful, tragic drug on the rise. Yet khat is filled with vitamin C, appears to be no more addictive than coffee, and is generally accepted as part of East African culture. Khat farmers can support their families, while coffee farmers struggle to survive. It is hard to determine, but the Ethiopian government seems to support the increase in khat production — critics say that the government is making generous sums on the valuable export and any regulation is unlikely, due to the remarkable cash flow into the political coffers — which, of course, sounds perfectly familiar. Other critics site khat as a cause of severe water shortages in the highlands, and in neighboring Yemen, khat production is said to consume 40 percent of the irrigation resources.

These are just a few of the issues raised in the debate between khat and coffee. When I sat at dinner with Tadesse, sharing the food of Lent, I asked him if he chewed khat. “Of course. I chewed it every day for fifteen years,” he said with a chuckle, but now he has stopped. I pushed a little harder, trying to gauge if he had stopped for health reasons or ethical concerns. “Khat was part of my life as a young man,” Meskela commented with a large smile. The other coffee farmers and coffee politicos at the table laughed knowingly, as if a leafy green binge was not much different than a bout of heavy drinking.