Monday, June 24, 2024

Nefisa Siraj sells much of her Cini Coffee at farmers markets. (Photo: Cini Coffee)

A quick glimpse of pedestrians and shops along Cambridge streets might lead you to think that most of us spend a good deal of our time drinking some form of coffee. Cafes fill our storefronts, and every other passerby seems to be carrying a cup of something caffeinated, wherever they are headed.

It’s true that the United States can lay claim to having the largest coffee company in the world (no surprise: Starbucks) but we are well outpaced by the likes of Albania for the most coffeehouses per 100,000 people (654 versus our measly 19.7) and absolutely smoked by Finland for annual consumption (a whopping 12 kilograms per capita there versus 4.4 here, the equivalent of five to eight cups a day compared with two to three.)

But for the original coffee culture – and the origin story of the beans themselves – one has to head to Ethiopia, where the beverage has shaped local traditions and language since as far back as the ninth century. Today, it is estimated that more than 12 million Ethiopians are still involved in the coffee trade, and it remains a central part of the country’s culture. Many expressions describing everyday life, food and relationships have long included some reference to coffee.

Fortunately for Cambridge residents, a sampling of that original taste is within reach at this summer’s Kendall farmers market.

Nefisa Siraj emigrated to the United States in 2014 from her hometown of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she had spent 20 years in the trading business with the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. Coffee was her specialty, shipped globally, although she also handled orders for spices such as black cumin seeds (to Egypt and India), oilseeds (China) and kidney and haricot beans (to the United States, India and throughout Europe.)

Like many immigrants, Siraj’s first job – at a local Dunkin’ Donuts – was a far cry from her professional status back home. But, in her words, “I always wanted to open my own coffee business, and I wanted to see what kind of coffee people drink in America.” Within a matter of years, she had some answers and, critically, the confidence to start her own line of imported beans directly from what she and many others consider the best sources in Ethiopia. By 2018, Cini Coffee was born. (“Cini” is the traditional coffee cup used for coffee in Ethiopia; it means “cup” in Amharic.)

“Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and as such the Ethiopian beans are the best there is,” Siraj said. “The weather and climate of the country create a variety of flavor notes in the coffee. People will find different flavors of coffee from the different regions of the country. The juicy and strong yet smooth aftertaste of the coffee makes it the best.” Her years in the trade enable her to identify the good quality from the bad, she said, making Cini beans unusual in the local market.

Siraj also understands that while she might improve the coffee experience for Americans and convince them to embrace her hometown product, she would be hard-pressed to convince them to adopt her country’s associated culture. “In Ethiopia, coffee is used as a means of gathering people and dealing and solving community problems during the gatherings. Coffee is a communal affair,” she said. “It is also common for people to have the coffee ceremony at least three times a day, and it is used to gather family members as well as neighbors together.”

In the states, coffee is a personal affair. “Every single coffee drinker has his own personal take on how the coffee should be made. People also drink coffee for the caffeine, because they need the energy to work some more,” she said. “Coffee is for the go, coffee is for the run, coffee is for work in America.”

Kendall is just one of many farmers markets where customers can sample Cini Coffee and decide for themselves whether they might want to brew at home or grab a cup on the run. Siraj also sells in Central Square (on Mondays), Harvard Square (Tuesdays), Brighton (Wednesdays) and Somerville’s Union Square (Saturdays). Cini is also available online.

Siraj promises a superior taste experience and, for those who normally fork out $5 or more for national brand names, a much less expensive jolt of caffeinated goodness.

Farmers markets account for about half of Cini’s annual revenue, which also includes online and a very limited wholesale business; Siraj hopes to build on her current sales without having to give up on the personal interaction she enjoys every week at Kendall and other outdoor markets.

“People always ask about me and how I came to start Cini Coffee. It is one of my favorite highlights in my business. I am able to connect with avid coffee drinkers and tell them my story in addition to introducing them to a great product,” Siraj said.


The Kendall Square Farmers Market, sponsored by BioMed Realty and produced by Mass Farmers Markets, showcases a variety of Massachusetts products and other goods at stalls open from noon to 6 p.m. Thursdays until Nov. 16 at 450 Kendall St. Craic sauce is back at the market Nov. 9.

This post was updated Aug. 22, 2023, to correct a statistic.