Ethiopian Coffee: The Cream of the Crop

Ethiopian Coffee has long been regarded as the gold standard when it comes to single-origin coffee. The beans grown and processed in this country have gained a reputation for unique diversity, superb flavor profiles, and general excellence. Ethiopia is often known as the birthplace of coffee, and so as one reporter for the National Geographic puts it, “When you drink Ethiopian Coffee, its as if you are taking a sip of history.”  

So in this article, we want to take you on a tour of this fascinating coffee-producing nation. We want to investigate together what makes Ethiopian coffee different? How are beans grown in this country? What flavor profiles can I expect? And what is this Ethiopian coffee ceremony that I keep hearing about? 

Ethiopia … is the source of some of the most memorable coffees I’ve had.

James Freeman – Blue Bottle Coffee

Quick Facts about Ethiopia and Coffee

  • Ethiopia is the 5th largest coffee producer in the world 
  • Ethiopia consumes around half of the coffee it grows!
  • Around 20% of the population are either directly or indirectly employed in the coffee industry
  • There are over 1000 different varietals of coffee present in Ethiopia

The History of Ethiopian Coffee

Ethiopia has a rich and ancient relationship with the coffee bean. As you may well have heard, it is often lauded as the birthplace and origin of coffee. 

There is a story told that around 850 AD, a goat herder called Kaldi noticed that his goat was dancing wildly after eating the fruit from a wild plant. Intrigued, Kaldi took some of these ‘magic beans’ to a monk. The monk, understandably suspicious, threw them into a fire to be destroyed. However, instead of being destroyed, the beans began to roast, filling the space with the fragrant aroma of freshly roasted beans. And so coffee came to be.

However, this fantastical story is most likely anecdotal. It seems likely that Coffea Arabica first appeared in Southern Sudan but only flourished once it spread to Ethiopia. And it is certain that it was in Ethiopia that humans first consumed coffee, albeit initially as fruit rather than as a beverage. 

And so, coffee is deeply intertwined with Ethiopian culture and history. In fact, the English word ‘coffee bean’ probably comes from Kaffa (a region in Ethiopia where the arabica is a native plant) and bun (the Ethiopian word for coffee). 

This national delight in coffee also means that there is abundant direct feedback communicated to growers, which undoubtedly enhances overall quality. 

Ethiopian Coffee

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Another aspect of this nation’s relationship with coffee that has been immortalized is the infamous Ethiopian coffee ceremony. This ceremony is Ethiopia’s most respected social connection and ritual. Many visitors to Ethiopia describe participating in this ritual as one of the most memorable parts of visiting this African nation.

The ceremony can last anywhere from 45 minutes to 2-3 hours and is the traditional start to every day. The green coffee beans are first roasted in a pan over hot coals; the freshly roasted beans are then passed around the guests as an opportunity for the aroma to be appreciated. The beans are then ground or, more precisely, crushed using a tool similar to a mortar and pestle. Following this, they are brewed with boiling water and spices. The host then boils and re-boils it until she is content that the flavor is optimal. From there, coffee is poured into small cups without handles. The coffee is usually consumed black with sugar and is often, interestingly, paired with popcorn. 

In the traditional ceremony, the oldest male is served first, and the youngest child is in charge of serving. The coffee is consumed over three rounds and can take up to three hours. So if an Ethiopian offers you a coffee, don’t say no!!! This is about as far as you can get from the mass-produced coffee enjoyed (or better tolerated) by many Western nations. 

Coffee for Ethiopians is not merely a tasty beverage but a vital and ancient form of social connection. Even the common phrase for socializing, “buna tetu” can literally be translated as drinking coffee. This is as legit as you get. 

Coffee Growing in Ethiopia   

Because of their rich history, coffee is grown and produced somewhat differently in Ethiopia than in other African nations. There are three coffee production methods in use:

  • Forest Coffees – These are beans harvested from wild coffee plants, particularly in the country’s southwest. They are often grown in forests with lots of natural shade and are a mix of different varietals. They are harvested by locals.
  • Garden Coffees – The vast majority of coffee produced in Ethiopia comes from coffee plants planted close to a homestead and often alongside other forms of produce. These use regulated natural shade and often implement some form of fertilizer. As such, the coffee is measured by trees rather than hectares. 
  • Plantation Coffees – Only about 5% of Ethiopian Coffee comes from dedicated plantations. These coffee plants are grown intensively and utilize standard agricultural practices. 

The reason this is possible is primarily due to the ideal growing conditions that are present in Ethiopia. These conditions include high elevations, mountainous regions, deep soil, lush vegetation, and ample natural shade. The high altitudes lead to slower growth allowing for more nutrients and a more flavorful bean. Remember that Arabica is a native plant in Ethiopia!

There are two main ways that coffee is processed in this nation. Traditionally the coffee beans are natural or dry-processed as the coffee farmers lay out the coffee cherries on a flat surface where they are dried in the sun over 2-6 weeks. However, washed or wet processing is growing in popularity, as is the honey processed method. The processing method used has a significant impact on the final taste of the coffee. 

Typically the washed Ethiopians are characterized by clarity, bright and complex notes, and cleanness. Natural Ethiopians, by contrast, are often characterized by fruity notes such as blueberry and chocolatey undertones. They are also heavier-bodied. 

It is also worth being aware that many differing coffee plants in Ethiopia are uncategorized and grouped under the term Heirloom. Understandably, this can cause quite the diversity of flavors that you may find in an heirloom. For this reason, there may be several varietals present in any given bag of Ethiopian coffee, even one labeled single origin.

Ethiopian Coffee

Ethiopian Coffee: Regions and Flavor Profiles

Broadly speaking, the best Ethiopian coffees are often associated with winey qualities and a bright mouthfeel. They often have fruity notes, high acidity, and light to medium body. Put simply, they are delicious and some of the most premium beans around. 

However, the vast diversity of varietals, processing methods, and growing regions mean that there is an incredibly diverse range of beans that come from this nation. Some are superb quality; some are average, some are fruity, some are floral.

For this reason, Ethiopian coffee is often linked to specific growing regions. The three most popular are Sidama, Yirgacheffe, and Harrar.

The flavors of Ethiopian coffee are notably diverse – from citrus, often bergamot, and florals, through to candied fruit or even tropical fruit. The best-washed coffees can be exquisite, complex, and delicious, and the best naturally processed ones can be wildly fruity and enchantingly unusual.

James Hoffman

Ethiopian Coffee

Sidama

Sidama is a region of Ethiopia that is named after the Sidama people. This region grows some of the highest coffee in Ethiopia. The coffee grown here is known for its rich mouthfeel, full-body, and complex flavor profile. They often also have floral and citrus notes. 

The famous growing region Guji (one of my personal favorites) is part of Sidama. Coffee grown here is often sought by some of the best roasters in the world. My policy at cafes and roasteries is that if Guji is on the menu, go for it every time!

Yirghacheffe    

Yirgacheffe is technically a small town within the Sidama region. However, it has been categorized as a unique entity due to the exceptional coffees grown here. Coffee beans grown here are often classed as some of the highest quality arabicas globally and are priced accordingly. They are often wet-processed.

The coffees from this town are often explosively aromatic with citrus and floral notes and a light body. According to coffee expert James Hoffman, the coffee grown here can even remind some people more of an earl grey tea than the traditional coffee taste. So truly unique beans are grown here. Worth seeking!

Harrar

Harrar is one of the oldest growing regions and is located in the east, near the capital of Addis Ababa. The coffees grown here are almost exclusively dry processed. They are known for their rich and syrupy body and wild fruit notes. They are often described as tasting like jam or like dry red wine. Their flavor intensity means that beans grown here are often used in espresso blends. 

Ethiopian Coffee: A Personal Tribute  

So we hope that this article has been informative and interesting. Ethiopian coffee is truly unique, and it is not for no reason that they have gained a reputation for excellence. This nation has coffee at the core of its identity and history, and the results show it.  

And so, over many years, I have come to love and sincerely appreciate Ethiopian coffee. It produces the sort of beans and unique flavor profiles that helped spark the specialty coffee movement. It is coffee as it was meant to be. The kind of coffee that convinces people that coffee doesn’t just have to be that burnt bitter generic coffee taste, but can be so much more. 

So if you haven’t tried it yet, get hold of some quality single-origin beans from Ethiopia, brew it tenderly, and you will quickly see why they have such a reputation. 

Buna tetu [lit. Drinking coffee]

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