- Updated Nov 03, 2019
- Writen by Robert Smith
Ethiopian Coffee: History, Taste, Plantation, Best Products
- Updated Jul 26, 2019
- Writen by Robert Smith
Ethiopia is widely considered as the birthplace of coffee, and it is one of the few places in the world where you can still find coffee-growing wildly. The country is home to a wide variety of coffee tree species, and it is even believed that some are still not documented.
But, besides being the birthplace of coffee, there are still many other things that make Ethiopian coffee special. And they range from the fact that unlike many other coffee producing countries like neighboring Kenya, Ethiopians are heavy coffee drinkers with around half of the coffee produced consumed locally to the fact that the country produces some of the best quality Arabica coffee.
Here we dig deeper into Ethiopian coffee to find out what makes it special and highly sought after globally. And at the end of it, we also showcase some of the best Ethiopian coffees currently on the market.
Flavor – There are different coffee growing regions in Ethiopia that grow different varietals and under different conditions. Coffee from the different regions will have a distinctive taste and is hard to tell that it is from the same country. Hence, it is not always easy to narrow down what Ethiopian coffee tastes like.
However, Ethiopian coffee is generally considered to be bright fruited and with floral flavors. Also, this coffee has a medium body, some complex flavor notes, and relatively higher acidity.
Varietals – Although Ethiopia is home to a wide variety of coffee types including several wild ones that are yet to be documented, Arabica is the most widely grown coffee type in the country. Ethiopians also grow different categories of this coffee and they are mostly classified as either Longberry, Shortberry, or mocha.
Processing – Like with many other top coffee growing regions, coffee from Ethiopia is mostly wet-processed or washed and sun-dried. Also, in some regions, most of the coffee is still naturally processed whereby the coffee beans are dried while the fruit is still on the bean, and the pulps are only removed just before export.
History of Ethiopian Coffee
The story of Ethiopian coffee starts with the legend of Kaldi, a goat herdsman that lived around 850 AD. While herding his goats, Kaldi discovered that they were always drawn to certain bushes and after easting cherries from the trees they had a lot of energy and were jumping around.
Kaldi decided to try out the cherries and was fascinated by the results as he felt more energetic and stimulated after chewing them. Kaldi then brought them back home and gave them to his local monks.
The monks threw the beans to the fire proclaiming that their effects were the work of the devil, but as the beans were burning the room was filled with that pleasant aroma of roasting coffee. But it would be many years after this incidence that any evidence of coffee being brewed appeared anywhere in historical accounts.
It is believed that Ethiopians first exported coffee around the 17th century despite it being locally consumed for longer than this. And although Yemen started exporting coffee earlier than this, many historians believe that this coffee came from trees whose seedlings were sourced from Ethiopia.
Throughout the years that followed, coffee growth continued to expand throughout the country, but the industry faces its fair share troubles. Like in the 1970s when it was under a dictatorial rule the government would force farmers to sell their produce directly to them. But, things changed for the better in the 1990s when the system fell.
In 2003, the Ethiopian coffee industry would face some trying times as coffee prices fell to an all-time low, but the industry still managed to pull out. Today, the industry is still doing well and producing some high-quality coffee with high demand on the global market.
How It Is Produced
Ethiopia produces about 6.5 million bags of coffee annually which makes it the 5th largest coffee producer in the world and the largest in Africa. Also, more than half of this coffee is consumed locally which makes Ethiopians some of the heaviest coffee consumers globally.
The love for coffee for Ethiopians does not just stop at the consumption because many of them are also involved in its production. There are close to 15 million Ethiopians that earn directly from coffee with a majority of them involved in its cultivation.
Most of the coffee in Ethiopia is grown by small scale farmers in different regions of the country and there are also a few large estates that produce coffee.
And while the country is home to a wide variety of coffee types, most coffee farmers produce the Arabica type and is often categorized into three varieties which are mocha, Shortberry, and Longberry.
Ethiopia is located along the global bean belt which is a region around the equator with a favorable coffee growing climate. And coffee trees have been growing in the area well for a long time, and so growing coffee trees takes little effort.
The coffee-growing regions in the country have some deep and fertile volcanic soils that give the coffee trees the perfect place to anchor their roots. And the high elevations (around 1,500 to 2,200 meters above sea level) that characterize the southern mountainous region make excellent coffee growing conditions.
In Ethiopia, the vegetation is lush and the coffee-growing areas have plenty of trees which means that unlike in other coffee-growing countries, farmers will not need to plant additional trees to provide shade for their coffee trees.
The coffee-growing conditions in Ethiopia are so good that most coffee farmers do not even need to use agricultural chemicals during cultivation.
Major Growing Regions
Ethiopia might have one of the best coffee growing environments, but like any other coffee growing regions, this does not mean you can grow coffee just anywhere. The major coffee growing regions in the country are Sidamo, Harar, and Gimbi.
Sidamo – The famous Ethiopian coffee Yirgacheffe comes from the Sidamo region. This coffee-producing area is known for being home to the finest quality Ethiopian coffee. Coffee from this southern region always has an amazing aroma and with a light and citrus-like flavor.
Harar – Coffee from Harar region is typically dry-processed, and it is among the oldest varieties of Ethiopian coffee that are still cultivated to date. On the palate, Harar coffee will be characterized by a full-body, medium acidity and a noticeable hint of mocha. And most of the work involved in producing the coffee from picking to processing is done by hand.
Gimbi – Unlike coffee from Harar, Ghimbi's coffee is wet-processed, and the region accounts for a huge portion of the ever-increasing coffee production in Ethiopia. With Gimbi coffee, you will get a more balanced cup that is a little on the heavier body side.
How It Is Roasted
Well, roasting is a matter of personal preferences and how you like your coffee. However, with Ethiopian coffee, a classic medium roast will be a perfect choice.
With a medium roast, you are able to bring out the perfect balance between medium body, sweet flavors and bright acidity all of which are what make Ethiopian coffee special.
Also note that while a dark roast might be more preferred by some coffee aficionados, if you roast your Ethiopian coffee beans too dark, you can easily cover up most of the flavor notes that make this coffee special.
If you are roasting the beans at home, it will be a better idea to stick with a lighter roast like many Ethiopians do when roasting their beans in a pan at home. With this roast, you get flavor clarity and a tea-like body that is perfect for showcasing the complex flavors in Ethiopian coffee beans.
Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony
Anyone that knows about Ethiopian coffee and culture, will know about the Ethiopian coffee ceremony as it plays an important role in society. And to truly appreciate the culture behind this amazing coffee, it is worth knowing what it entails.
The coffee ceremony is one of the most important social connections among Ethiopians, and it signifies friendship ties and is also a sign of respect.
It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours and many Ethiopians will have at least 2 of these ceremonies every day with everybody in the family including kids involved.
Here is a step by step breakdown of the ceremony.
Step #1 – Set Up
Some grass is first spread on the floor and decorated with flowers, and the tray with the small cups is placed over it.
Step #2 – Coffee Roasting
Green coffee beans are then roasted in a pan and over a charcoal stove. In many homes, incense is also burnt as the coffee beans are roasted.
Step #3 – Grinding
Once the beans are roasted to the desired roast, the next step is to grind them. This step is also manual, and it is done with a wooden bowl and long stick, a set up that is similar to mortar and pestle.
Step #4 – Brewing Coffee
Once ground, the coffee is then added to boiling water in a Jebena (a traditional kettle with a spherical base, long thin neck and pouring spout). Coffee is then left to brew for a few minutes and sugar is added.
Step #5 – Serving
When the coffee is ready, the host then pours it into the small cups without handles that are arranged on a tray from a height of around 30 centimeters without stopping until all cups have coffee.
Best Brewing Methods
Besides the traditional method of taking Ethiopian coffee following the ceremony above, there are still many ways you can make amazing coffee with these beans. They include automatic drip, pour-over, and the cold brew.
Automatic drip works best for this coffee given that it has a light body and brighter acidity as the paper filter provides a lot of clarity to the flavors so that you end up with the perfect body and acidity.
With pour-over, on the other hand, you get more control over the process, and you can slow it down to extract maximum flavors.
And because the best Ethiopian coffee beans will have fruited and floral notes, they will also be perfect for a cold brew.
Summary of Facts about Ethiopian Coffee
1. Many coffee historians consider Ethiopia the birthplace of coffee
2. Coffee is said to have originated from the Kaffa region which is believed to be where the term “coffee’ comes from
3. Ethiopia is the 5th largest coffee producer globally and number 1 producer in Africa
4. The country produces around 6.5 million bags of coffee annually and 3.5 million of this is consumed locally
5. Coffee accounts for around 60% of Ethiopia's annual foreign income
6. Around 15 million people in Ethiopia rely on coffee to earn a living
7. Most of the coffee grown in the country is in small plantations by small scale farmers
8. Ethiopia has the most genetically diverse coffee types in the world
9. Ethiopia accounts for about 3% of the world’s coffee market
10. Coffee in Ethiopia is either wet or dry processed depending on the region
4 Best Ethiopian Coffee Brands
From the rich and highly productive soils of Yirgacheffe, Volcanica coffee brings you this amazing coffee to quench your Ethiopian coffee thirst.
It is 100% Ethiopian coffee with no cheap blends and given the region that it comes from, it will have a medium body and brilliant acidity and characterized by some rough and fruity tones that will make your coffee more refreshing.
And because the coffee beans are medium roasted, they will allow for the true flavor characteristics to come out to give you a remarkable taste. Also, they are always freshly roasted and packaged immediately to ensure you get the freshest coffee.
While there are different types of Ethiopian coffee available in the market, you cannot go wrong with Yirgacheffe if you are looking for something premium quality. And this one from Fresh Roasted is another top-notch option.
It is a single-origin coffee which further ensures besides getting top quality coffee, it will also be highly consistent in everything. And for a 20-pound pack of premium quality coffee, it is also highly affordable.
These beans come in a medium roast which is always the best way to roast Ethiopian coffee. Also, besides the beans being roasted in state of the art facilities, the roasting is always done as close to packaging as possible for maximum freshness.
When it comes to the flavors, this coffee has a mild body and is characterized by notes of lemon and honey.
If you prefer a dark roast for any coffee that you make, here is a great option by Dean’s Beans that will work well for you if you are shopping for Ethiopian coffee.
These whole beans are single-origin which is always great for ensuring you get the finest quality coffee. And the dark roast offers fantastic smoothness and with a pleasant earthy and blueberry-like aroma.
This gourmet coffee is specially roasted in small batches and before even getting to the roasting, the growing conditions also help ensure you get the best coffee. The coffee is shade-grown in the highlands of Ethiopia and is 100% organic.
For the environmentally-conscious coffee lovers, the package is also perfect because besides being airtight it is biodegradable and compostable at home.
Here is yet another great choice for the coffee lovers that are looking for high-quality Ethiopian coffee. What makes this Stumptown coffee special is that it is not just sold as coffee from Ethiopia, but you also get to know exactly where it grows and even who grows it.
The beans that end up in the pack are all hand-picked to ensure that only the ripest ones get selected, and they are wash-processed before being sun-dried to bring out all the amazing flavors.
And when you get to consume the coffee, the sweet floral aromas and the notes of peach in the flavor profile will make this your new favorite coffee.
Better yet, the coffee is freshly roasted before packaging and properly packaged in an airtight pack to ensure the beans preserve maximum freshness.
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Being the birthplace of coffee, one can rightfully expect nothing short of the best coffee from Ethiopia. And the good news is that the country never disappoints as it serves the world well in both coffee quality and quantity.
For the coffee aficionados that are on the hunt for the best Ethiopian coffee or just what to improve their coffee knowledge, this piece has you covered as we have highlighted the key things you need to know about this amazing coffee.
Although the country has a lot of coffee to offer with a wide array of brands that sell their coffee, shopping for good Ethiopian coffee should now be more effortless as we also provide 4 amazing recommendations above.