An adventure around East Africa leads many to Ethiopia, a country that’s distinct for being the genesis of the entire world’s coffee supply; the Arabica coffee plant originated here thousands of years ago. Even the term “coffee” came from the country’s southwestern region of Kaffa, where the plant originally blossomed. In modern times, Ethiopia continues to grow some of the world’s most sought-after, high-quality specialty coffee.
Ethiopia is one of the world’s biggest coffee producers, coming in at #5, and the largest producer in Africa. As the geographic origin of Arabica coffee, the country exports a significant amount even today, with exports in 2010 totaling some 3.3 million 60-kilogram bags. This is only about half of the country’s total production since over 3 million bags are consumed domestically each year.
The coffee that farmers in the country cultivate today can be split into four categories: plantation coffee, garden coffee, semi-forest coffee, and forest coffee. The total land area covered by Arabica plants and other varieties is approximately 400,000 hectares.
Ethiopia is unique in that since coffee is native to the country, consuming coffee beans was an important part of everyday life and local culture long before it became a commercial industry. Harvest season runs from November to February.
Ethiopia is famous for being the birthplace of coffee. It is said that the country’s nomadic mountain tribes were the first to discover its stimulating effect sometime in the 9th century. The plant was originally consumed raw as berries, not in the piping hot liquid form it’s known for today.
The commercialization of coffee in Ethiopia picked up in the 1950s, when the government developed a system for classifying and grading coffee and later established the National Coffee Board of Ethiopia (NCBE).
Ethiopia’s more recent history has seen increased turbulence – its citizens have lived under three different types of government over the past four decades – all of which have led to unrest and dissatisfaction and threatened the country’s coffee industry.
Despite recent economic, environmental, and social issues that have afflicted the country, local farmers remain dedicated to cultivating coffee as it provides a livelihood for so many Ethiopian citizens. Fortunately, coffee cooperatives and movements like the Sidama Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (SCFCU) have been put in place to help small-scale farmers.
Ethiopia is a landlocked East African country bordered to the north and northeast by Eritrea, the east by Djibouti and Somalia, the south by Kenya, and the west by Sudan and South Sudan. Vibrant earth colors cover the landscape, and many high-elevation mountain ranges complement the country’s tropical cloud forests. The Abbai (Blue Nile) is where most of the country’s drinking water is drawn from. With the exception of a few large government-run estates, nearly all (98%) of the country’s coffee is cultivated by peasants on small farms. Crops are grown in four main regions throughout the country:
Thanks in no small part to its colorful coffee history, Ethiopia remains one of the world’s premier coffee origins. Ethiopian coffees boast several specialty-grade variations of the characteristic fruity and wine-y acidic tones characteristic of Arabica coffee in Africa.
Production is simple and mostly organic; beans are grown in the shade, interspersed with different crops, and no chemicals are used (or used discreetly). Coffee in Ethiopia is treated one of two ways – either dry or wet-processed – but most varieties are wet-processed. This also affects the resulting flavor profile.
Dry processing in Ethiopia has mostly been relegated to a casual, quick-solution routine used by locals for domestic consumption. One exception to this rule is Ethiopia’s dry-processed Harrar coffee, mentioned earlier.
Coffee varieties in Harrar are often left directly on the tree to dry, yielding a sweet, fruity, and mild slightly fermented taste with a rich earthy aroma. This process results in the internationally popular Mocha (or Moka) flavor.
With the exception of Dry-processed Harrar coffee, the choicest coffee comes from wet-processing, which more often results in nuanced flavor profiles that are softer, more distinctive, and bring out citrusy and floral notes.
Ethiopia set up the country’s first wet-processing coffee mills in 1972, and the process involves a more complex set of steps, which includes immediately removing the fruit and results in a completely different flavor profile and quality.
Flavor overtones among Ethiopia’s coffees are diverse and include floral, fruity, winey, and chocolatey notes. Quality coffees from Harrar or Yirgacheffe will also often have hints of citrus, and spices like cinnamon or cardamom with a tropical or toasted aroma.
Ethiopia boasts coffee varieties that consistently rank highly among the world’s best coffees. These are often categorized by region and include:
Yirgacheffe: One of the most renowned coffees in the world, this wet-processed blend is high in caffeine, low in acidity, rich-tasting, and filled with fragrance. Citrus and floral are the dominant tastes in this blend. Many purport that drinking Yirgacheffe coffee is more like drinking elegant tea than actual coffee.
Yirgacheffe coffee can be further classified by microregion. Coffees from the Adado, Beriti, Kochere, and Konga areas are simple with a floral, fruity, and citrusy taste, while Aricha and Chelchele coffees are sweeter and have more complex flavors like toffee or almond as well.
Ethiopian Harrar: As highlighted above, the dry-processed coffee from this region yields a high-quality brew with a fruity flavor similar to that of a dry red wine. One popular brand of Harrar coffee is Koffee Kult’s Ethiopian Harrar coffee, a medium roast with a balanced/full body and smooth hints of dark chocolate and blueberry.
Ethiopian Sidamo: Coffees from Sidamo are wet-processed blends distinguished by a lemony flavor and floral aroma with hints of wood and spice. It’s a medium-bodied blend with a wine-like acid level. Sidamo coffees are sweet and have a soft and bright aftertaste.
Ethiopian Limu: Considered a premium gourmet coffee, Limu washed coffee is grown at elevations from 3,600 to 6,200 feet. It has a sharp taste yet is low in acid and has a medium, balanced body. Its vibrant flavor is sweet, fruity, winey, and noticeably spicy.
Djimmah Coffee: Also known as Jimma Coffee, Djimmah hails from the country’s Illubabor and Kaffa regions. Dry-processing the coffee yields a slightly unpleasant taste, but the wet-processed coffee is low in acid and has hints of stone fruit, berry, and an earthy cocoa aftertaste.
Lekempti: Ethiopian Lekempti coffee is grown in the regions of Ghimbi and Wollega and has a brew like that of Harrar longberry varieties – low acidity with a balanced body, but with its own unique fruit taste.
With its place in the local history, coffee is firmly nestled in Ethiopia’s local way of life. It’s played a role in indigenous cultural practices for several generations, the most significant of these being the local “coffee ceremony.”
A coffee ceremony serves as an opener for significant events. It also opens up an opportunity to discuss important issues, as it fosters a social atmosphere. Locals will often meet and converse over coffee on a regular basis, much like the way Westerners frequently “grab a coffee”.
The ubiquitousness of coffee in Ethiopian culture can be succinctly described with one of their ancient proverbs – “Buna dabo naw” – which means “coffee is our bread”.