Ethiopian Coffee: Where It All Began

I haven’t figured out whether the chicken comes before the egg yet, but I have solved another mystery: the origin of coffee (well, not me specifically, but you know what I mean). Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and centuries after its discovery, plenty of coffee connoisseurs will tell you that Ethiopian coffee is the best in the world.

I haven’t figured out whether the chicken comes before the egg yet, but I have solved another mystery: the origin of coffee (well, not me specifically, but you know what I mean). Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and centuries after its discovery, plenty of coffee connoisseurs will tell you that Ethiopian coffee is the best in the world.

So, whether you’re here to find out whether Ethiopian coffee lives up to the hype or just to get a history lesson, I’ve got plenty to say!

History of Ethiopian Coffee

Is it too much of a cliche to start off the origin story of coffee with “once upon a time?” It works for fairy tales – although the history of coffee in Ethiopia is more legend than fairytale.

According to ancient legend, an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi discovered his flock munching on what looked like berries, around 850 AD.

After consuming the fruit the goats became super energetic, dancing wildly and unable to sleep. In other words, Kaldi’s goats were experiencing a massive caffeine rush. Kaldi thought he’d stumbled upon “magic beans” and brought his findings to the local monastery.

Some reports suggest that Kaldi was more terrified than mesmerized by the discovery. He even went on to throw the coffee beans into the fire and proclaim them a product of the Devil. Turns out, he might’ve just been the first person to ever try and roast coffee beans.

Regardless, the monastery turned the beans into a drink with energizing properties. From there, the rest is history. Word spread along the Arabian Peninsula about these coffee beans, or Kaffa, as they were known back then.

Even as coffee production spread across the world, Ethiopia remained a stronghold for its cultivation. And to think it all started with an innocent goat herder and some hungry goats!

Ethiopian Coffee Production Today

Scooping green Ethiopian Coffee beans from a burlap bag.

It’s been a few years since Kaldi’s discovery … give or take a couple of millennia. I’ll admit that it’s hard to beat Brazil, which produces around 40 percent of the world’s coffee beans.

Still, that doesn’t mean Ethiopia isn’t putting in the work. Today, Ethiopia produces around three percent of all the coffee beans in the world. Or, if you want numbers, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates close to four million bags for 2022.

That may not seem like much, but Ethiopia ranks fifth in the world  – and number one in Africa. Of course, around half of that is reserved for domestic consumption by the people of Ethiopia. Unsurprisingly, coffee is heavily ingrained in Ethiopian culture. There’s even an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which I’ll get into later.

I think it’s worth noting that most of that production isn’t from large coffee plantations. More than 15 million smallholder farmers make up most of those numbers, and rely on coffee farming as their livelihood.

Fun fact: Buna dabo naw is an Ethiopian coffee saying that means “coffee is our bread.”

Why Does Coffee Grow Well in Ethiopia?

Closeup of ripe coffee cherries.

While the discovery of coffee in Ethiopia might have been a happy accident, the ability for coffee plants to thrive there is not. With thick vegetation, healthy soil and mountainous terrain, Ethiopia’s tropical climate has the perfect recipe to produce delicious coffee beans. And without the need for pesky agricultural chemicals.

So, even if Ethiopia doesn’t produce as much coffee as Brazil or other countries, the coffee that is grown there is more sustainable.

Depending on the region, some Ethiopian coffees are grown at altitudes of more than 2,000 feet (609 meters) above sea level. Imagine making that hike for your coffee harvest every year!

Those high elevations make the coffee plants work harder, but the long wait pays off. To put it in terms your science teacher would appreciate: more mature coffee beans have more complex sugars. That means deeper, fuller and more balanced flavors in your morning cup of joe.

Ethiopia's Coffee Growing Regions

Coffee trees in blossom.

Those thousands of varietals that Ethiopia produces each year? They don’t all come from the same place. Your Ethiopian coffee can taste wildly different, depending on where it was grown and processed.

Yirgacheffe

You may know it as part of the Sidamo region, but regardless of what you call it, a lot of people consider Yirgacheffe to be the most noteworthy growing region for Ethiopian beans. As part of southern Ethiopia, the mountains of Yirgacheffe tend to produce sweeter, more mature Ethiopian coffees.

Don’t be surprised if you find more Yirgacheffe coffee available during the wintertime. Thetypical harvest runs from October to December. So, this fruitier Arabica coffee may be the perfect complement to the holiday season. 

Guji

For anyone who’s a fan of fruity, acidic coffee, Guji coffee may just be the best Ethiopian coffee for you. Of course, before Guji coffee ends up in your favorite coffee mug, it must first grow in the lush green forest of the Guji region.

With so much untouched forest, it’s not shocking that the region serves as the perfect backdrop for remote coffee villages.

While many people consider Guji coffee to be bright and fruity, the growing region is diverse enough to yield plenty of unique flavor profiles.

Harrar

In Harrar, farmers have been naturally processing their coffee beans for centuries. Generally, coffee from the Harrar region tends to be full-bodied with dry fruitiness.

Rather than wet processing the beans like they do in Yirgacheffe,farmers in Harrar are sticking to tradition. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Given some of the complex flavors that come from Harrar coffee beans, I’d argue there’s nothing broken about this region’s dry processing methods.

Limu

Growing their beans at elevations over 6,000 feet (1828 meters), most people associate premium washed Ethiopian coffee with the Limu region.

These guys have got the good stuff, so to speak. The beans tend to have fruity, sharp flavors reminiscent of Yirgacheffe coffee.

Teppi

Ethiopia might not rely on wild coffee trees anymore, but plenty of coffee drinkers will agree that Teppi coffee comes with a distinct “wild” taste.

That may have something to do with all the citrusy flavors you’ll find in these beans. Plus, the growing region includes some of the highest elevations you’ll find Ethiopian beans grown.

How Is Coffee Processed in Ethiopia?

Coffee processing in Ethiopia.

If words like dry processing or wet processing sound like gibberish to you, get ready for me to drop a few knowledge bombs. While the type of processing can vary from region to region, most Ethiopian coffee beans are processed one of two ways: through sun drying or wet washing techniques.

Between the two, sun dried – or natural – processing tends to be the top choice. That’s not a shock since Ethiopian beans have (and are) mostly harvested by small farmers. Dry processing is cheaper and uses less water, which is another reason why it’s commonly used in more rural regions.

The benefits of dry processing, however, are bold, intense flavors and full-bodied coffees. Naturally processed beans dry in the sun, and the fruit pulp isn’t removed until it’s ready to export. Hence, the fruitier flavors you’ll find with dry processed beans.

In comparison, wet processing removes the fruit immediately with the help of machinery.

You’ll still find plenty of farmers that wash their beans, especially when it comes to premium coffees. Not only is wet processing quicker, it tends to yield more consistent results and a cleaner-tasting cup.

That isn’t to say wet processed beans are better than dry processed beans. Both techniques have their advantages, although wet processing isn’t always feasible for smallholder farmers in Ethiopia. Not to mention, the environmental impact that comes with more water usage and more machinery.

The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Pouring coffee during an Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

Remember when I said coffee was important to Ethiopian culture? Well, I wasn’t kidding. The proof is in the pudding – or, in this case, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Even today, it’s considered one of the most important social customs in this East African country.

Households can perform the ceremony up to three times per day, and it’s not unusual for families to invite neighbors or friends. For a lot of locals, the coffee ceremony is a way to connect as a community through good conversation (and coffee). Being invited into someone’s coffee ceremony is a major sign of respect.

What’s involved in the actual ceremony, you ask? Essentially, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony involves turning raw coffee beans into finished cups of coffee. The host – usually the matriarch of the household – washes the coffee beans by hand and roasts them over an open flame.

Once the host has roasted beans, they’ll manually grind them. No burr coffee grinders here! Then, the beans and water go into a long-handled pan, also called a Jebena. These pots are similar to the ibriks used to make Turkish coffee.

The freshly ground coffee boils with the water, and once it’s “brewed,” the host will taste it to make sure it’s ready. If they give the green light, that means it’s time for the guests to get their own cups.

In case you’re wondering, there are no espresso cups or Turkish coffee cups involved in this ceremony. When it’s time to distribute the coffee, the host will usually pour the coffee into small, handleless vessels.

Flavor Profile: What To Expect From Ethiopian Coffee

While the taste of Ethiopian coffee can vary by growing region (and even batch), most of these beans still have the same general flavor profile. Typically, Ethiopian coffee has bright, fruitier flavors with floral notes.

It’s not unusual for naturally processed coffee beans to display notes of blueberry, wine or even cocoa.

On the other hand, wet processed Ethiopian beans tend to be lighter with flavors like jasmine or lemongrass. Lemongrass may seem like an odd flavor in your coffee, but it’s more appetizing than you think!

How To Buy Ethiopian Coffee

As convenient as it would be if your local grocery store stocked high-quality, authentic Ethiopian coffee beans, the odds aren’t in your favor. Buying real Ethiopian coffee may take a little bit more effort than throwing a bag in your shopping cart.

Short of booking a flight and heading to Ethiopia, your best option is buying your beans from your local roaster or coffee shop. Any roaster worth their salt is going to carry Ethiopian coffee beans – even if selection is limited. If you don’t have access to a local independent roaster, you can always buy beans online.

Here are a couple of tips if you’re unsure about how to buy Ethiopian coffee online:

  • Make sure the roaster you’re buying from isn’t roasting the beans until after you’ve purchased them. The fresher the beans, the better.
  • Don’t forget that Ethiopian coffee is seasonal, so you may not be able to buy from the same region all the time. Availability will depend on the harvest time of the region.
  • The details do matter. Look for information about which growing region the beans are from, how they’re processed and what flavor profile you can expect.

How To Brew Ethiopian Coffee

An AeroPress, Chemex and Kalita Wave together in a row.

So, you’ve managed to secure some whole bean Ethiopian coffee … What now? Well, it’s time to brew your freshly roasted beans! The good news is that there are a few of ways you can go about getting the best from Ethiopian coffee beans.

The first is with a pour over coffee maker, which allows for more control during the brewing process. Since Ethiopian coffee beans are so flavorful, you want to brew them in a way that extracts those flavors. Pour over does just that. As slow as it is, you’ll get to extract every one of those bright, fruity aromas that these beans are known for.

If pour over doesn’t appeal to you, brewing with a drip coffee maker is another option. For best results, you should only use freshly ground coffee beans when you make drip. Yet another option is to use a home espresso machine. While some of you might not love single origin espresso, I’ve had great results using Ethiopian coffees this way.

If you really want to stick to tradition, you can always prepare your coffee over the stovetop in a jebena. With this method, the coffee “cooks” on the stove, and you can serve it with a little bit of sugar or salt.

Yes, you heard that last one right – some people prefer a dash of salt in their Ethiopian coffee.

Of course, Ethiopian coffee doesn’t have to come piping hot in an insulated coffee mug or coffee thermos. These beans are capable of making great cold brew, especially if you’ve got a batch with a fruitier, sweeter flavor profile.

Ethiopian Coffee FAQ

Ethiopian coffee beans grow at higher altitudes, which mean they take longer to mature and produce more complex flavors.

The growing conditions of Ethiopian coffee beans certainly make them a contender for being some of the best coffee beans in the world.

Arabica coffee comes from (and originated in) Ethiopia.

No, you don’t typically add milk if you brew Ethiopian coffee in the traditional way.

Ethiopian coffee tends to have a standard amount of caffeine for an Arabica bean.

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