Guide To Ethiopian Coffee: As Unique As It Is Delicious

Ethiopian coffee farm beds with workers sorting
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You’ve probably heard of Ethiopian coffee if you’re a coffee lover. It is widely regarded as some of the best coffee in the world and for good reason. 

Ethiopian coffees are known for their unique flavor profile, varying greatly depending on the region, micro-region, or farm where they’re grown. Ethiopian coffee beans typically present floral and fruity notes, bright acidity, and complex flavor.

So what makes Ethiopian coffee so special? Let’s find out.

History of Ethiopian Coffee

Ethiopia is widely considered the birthplace of coffee, and the country has a long history of coffee cultivation and consumption. 

Legend of Kaldi

According to legend, a goat herder named Kaldi first discovered coffee in Ethiopia. One day, Kaldi noticed that his goats became very energetic after eating the berries of a particular tree. 

He tried the berries himself and found they had a similar effect on him. Kaldi shared his discovery with the monks at the local monastery, who eventually used the berries to create a drink that helped them stay awake during long prayer sessions.

Word of this mysterious energy-inducing drink quickly spread east to the Arabian Peninsula, where coffee cultivation and trade began. Through foreign visitors to the holy city of Mecca, stories of the dark black beverage known as the “wine of Araby” spread across Europe. And the rest, as they say, is history.

woman grinding coffee beans in mortar and pestle

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

If you ever have the chance to visit Ethiopia, one experience you don’t want to miss is the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The ceremony is a significant part of Ethiopian culture and an excellent opportunity to learn about the country’s coffee culture.

Traditional Coffee Ceremony

The traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a long process that involves roasting, grinding, and brewing coffee beans. A woman always performs the ceremony, which is considered an honor and can take up to two hours to complete.

The ceremony starts with roasting the green coffee beans over an open flame. The roasted beans are then ground using a mortar and pestle. Once the coffee is ground, it is brewed in a traditional clay pot called a jebena. The jebena is placed on a bed of hot coals, and the coffee is brewed slowly over low heat.

Once the coffee is ready, it is poured into small cups, and the host serves it to the guests. The coffee is served with a snack, usually roasted barley or popcorn. The ceremony is an excellent opportunity to socialize and bond with friends and family.

pouring coffee from yebena into several white tea cups

Role of Buna in Ethiopian Culture

The coffee ceremony, or buna as it is called in Ethiopia, plays a crucial role in Ethiopian culture. The country prides itself as the birthplace of coffee, and it has been a significant part of Ethiopian culture for centuries.

Buna is not just a way to enjoy coffee but also to build and strengthen relationships. In Ethiopia, the tradition is often performed multiple times daily and is essential to everyday life.

Buna is also a symbol of hospitality, and it is customary to serve it to guests as a sign of respect and friendship. It is a means of welcoming new acquaintances, catching up, and connecting with existing friends and family.

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Coffee Regions in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is known for producing some of the world’s finest coffees, and it is the birthplace of Coffea arabica, the coffee plant. All coffee grown in Ethiopia is Arabica coffee. The country has several coffee-growing regions, each with a distinct flavor profile. Here are a few of the top-growing regions you’re likely to hear about:

Sidamo

Sidamo is a coffee region located in southern Ethiopia. The area produces coffee beans with a complex flavor profile, including floral, citrus, and berry notes. 

Sidamo coffee is often described as having a full body, bright acidity, and a smooth finish. It is one of Ethiopia’s most popular coffee regions and is highly regarded in the specialty coffee sector.

bright green Ethiopian mountainside

Yirgacheffe

Yirgacheffe is also located in southern Ethiopia and is known for producing some of the most distinctive coffees in the world. The region is technically part of the Sidamo region but is subdivided into a micro-region because of its well-known, exceptional coffee. 

This growing region is characterized by its high altitude, fertile soil, and ideal climate for coffee cultivation. Yirgacheffe coffee is known for its bright acidity, floral aroma, and fruity notes. It is often described as having a tea-like quality and is highly regarded and sought after by coffee enthusiasts.

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Harrar

Harrar, located in eastern Ethiopia, is now known as the Oromia region. It’s known for producing coffee beans with a distinctive berry (blueberry or blackberry) flavor. Coffees produced here are typically naturally processed to highlight the intense berry notes.

The region has a long history of coffee cultivation, and its coffee is often referred to as “Mocha” due to its similarity in flavor to the coffee produced in Yemen. Harrar coffee is known for its heavy body, low acidity, and intense fruity notes.

mountain road in rolling hills of Ethiopia

Limu

Limu is located in southwest Ethiopia and is known for producing coffee beans with a unique flavor profile, including chocolate with a hint of spice and a pleasant sweetness. The region has a lower altitude than other coffee-growing regions in Ethiopia, which results in coffee with a lower acidity level. Limu coffee is often described as having a full body, rich flavor, and a smooth finish.

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Jimma

Jimma is located in southwest Ethiopia and is known for producing coffee beans with a distinct wine-like flavor. The region has a high altitude, which results in coffee with a bright acidity level. Jimma coffee is often described as having a medium body, bright acidity, and a fruity flavor.

In conclusion, Ethiopia is home to some of the world’s most interesting and flavorful coffees. Each coffee-growing region in Ethiopia has its unique flavor profile, and coffee enthusiasts worldwide seek out Ethiopian coffee for its quality and diversity.

Coffee Production in Ethiopia

Coffee production is essential to Ethiopia’s economy. Over 15 million people rely on coffee production for their livelihood, and around 30-35% of export income comes from coffee. 

In 2022/23 (Sep-Oct), Ethiopia’s coffee production is forecasted to reach 8.27 million 60-kilogram bags, with exports reaching a record 4.72 million bags. But how is all of this coffee produced?

small red huts in Ethiopia jungle

Small Farms

Small farms are the backbone of Ethiopian coffee production. These farms are typically family-owned and operated, with a few hectares of land where coffee is shade-grown alongside other fruits and vegetables. 

Known as “garden producers,” small farmers produce around 95% of Ethiopia’s coffee, use traditional farming methods, avoid agrochemical use, and mostly hand-pick coffee cherries. Small farmers sell their coffee to local cooperatives or traders who export the coffee.

Plantations

Plantations are large-scale coffee farms that use modern farming techniques. These farms have hundreds of hectares of land and use machines to harvest coffee cherries. Plantations produce only around 5% of Ethiopia’s coffee and usually sell it directly to exporters.

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Cooperatives

Cooperatives bring together small farmers to sell their coffee collectively to export markets. These cooperatives often provide farmers with training, financing, and market access. 

In addition to the benefits observed by the farmers, cooperatives often use their earnings to invest in local infrastructure improvements like roads, schools, and healthcare facilities.

Cooperatives also ensure that farmers receive fair prices for their coffee. Over 1,000 coffee cooperatives in Ethiopia support small farmers and promote fair-trade practices.

Green Coffee

Green coffee is the raw, unroasted coffee beans exported from Ethiopia. Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest exporters of green coffee; however, less than half of the coffee produced is exported. 

According to Perfect Daily Grind, in 2017, the nation produced approximately 470,000 tons of green coffee, of which it exported roughly 160,000, or 34%. This means more than half of the coffee grown in Ethiopia is consumed within the country.

green coffee beans pouring into bucket

Ethiopian Coffee Processing Methods

When it comes to Ethiopian coffee, the processing methods play a crucial role in determining the final taste and quality of the coffee. There are two primary methods of processing Ethiopian coffee: natural processed and washed.

Natural Process

Natural processing is a traditional method of processing coffee in Ethiopia. This method leaves the whole coffee cherries to dry in the sun for several weeks. The sticky fruit and skin slowly dry during this time, and some fermentation occurs. To avoid over-fermentation, the cherries are turned regularly to ensure even drying. 

Once the cherries are fully dried, they are machine-hulled to remove the outer layers, revealing the coffee beans inside.

Natural processing produces coffee with a round body and fruity, almost wine-like flavors. However, this method is also more susceptible to defects, such as mold or over-fermentation, which can negatively impact the taste of the coffee.

man holding ripe coffee cherries in hands above collection basket

Washed

Washed coffee means the coffee cherries are pulped to remove the outer layers, revealing the coffee beans inside. The beans are then washed to remove any remaining pulp or mucilage. Finally, the washed beans are dried in the sun or using mechanical dryers.

Washed coffee is known for having a cleaner, brighter flavor with more pronounced acidity. Additionally, this method is less susceptible to defects than natural processing.

Both natural processing and washing have advantages and disadvantages, and the choice of processing method often comes down to personal preference and the specific characteristics of the coffee being produced. However, it is important to note that the water quality used during the washing process can greatly impact the final flavor of the coffee.

bird atop tree branch in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Coffee and Sustainability

Ethiopian coffee is not only known for its unique taste and aroma but also for its sustainability practices. Coffee is a vital source of income for many Ethiopian farmers, and they recognize the importance of preserving the environment for future generations.

Sustainable Practices

Many Ethiopian coffee farmers use sustainable practices to cultivate coffee. They use organic fertilizers, such as compost and manure, to enrich the soil and avoid harmful chemicals that can damage the environment. Although certification is not common, Ethiopian coffee can often be considered organic by default and may indeed
exceed the standards set for organic certification.

Farmers also use shade-growing techniques, which involve growing coffee under the canopy of trees. This practice helps maintain the natural habitat of birds and other wildlife and provides a buffer against the effects of climate change.

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Environmental Impact

Coffee production can significantly impact the environment, but Ethiopian coffee farmers are taking steps to minimize their impact. For example, they are working to reduce water usage and control run-off during coffee processing, which can be a significant source of pollution.

Farmers are also planting trees and utilizing a method called “stumping” to rejuvenate old trees that are less productive to combat deforestation, which is a major concern in Ethiopia’s coffee-growing regions.

Certification

Many Ethiopian coffee farmers have obtained certifications such as Organic, Fair Trade, and Rainforest Alliance, recognizing their sustainable practices. However, while these certifications help to ensure that coffee is produced in an environmentally and socially responsible manner, they do little to financially support small farmers.

While the goal of these certifications is to ultimately provide small farmers access to a broader market and fair prices for their coffee, the farmers only observe a nominal increase in revenue (as little as $22 a year in some cases) for obtaining these certifications.

Most farmers elect to remain uncertified due to the high cost of obtaining the certification, including inspections, stringent labor laws, and other costs, despite following strict organic growing practices.

sun setting over mountains in Ethiopia

Challenges Facing the Ethiopian Coffee Industry

Climate Change

The changing climate is a major challenge facing Ethiopian coffee farmers. Small farmers lack the means to control irrigation and often rely on the natural weather patterns that, until recently, have proven ideal for coffee growing.

Erratic rainfall patterns and rising temperatures are affecting coffee production. Environmental changes are causing coffee trees to produce fewer cherries, leading to lower yields.

Additionally, changes in weather patterns may affect the quality of the coffee produced, similar to terroir in wine.

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Economic Factors

The Ethiopian coffee industry faces several economic challenges. One of the biggest challenges is the low prices that coffee farmers receive for their coffee beans. This is due to many factors, including low productivity, poor quality, and lack of market access. 

Additionally, the coffee industry in Ethiopia needs to be more cohesive, with many small-scale farmers producing coffee, making it difficult to achieve economies of scale and improve productivity.

Another economic challenge facing the Ethiopian coffee industry is the need for more investment in infrastructure and technology. Many coffee farmers in Ethiopia lack access to basic infrastructure like roads and electricity, which makes it difficult to transport coffee beans to market. Additionally, many coffee farmers need access to modern farming techniques and technology, which could help improve productivity and quality.

Ethiopian mountains with hazy fog

Frequently Asked Questions

How does Ethiopian coffee compare to other African coffees?

Ethiopian coffee is often considered the best coffee in Africa. It is known for its unique flavor profile, which differs from other African coffees. Ethiopian coffee has a light, floral taste with citrus notes not found in other African coffees. It is also known for its high acidity and fruity undertones.

What are the flavor notes commonly found in Ethiopian coffee?

Ethiopian coffee is known for its complex flavor profile. Some common flavor notes in Ethiopian coffee are floral, citrus, and berry. Ethiopian coffee also has a light and fragrant taste that differs from other coffees. The flavor notes can vary depending on the region where the coffee is grown and the processing method used.

The brewing method will also impact the final flavor of the coffee. We love to make cold brew with Ethiopian coffee beans or even espresso with a darker roast Ethiopian. It also makes a fantastic coffee for pour over brewing.

How is Ethiopian coffee processed?

Ethiopian coffee is typically processed using one of two methods: washed or natural. Washed coffee is processed by removing the outer layers of the coffee cherry before drying the beans. This method produces a cleaner and brighter coffee with more acidity. Natural coffee is processed by drying the whole coffee cherry (skin, mucilage, and all), which results in a sweeter and fruitier coffee with less acidity.

What are some popular Ethiopian coffee varieties?

Several popular Ethiopian coffee varieties exist from regions, including Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, and Harrar. Yirgacheffe is known for its floral and citrus notes, while Sidamo is known for its fruity and wine-like taste. Harrar is known for its blueberry and chocolate notes. These varieties are named after the regions where they are grown and their specific flavor profiles.