This is our Ethiopian coffee guide.
You will find out why Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee, why Ethiopian coffee is appreciated around the world, and what the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is.
Let's get started.
Ethiopia - The Birthplace of Coffee
The history of coffee's spread around the world began more than a thousand years ago, when people first realized that the berries of the coffee tree have a invigorating effect. No one really knows exactly how people discovered that they could create a drink by roasting and brewing the beans, but by beginning of the second millennium, coffee had already spread throughout Ethiopia.
By the 15th century, the Arabs had introduced coffee to Yemen from Ethiopia and established the first commercial coffee plantations. Then they started shipping roasted coffee beans all over the world. Coffee was popular in Muslim countries because it was a good replacement for the wine prohibited there. The name of the coffee species Arabica comes from the name of the Arabian Peninsula.
Then coffee came to Europe, where it gained popularity just as quickly, first as a medicine and then as a daily drink. In the 17th century, Europeans disliked Yemen's monopoly on the supply of coffee, and they secretly took coffee tree seedlings to their colonies that had a suitable climate.
The first place where those seedlings were planted was India. From India, coffee was brought to Indonesia, and from there it gradually spread to all the European colonies located in the tropics.
Ethiopia's Coffee Production, Exports, and Domestic Consumption
Ethiopia is fifth in the world in terms of Arabica coffee production and first in Africa. The cultivation, processing, and trade of coffee employs almost 20% of Ethiopia's population of 100 million people.
Coffee provides a significant portion of the country's export earnings, which is why coffee is a national pride and an important part of life in Ethiopia. In total, the country produces 350,000 tons of coffee per year.
The population consumes more than 50% of the coffee produced in Ethiopia. There are almost no roasters in the country—each family roasts coffee beans on their own.
Ethiopia's Climate and the Cultivation of Ethiopian Coffee Beans
Ethiopia is the highest mountainous country in Africa. Most of the country's land is part of the Ethiopian Highlands, with elevations of 1,500 to 2,000 meters. The maximum elevations reach 4,500 thousand meters in the north and the minimum elevations fall below sea level in the northeast. The climate and landscape varies greatly from region to region, from tropical rainforests in Kaffa to arid plains in Harar.
Due to its high elevations, Ethiopia is characterized by strong fluctuations in daily temperatures—the difference is about 15 degrees. Under these conditions, coffee matures more slowly, gaining more sweetness, acidity, and complexity of taste.
About 95% of Ethiopia's coffee is produced by small-scale coffee farmers, who grow it on several dozen acres of land near their homes. Ethiopia also has large farms—several hundred hectares in size—that are equipped with their own processing stations, warehouses, and dry mills and that can even export coffee on their own. However, there are very few of these large farms.
Almost all Ethiopian coffee beans are grown in the shade of specially planted trees or forests. This system reduces yields but protects the soil from depletion, thus eliminating the need to use fertilizers, which most of the country's coffee farmers can't afford.
Stations process Ethiopian coffee in two main ways: washed and natural. Drying washed coffee takes about two weeks, and the natural process takes a month.
After processing, green coffee beans are dried on special ventilated platforms called African drying beds. This requires a lot of space and additional investment, so for greater efficiency, the stations process the green coffee first with a washed method, and when the beds are empty, they process it naturally.
Ethiopian Coffee Growing Regions
Among the nine administrative coffee growing regions of Ethiopia, there are three main coffee regions: Oromia, where more than 64% of plantations are located; the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region (SNNPR), which produces 35% of all Ethiopian coffee beans; and Gambella, which accounts for only 1% of coffee production.
Each region has its terroir, varieties, typical processing methods, and research centers. The research centers study, classify, and develop new varieties, plant seedlings for sale to farmers, and determine which varieties are best suited to local growing conditions based on higher yields and disease resistance.
Ethiopian Coffee Classification
Ethiopian coffee is divided into 8 grades. Coffee above grade 6 is prohibited for export and is sold only on the domestic market. Grade is determined by the number of defects, but these defects and the scoring system itself differ from SCA standards.
- Grades 1 and 2 — mostly washed processed coffee; some microlots of natural processed coffee
- Grade 3 and higher — only natural processed coffee
The grading system is not directly related to taste—it operates exclusively on the number of defects and bean density.
Grades 1 and 2 usually have the highest taste potential, but due to the low volume of coffee production, it's hard to find really outstanding lots.
Ethiopian Coffee Varieties
Ethiopia Yirgacheffe — Small, flavorful coffee beans. Coffee lovers all over the world appreciate this variety, which is treated with a type of wet processing. Coffee made from these beans has a fruity-floral aroma and a rich chocolate flavor with hints of orange.
Ethiopia Sidamo - Coffee beans grown in the southern part of the country. They are also wet processed. The coffee is famous for its chocolatey flavor mixed with the traditional acidity of Arabica coffee. It also has special aroma of sweet bergamot, vanilla, and fruit.
Ethiopia Harrar - Coffee beans native to the eastern province of Harar. It's a forest variety grown at an elevation of 2,000 meters above sea level. Despite its unpresentable appearance (many beans look small and deformed), this coffee is popular worldwide thanks to its delicate combination of nut and citrus notes, moderate acidity, and bitter reminder of the drink in the aftertaste.
Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony
Traditionally, the Ethiopian coffee ceremony is held by women for family, friends, and neighbors. It is customary to drink three cups.
Leaves, grass, or flowers are scattered on the floor. The coffee ceremony begins with the preparation of beans for roasting. They need to be rinsed, and this is one of the main features of Ethiopian coffee—the beans are roasted wet.
The beans are roasted in a large metal dish over a charcoal oven or campfire. The roasting is uneven, but this gives a unique and lively taste. At the same time the coffee is roasted, incense is lit, and the aromas mix in the room.
The roasted coffee is ground in a mortar and then poured into a Jebena earthenware pot. Cardamom, cloves, or cinnamon are often added. Then cold water is poured into the Jebena and the pot is placed on the stove or fire.
Once the coffee is ready, the Jebena is removed from the heat and the coffee is allowed to infuse for a few minutes. Then it is poured into cups on a special table.
The coffee is drunk with sugar or salt. Drinking coffee with salt may seem strange to us, but a small amount of salt actually gives the drink an unusual shade and taste. It also neutralizes bitterness.