Ethiopian Coffee: Everything You Need to Know

Danakil Depression, Lake Tana, and Great Rift Valley are some of the breath-taking landmarks that you’ll find in Ethiopia. Rastafarians see the country as their birthplace. Some regard it as the sacred keeper of the Ark of Covenant and a piece of the True Cross, where Jesus was crucified in 33 A.D.

But beyond these exciting facts, do you know what made Ethiopia famous? Coffee. Keep reading to learn all you need to know about Ethiopian coffee.

Fast Facts About Ethiopian Coffee

  • Ethiopian coffee beans are known for their complexity, pungent aroma, winey quality, and distinct acidity.
  • Produces the heirloom varieties of Arabica coffee
  • The key coffee-producers are from the Sidamo, Limu, Yirgacheffe, and Harrar regions.
  • Ethiopian coffees are cultivated in mountainside fincas (farms) with an elevation between 1500 and 2200 meters (5000-7200 feet) above sea level.
  • Coffee was first discovered in the region of Kaffa in 850 AD by an Ethiopian goat herder.

Ethiopian Coffee 101

To appreciate coffee is to understand its roots, the beans, and the processes down to the brewing methods to enjoy a coffee from Ethiopia. Below are coffee facts worth reading while sipping your morning joe.

As the largest producer of coffee in Africa, Ethiopia plans to triple its coffee production effort for the next five years. The government will focus on improving its production and marketing system and is expecting to harvest 1.8 million tons of coffee by 2024.

To boost its coffee productivity, old trees will be replaced by new coffee seedlings. Aside from the existing coffee plantations, Ethiopia sought to cultivate coffee in a 5.4 million ha of land. Part of the government’s plan in tripling the coffee production is penetrating the East Asian market.

To date, Ethiopia is the fifth-largest coffee producer in the world and is responsible for 4.2% of global coffee production. While 50% of its coffee production is consumed domestically, 25-30% of the region’s revenue came from Arabica coffee exports.

Varietals and Cultivars

Ethiopian coffee beans have exciting flavor profiles. For instance, Volcanica’s Ethiopian coffee sourced from an independent coffee farm in Yirgacheffe features bold and sophisticated, bright, and fruity flavors. 

Surprisingly, there is more to discover from the coffee beans harvested from the significant coffee-producing regions of Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, Limu, and Harrar. These coffee beans are:

Yirgacheffe coffee beans:

  • Wet processed (washed)
  • The coffee plant is an Arabica Heirloom varietal
  • Grown in elevations between 1,700 and 2000 meters
  • Qualifies as an SHB (strictly hard bean) and SHG (strictly high grown)
  • Premium Yirgacheffe coffee beans display chocolatey and nutty notes
  • Yirgacheffe coffee beans are generally high-toned with floral and citrus notes.

Sidamo coffee beans:

  • Wet processed (washed), beans are dried in raised beds
  • The coffee plant is an Arabica Heirloom Ethiopian variety
  • Grown in elevations between 1500 and 2200 meters

Harrar coffee beans:

  • Naturally processed, sun-dried in concrete slabs.
  • The coffee plant is an Arabica of wild Ethiopian variety
  • Grown at an elevation of 1510 and 2120 meters
  • Some variants of Harrar coffee display a vibrant, dark chocolate notes
  • It comes in different options: longberry, shortberry, and peaberry.

Limu coffee beans:

  • Wet-processed (washed)
  • Grown at altitudes of 3,600 and 6,200 feet

About the Beans

Taste 

Ethiopian coffee beans from different regions have recognizable cupping and tasting notes. These are evident in the following coffee roasts below:

Yirgacheffe coffee beans:

  • Vibrant acidity, intense, clean taste with hints of sophisticated floral notes
  • Bright aftertaste with undertones of wine or berry.

Sidamo coffee beans:

  • Well-balanced cupping notes that feature berries and lemony flavors with complex acidity
  • Floral and slightly woody aroma
  • Smooth, medium body and a winey-like acidity

Harrar coffee beans

  • Known for its heavy body, spiciness and fragrant aroma
  • Winey- and fruity-like acidity with floral tones
  • Rich and pungent taste and an enveloping smell of the blackberries

Limu coffee beans:

  • Well-balanced body and distinct winey and spicy flavors
  • Sweet-toned and vibrant with hints of floral overtones.
  • Relatively low in acidity but a bit sharp

Quality

Ethiopia takes the quality of its coffee seriously. As the homeland of all coffees enjoyed worldwide, their reputation will significantly be affected if they export low coffee quality.

What standards does Ethiopian maintain?

Addis Ababa hosted the last UN Summit in 2018, so there’s no shortage of progressive thought in supporting a sustainable global economy and environment development. Specific certifications and standards are imposed on coffee farms that wish to sell their beans as the basis for high-quality coffee in Ethiopia. These are:

  • FairTrade certification

A certification required in Ethiopia and an economic strategy to alleviate poverty and develop sustainable farming.

  • Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) and Rainforest Alliance (RA) or SAN/RA

A commission to promote social and environmental sustainability in agricultural methods by developing standards.

  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

An independent, non-profit, non-governmental agency that promotes responsible management of forests around the world.

  • Utz certification

An international private sector certification initiative that primarily focuses on coffee. It aims to achieve a sustainable agricultural supply chain in coffee by focusing on the implementation of the track and trace system.

  • Shade-grown or Bird-friendly certification

Coffees labeled “bird-friendly” or shade-grown are considered 100% shade-grown and organic. This ensures that the coffee farm is a supporter of the “highest diversity of migratory birds, native flora and fauna.”

Processing methods

Source: medium.com

The quality of coffee has an impact on its price in the world market. As the 5th largest producer of Arabica coffee beans in the world, coffee from Ethiopia undergoes rigorous processing to maintain a premium-grade quality of the coffee.

Such processing methods that Ethiopians use are dry-processing and wet processing.

Dry-processing (unwashed): 

The unpulped coffee cherries are sun-dried right after its harvest.

Wet-processing (washed): 

Right after the coffee cherries are harvested from the trees, they are pulped and fermented. The mucilage cover is removed by washing before it is sun-dried.

History of Coffee Production in Ethiopia

A legend says the coffee beans were discovered by a goat herder named Kaldi. He noticed the unusual behavior of his goats every time they eat the wild berries of a bush.

Fascinated by this discovery, he picked up some cherries and went to the monastery to present what he thought to be heaven-sent food to the monk. A monk evaluated the coffee cherries he brought and threw them into the fire pit with the belief that they were the devil’s work. 

The embers eventually roasted the coffee beans and a unique aroma filled the room. Kaldi took the roasted beans and put them in the water, giving way to the first cup of coffee ever made. Using the traditional method of making tea, the monks applied the same principle in making coffee. They realized its beneficial effect, especially when doing meditations and devotions. 

Since then, coffee production has become a part of Ethiopians everyday life and saw it as a staple food like bread (from the Ethiopian phrase, Buna dabo naw, translated as “Coffee is our bread.”)

True story or an apocryphal, Ethiopia’s coffee production system flourished from 1800 up to present. It has four categories: garden, plantation, semi-forest, and forest production system. Yet, many farmers harvest the cherries from the natural semi-forest. 

Teketay, Demel. (1999). History, botany and ecological requirements of coffee. Walia. 20. 28-50.

The Gesha forest in the southern part of the country is the most popular. It is where most geisha coffee plants in Central America come from. Yet, the modern geisha varietals are the result of natural mutations over time.

Geography

Farming Ethiopian coffee beans have provided a livelihood to over 15 million of Ethiopian natives. But maintaining productivity is a challenge due to climate change. A 2017 study revealed the coffee farming regions that are susceptible to climate change.

Regions mentioned in this study are: 

North zone: Amhara and Benishangul Gumuz (in red/pink)

Southwest zone: Wellega, Illubabor, Jimma-Limu, Kaffa, Tepi and Bench Maji (in light blue)

Rift zone: rift north and south (in light green)

Southeast zone: Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, Bale, and central-eastern highlands (in dark blue)

Harrar zone: Arsi, East and West Hararge (in dark green)

map image source

What are the most famous producing regions?

Most coffee roasters that contribute to Ethiopia’s coffee market came from the following regions: Harrar and Yirgacheffe (formerly Sidamo). The coffee farmers pride themself for the distinct flavor profile that every coffee lover loves.

Harrar coffee bean: It is located in the eastern part of the country. The coffee beans are dry-processed and usually labeled as peaberry (mocha), longberry, and shortberry.

Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee produces some of the most excellent coffee, with almost 60% of it being wet-processed while the remaining are sun-dried. It has an unusual flavor. Its character is almost similar to Mocha coffee from Yemen, which cannot be high-roasted, or you’ll lose its definitive qualities.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is an integral part of the Ethiopian culture. It’s a ritualized form of brewing and drinking coffee performed by the woman of the household. The coffee ritual is usually practiced 2-3 times a day and lasts 2 to 3 hours. The three servings of coffee are called abol, tona, and baraka (to be blessed).

The ritual starts with the roasting of the green coffee beans in a pan in a charcoal brazier. Once roasted, it is pounded with a wooden mortar and pestle. The ground coffee beans are placed in a unique vessel similar to the ibriks used in making coffee in Turkey through a sieve several times. This vessel contains freshly boiled water.

Once the coffee is ready, it is poured in handleless cups without stop until every container in the tray is full. The Ethiopia coffee ceremony may also include the burning of incense. The coffee served is usually accompanied by simple snacks such as peanuts, popcorns, or ambasha. Tea or Chai is only served if the serving of coffee is politely declined.

Best Coffee Ethiopia Roasters Recommend

The coffee of Ethiopia is an experience not to miss when you visit the country. If you wanted to have a deeper understanding of coffee, Ethiopia is the right place for you. You can start enhancing your roaster knowledge by trying their best coffees, such as:

Yirgacheffe coffee: usually dry-processed with unusual flavors. Typically, the coffee beans from this region have hints of strawberry and blueberry notes.

Sidamo coffee: the coffee beans are wet-processed, which often features jasmine or lemongrass tasting profiles that are light and dry in the palate.

Limu coffee:  a washed coffee from the Coffea Arabica heirloom variety. It has a well-balanced mouthfeel, low in acidity, and a bit sharp.

Where to Find Ethiopian Coffee?

You can bring home the goodness of Ethiopian coffee straight to your door by checking out our coffee recommendations below:

Top Picks

Volcanica Ethiopian-Guji Coffee

It’s an organic and shade-grown Ethiopian coffee harvested from the coffee farms in the Shakiso district. It has a balanced, smooth body, and a winey aftertaste with hints of blackberry, almond butter, and cacao nibs.

Volcanica Ethiopian-Yirgacheffe Decaf Coffee

If you have weak tolerance against caffeine but still want to have a morning cuppa, this decaf coffee is worth drinking. The coffee beans are harvested from the wild coffee trees accounting for an exotic flavor with pleasant acidity. It is decaffeinated using the Swiss Water Procedure, so you’ll still enjoy this medium-bodied coffee with hints of strawberry and cinnamon without worrying about the caffeine kicks.

Subscriptions

You can also get a weekly or monthly dose of Ethiopian roasts from the following subscriptions we’ve gathered for you. In this way, your cupboard won’t run low. These are: 

Is Ethiopian Coffee Good?

It’s considered the best coffee in the world because the roasts are mostly cultivated in high altitudes and excellent climate conditions. Furthermore, most of the coffee farms grow the heirloom variety of Coffea Arabica, which is the “queen” of all coffees in the world.

Is Ethiopian Coffee Strong?

Ethiopian coffee is strong. The coffee plants are wildly grown in appropriate altitudes, which explains the diversity in the coffee flavor profiles. Most of the Ethiopian coffee, especially those grown in the regions of Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, and Limu are complex, fragrant-rich, and display hints of floral and fruity tones. 

What is the Best Ethiopian Coffee?

The best Ethiopian coffee is the Yirgacheffe coffee. It is cultivated in the most favorable altitude of 1,700 to 2,200 meters above sea level and climate conditions. The coffee is known for its sweetness, fragrance, and light to medium body. 

What Makes Ethiopian Coffee Different?

Ethiopian coffee differs significantly from any coffee because of its diverse flavor profiles and unique cupping notes. The coffee beans are indigenous to Ethiopia and harvested from wild coffee trees that offer extreme flavors, resulting from natural mutations over time. Most of the coffee beans are naturally processed, which has a significant impact on the overall taste of the coffee product.

Conclusion

Each coffee bean in Ethiopia reflects its rich culture and simplicity of life. No matter how rapidly the world modernizes, Ethiopian coffee farmers still practice old traditions such as the Ethiopian coffee ceremony to keep the community and families intact. 

While the country might not be number one in the coffee industry, Ethiopia remains a commendable coffee producer sought after by countries like the United States, Canada, and Japan for their premium-grade coffee beans. 

Have you tried drinking Ethiopian coffee? Did you like the taste? Share with us your Ethiopian coffee thoughts at the comments below.

Adam McAree

Adam McAree

Author

Adam loves coffee. Since opening a cafe with his parents in 1994, he's never really been without a french press or without access to a local roaster. Share a coffee with him and be prepared for some serious conversation!

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