Ethiopian Coffee: Introduction to Culture and Varieties

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Rumor has it that Ethiopian coffee was initially discovered in 850 AD by a goatherd in Ethiopia. 

His goats were supposedly energized from grazing on coffee cherries, which led the goatherd to pick some for later. He took some beans to a local monk, who cast them into a fire for fear of evil magic. Once he smelled their delightful aroma, he ground them up and brewed them in water.

While Ethiopia is the essential birthplace of coffee, this legend, however, is more likely mythical than factual. Regardless of Ethiopian coffee’s humble beginnings, it’s time to see why Ethiopian coffee is worth a try.

Focus Ethiopian coffee culture and varieties

Native Roots

Coffee has grown to become one of the top exports in all of Ethiopia, with 60% of exports being directly related to coffee.

The coffee plant originated in Kaffa, where over 5,000 varieties of wild Arabica coffee currently thrive. The Kaffa region lies within Southwestern Ethiopia and houses the Kafa Zone. The Kafa Zone is home to the Kafa Biosphere Reserve, which is the exact area where coffee was initially discovered.

Experts ultimately agree that Ethiopia is the only place where coffee has grown natively, worldwide. Heirloom varieties are coffee plants that grow indigenously, of which Ethiopia has a rich supply. Thanks to high altitudes, coupled with ideal amounts of rain, Ethiopia’s soil provides the perfect amount of acidity for coffee to grow. 

Special Varieties

Focus Ethiopian coffee culture and varieties

Ethiopia utilizes a unique grading scale, with nine grades based on cup quality and visual defects. Anything receiving a grade of 1 or 2 qualifies as a specialty grade coffee. Whereas coffee between 3 to 9 is sold as a commercial one.

Each coffee-producing region of Ethiopia provides various growing conditions, with six regions contributing the majority of the country’s coffee. Four of these fantastic areas include:

1. Guji

Located in Southeastern Ethiopia, Guji boasts heirloom coffee varieties known for their strong, full-flavored beans. Aside from a tart acidity, coffee from this region features floral and dark chocolate tones.

2. Harar

Renowned as one of the oldest producing coffee regions, Harar coffee is still sorted and processed by hand to this day. Besides featuring flavor hints of mocha, fruit, and wine, Harar coffee isn’t very acidic but rather full-bodied and well balanced.

3. Sidamo

Sitting at a level between 4,900 and 7,200 feet, Sidamo produces beans that are labeled as strictly high grown, or SHG. This specialized coffee is given more time to absorb necessary nutrients for a broad flavor spectrum.

4. Yirgacheffe

Yirgacheffe grows some of the best coffee in the world, at an elevation of 2,000 meters above sea level. Farmers utilize wet processing to enhance further the quality of resulting coffee beans exported from this region of Ethiopia.

Varieties of Processing

Ethiopian Coffee Processing HD

Each region of Ethiopia utilizes various means of growing coffee, as well as processing and washing techniques unique to each variety and farm. Two modes of processing common in Ethiopia include wet processing and sun drying.

Regardless of the chosen type of processing, beans exchange a multitude of hands throughout a labor-intensive operation.

Wet Processing

  • When coffee cherries are wet-processed, they are placed into the water for sorting. This method enables farmers to remove the pulp of the cherry, thereby exposing the inner bean. Wet processing requires various steps, followed by a 12-hour soak before they spend two weeks drying on a raised bed.

Dry Processing

  • High-quality beans get to enjoy a method of processing known as sun drying. Once they are sorted by hand and graded, these coffee beans dry on raised beds in the sun for several weeks. Husks will be removed prior to packing beans for sale.

Cultural Importance: Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Focus Ethiopian coffee culture and varieties

In many villages, coffee ceremonies are still considered one of the most important occasions to this day. It is common for the woman of a household to participate in numerous two or three-hour coffee ceremonies throughout the day in Ethiopia.

In fact, it’s viewed as one of the highest honors to be invited to a ceremony, morning, afternoon, or evening. These ceremonies may vary from region to region. However, the base format remains the same.

  1. Initially, raw, unwashed coffee beans are processed at the beginning of the ceremony. The use of incense plays an essential role in warding off evil spirits, with a decoration of grass and flowers spread across the floor.
  2. A clay coffeepot is placed over hot coals, filled with water. Green coffee beans are husked and cleaned before being evenly roasted. Once the beans reach a medium brown hue, they are coated in various oils for additional flavor.
  3. The woman in charge of the ceremony will continue the process by grinding the freshly roasted beans into a coarse grind through the use of a mortar and pestle.

An invitation into an Ethiopian home is considered an incomplete invitation if it does not include coffee. Most times, an invitation is often unnecessary, and it’s common for visitors to simply stop in when the aroma of coffee hits the air.

Neighbors and friends may rest assured that cups and coffee will not run low, in addition to a bit of popcorn that’s commonly served alongside coffee.

Coffee is the Backbone of Ethiopian Culture — Even in Brooklyn

Where to Buy the Best Ethiopian Coffees?

Specialty Coffee Roasters – There are many great places to buy Ethiopian coffee beans. But I highly recommend buying coffee directly from the best specialty coffee roasters out there.

Get a high-quality and great tasting Ethiopian coffee from these specialty coffee roasters in America.

  • Volcanica Coffee Company ensures freshness and quality, whereas they regularly produce freshly roasted coffee. You can try their best-selling, organically grown, Ethiopian coffee from the Yirgacheffe region.
  • Cooper’s Cask Coffee is a small batch roaster specializing in Barrel Aged Coffee, Single Origins and coffee gift box sets. I recommend buying their Ethiopian Light Roast coffee. 
  • Equator Coffees focuses on quality, sustainability and social responsibility. So, it’s worth buying their Ethiopian coffee from Suke Quto coffee farm, in the highlands of Guji region, Ethiopia.
  • Fresh Roasted Coffee pride themselves on making gourmet coffee that’s accessible to everyone. If you support direct and fair-trade, then this sweet and mild organic Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee could be for you.

Amazon Marketplace – Amazon is the largest online marketplace to buy coffee. So, you can definitely find some great Ethiopian coffees out there. Check Amazon’s best-selling roasted Ethiopian coffee beans.

  • Cubico’s Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Coffee has a smooth and creamy body, a complex citrusy with pronounced lime notes. It is grown on the sloping hills of the Yirgachaffe Valley in the region of Sidamo, Ethiopia.
  • Illy Coffee’s Ethiopian Whole Bean Arabica  is quietly smooth and consistent. This coffee has fruity notes of citrus and jasmine giving a light and elegant body. It is sourced from the Yirgacheffe region, Ethiopia.
  • Equal Exchange Ethiopian Organic Coffee Ground is a naturally processed coffee that highlights a thick and expansive mouthfeel. It is a smooth tasty coffee that has a great bold flavor. If you’re into authentic fair-trade coffees, you might want to try this.
  • Coffee Bean Direct Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is one of the best coffees to try. It is an organic, fair trade, and shade grown coffee that has an incredible taste. Form variety of single origins sourced from around the world, this fair-trade Ethiopian coffee should be on your list.

There’s always a chance I missed some good specialty coffee roasters and stores that offer delicious Ethiopian coffees. But I have shared some great ones in this article that are worth to try even once in a while.

Old World Charm

As a country, Ethiopia maintains a history rich in tradition and coffee, clearly evident in numerous heirloom varieties and coffee ceremonies.

Coffee has been a longstanding heritage of Ethiopian culture, one that has stood the test of time and will remain for centuries to come. Regardless of your tastes and style, you can rest assured there is an Ethiopian coffee to fit your vibe. 

Regal single-origin beans reflecting their ceremonial legacy, organic, fair trade, and certified coffee blends will pair well with any meal. In the end, Ethiopian coffee should be on your radar the next time you are perusing the aisles. 

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