Ethiopian Coffee: A Taste of Ethiopia Coffee, Culture, Food and Recipes
When it comes to single origin coffee, Ethiopia is almost always the first country to come to mind. After all, it's where the coffee plant was first discovered thousands of years ago and cultivated for human consumption. Today, it's known as a source of high-quality coffee that's unparalleled in its floral sweetness, complexity, and easy drinking.
In this guide you'll learn about the history of coffee in Ethiopia and its place in local culture, why Ethiopian beans are so prized by your typical coffee lover, and how to choose and enjoy your Ethiopian coffee. It places high on our best tasting coffee list and one you'll want to always have in your stash. Let's get started!
Ethiopia: The Birthplace of Coffee
Legend has it that sometime in 850 CE, an Ethiopian goat herder by the name of Kaldi noticed his goats behaving oddly - prancing around and even "dancing" on their hind legs - after eating the bright red berries of a certain tree. Intrigued, Kaldi tried the berries himself and even brought them to a local monastery, where the monks found that roasting and boiling these berries produced a brew that kept them alert through their long prayer sessions.
Thanks to Kaldi and his dancing goats, the birth of coffee began.
While there's no proof to this story, accounts of coffee being consumed as a beverage date back to the 9th century. Most historians also agree that Coffea arabica beans were exported from southwestern Ethiopia to Yemen, where they became widely cultivated and traded in the 15th century.
Since Ethiopia is where the coffee tree originates, it goes without saying that Ethiopian coffee enjoys the best growing conditions and produces some of the best coffee beans in the world. Let's take a look at what you're getting when you buy Ethiopian coffee.
Ethiopian Coffee Farms
Most of Ethiopia coffee is farmed in smallholdings: family farmers in a region grow and harvest coffee as small crops in their gardens, then amass them to be sold and processed at a private washing station or cooperative union. Thus, in addition to the trademarked names of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, and Harar, you may also have seen Ethiopian coffees featuring names like Uraga or Anasora.
Because of the way coffee production is structured in the country, most Ethiopian coffee farmers can join a cooperative and vote on agricultural practices, secondary processing (hulling, sorting, packaging etc.), and export capacity.
Ethiopian Coffee Beans
Considered the jewel of specialty coffee, one may wonder what environments coffee beans thrive in. Take one look at Ethiopia's coffee growing regions - mountainous, highly elevated, lush - and you'll have your answer when visiting the Ethiopian Highlands.
In general, the best coffee is found at elevations above 1,200m (4,000ft). At higher elevations, the lack of oxygen and light results in slower development of the Ethiopian coffee beans. This results in coffee beans that are denser, pack more intense flavor, and can hold up better to roasting. These prized beans are known as Strictly High Grown (SHG) or Strictly Hard Bean (SHB).
Ethiopia coffee beans are where experienced coffee drinkers typically end up. It takes a fine coffee palette to appreciate their herbal flavor nuances.
And if you're imagining coffee plantations that look like vineyards, think again: coffee trees thrive in the shade of other plants. This is how coffee grows naturally in Ethiopia, whereas shade plants or structures have to be added in other coffee cultivation regions around the world.
Best Ethiopian Coffee
The way Ethiopian coffee has been glorified, you might think all coffee from Ethiopia is guaranteed to taste out of this world. But there's a lot that goes into processing coffee, and the final product depends on many hands - including yours.
- Farmers: The farmers are responsible for growing, harvesting and processing the coffee beans
- Roasters: Coffee roasters are responsible for selecting, roasting, blending and packaging the coffee beans.
- Baristas: The baristas (including you) are responsible for brewing the coffee.
Because of their floral and fruity flavor profiles, most Ethiopian beans taste best at medium roast. This offers a good balance between crisp acidity, sweetness, and satisfying body. Some coffee roasters even go for a light roast to highlight the most delicate floral notes (which are the first to go as beans are roasted).
When choosing the best Ethiopia coffee beans, consider looking for reputable coffee brands or coffee roasters that sell freshly roasted coffee (no more than a week old). Single origin coffees are also seasonal, so you may not be able to find them at certain times of the year.
Here at Black Ink Coffee, we offer our high quality Ethiopian coffee in a fine-tasting light to medium roast that you can enjoy in your daily brew.
Not all coffee beans are treated equally, even in Ethiopia. Although most Ethiopian coffee that we have had the luxury of tasting has been nothing short of amazing, there is one growing region that stands out above the rest. Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee is out of this world which is why we recommend it.
Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is the highest sought after coffee in the specialty coffee world, and for good reason!
Yirgacheffe coffee comes in both natural processed and washed processed forms, grown at elevations exceeding 2,000 meters above the ocean which makes it the best high grown coffee in Africa. Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is a sweet, floral and exotic cup that most of the specialty coffee market goes crazy for.
At Black Ink, our Yirgacheffe coffee is a must which is why we carry it year round. We will get into more detail about it down below.
Ethiopian Highlands: The Regions of Ethiopia
You may have heard of names like Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, and Harar when buying Ethiopian coffee; these are specially trademarked regional names (the coffee equivalent of Bordeaux and Champagne) that highlight their exceptional standing in the specialty coffee industry. Of course, there are many more coffee-growing regions in Ethiopia but they may be cultivating a mix of varietals without a single characteristic taste.
Here's a quick table of the most popular Ethiopian coffees exported around the world - we'll dive into a more detailed explanation on Ethiopian coffee production below!
Altitude (above sea level)
Full-bodied. Crisp, bright floral and citrus notes
Medium-bodied. Floral/herbal notes with lasting finish
Intense, winey, dark berry acidity
Sweet, low acidity, hints of spice
Located in the highlands of Southern Ethiopia (bordering Kenya), Sidamo coffee is considered "Strictly High Grown" (SHG) and is known for its rich body and complex flavor with vibrant citrus notes. This is perhaps the most prolific coffee growing region in Ethiopia.
Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee is the most popular option for introducing coffee drinkers to the world of hand-crafted specialty coffee. Yirgacheffe is actually part of the Sidamo region, but it received its own trademark due to the exceptional coffees produced here - distinctly floral with a rich and lasting aroma. Those who associate coffee with dark, bold, and bitter flavors are often pleasantly surprised that Yirgacheffe coffee tastes so sweet and complex!
Located in eastern Ethiopia, the Harrar region is known for its dry (natural) processed coffees, which boast an intense, winey, or even jammy character that can sometimes even pack smoky, spicy notes. Ethiopian Harrar coffee is more commonly found in the form of dark or espresso roast.
Coffee in this region is usually located at a slightly lower altitude, so the resulting coffee tends to be sweeter and lower in acidity, which some people prefer. Limu coffee usually features a dark chocolate base while retaining pleasant floral notes.
Ethiopian Coffee Production Methods
Buna dabo naw. "Coffee is our bread." This well-known phrase in Ethiopia reflects the role of coffee in Ethiopian everyday life. Consider these facts:
- 384,000 Metric Tons (846,575,000 Pounds) of coffee produced as of 2019 (1)
- 15 million Ethiopians rely on coffee production for their livelihood
- $866 million revenue from coffee exports (fiscal year 2015-2016)
Ethiopia isn't just the birthplace of coffee - the country is also the 5th largest coffee producing country in the world and the top producer in Africa. Coffee production here dates back for centuries and is a vital part of Ethiopian culture and economy. Here's how coffee production works in Ethiopia.
With nearly half a million metric tons being exported per year, Ethiopian coffee continues to be a dominating coffee force.
Most Ethiopian green coffee is processed using either a wet (washed) process or dry (natural) process, depending on the growing region. In some regions, both processes may be used to bring out different flavors in the coffee.
Natural Processed coffee is the oldest and most traditional method used, where harvested coffee cherries are washed and laid out in the sun to dry whole. Over several weeks, the coffee cherries are turned and raked so they are just the right dryness - not too dry that the coffee beans break, and not too wet that it becomes susceptible to fungal growth.
A natural process can impart more fruity notes to the bean and produce a delightfully syrupy cup when brewed, but is also less consistent - especially if cherries of varying ripeness are dried together at the same time.
Washed coffee is now more commonly used in the larger Ethiopian coffee regions like Sidamo and Yirgacheffe, as it produces a more consistent flavor profile and greater clarity, highlighting the distinct notes of a well-grown single origin coffee. Special equipment is used to remove the pulp from the green beans, and any remaining layers of mucilage are dissolved by fermentation in tanks. After 3-4 days, the beans are then dried under the sun or in a machine.
Ethiopian Recipes: Brewing Methods
Ethiopian coffee is best enjoyed as a pour-over, drip coffee, espresso or cold brew (especially since the beans are usually at a light to medium roast). Other than brewing coffee in a standard fashion, there are not many Ethiopian recipes to follow due to it's light body characteristics.
With such a light bodied single origin, full of rich flavors, this coffee is quite dynamic when it comes to brewing. From pour overs to espresso shots!
Pour-over: This is the most popular method for brewing Ethiopian coffee; most pour-over methods produce a clean-tasting cup that lets you truly savor the floral top notes of the beans, especially in Yirgacheffe coffee. If you like washed coffee, consider using the Chemex - its thick paper filter is known for yielding coffee with exceptionally clean and well-defined flavor notes. If you prefer natural processed coffee, try a V60 for a sweet, juicy cup.
Automatic drip: You can still enjoy a superb cup of Ethiopian coffee even if you're short on time! With its filter, an automatic drip coffee machine works well to bring out the clean and bright flavors of Limu or Sidamo coffees.
Cold brew: Cold brew is one of the best ways to bring out the bright, citrusy flavor profile of Ethiopian beans while keeping astringency and bitterness to a minimum. It's also easy, too - learn more in our in-depth cold brew guide.
Espresso: Traditionally, espresso based beverages have featured a darker, heavier bodied shot of espresso as it allows for a shot of espresso that can punch through milk. However, for a more flavorful latte, many third wave coffee shops have made the switch to a modern espresso shot, Ethiopian being the bean of choice for most. If you want to recreate these in your own home, check out our top home espresso machines.
About half of the coffee produced in Ethiopia is consumed locally, and socializing revolves around this wonderful brew in the form of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. While most of us seek out ways to get our daily cup of coffee more quickly and efficiently (Nespresso, anyone?), the Ethiopian coffee ceremony requires 2-3 hours of your time - to be invited to one means you are a cherished guest.
The Ethiopian Culture has been built around coffee which is why so many continue to celebrate it even today. That is why the people of Ethiopia consider this delicious beverage to be the bread of their country. If you have never experienced the complexity of Ethiopia coffee beans, we suggest giving them a try!
Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony
During the coffee ceremony, green coffee beans are roasted fresh in a pan. The roasted coffee is then ground using a mortar and pestle and brewed in a jebena, a traditional earthenware pot with a narrow spout. The coffee is then served (often by children in the family) into small cups, and taken with plenty of sugar. In some regions, the coffee may also be served with spices like cinnamon or cardamom.
This ritual naturally offers people the chance to chat about family, work, politics, and more. If you're lucky enough to experience it in Ethiopia or at an Ethiopian restaurant where you live, make sure to take time to savory the coffee, praise your host or hostess, and just enjoy the experience!
Taste of Ethiopia
Historians also believe that before consuming coffee as a drink, Ethiopians may have mixed ground coffee beans with ghee (clarified butter) or animal fat for sustenance during long journeys. In some regions of the country, coffee is also consumed as a porridge.
Ethiopia may be known for it's coffee, but there is much more to be learned about this wonderful nation. Ethiopian food is an often overlooked feature for tourists looking to visit. If you are ever privileged with visiting Ethiopia, don't hesitate to try some of their renown delicacies.
Was coffee first consumed in Ethiopia or Yemen?
The first verified records of coffee being roasted and brewed was in Yemen, where 15th century Sufi monks drank coffee to keep them alert. Yemen enjoyed a close relationship with Ethiopia and was known to have imported coffee from Ethiopia via the port of Mocha (which was how the drink later got its name).
At Black Ink, we feel as though Kaldi is a superhero and a day should be devoted to celebrating his life simply because he brought coffee to this crazy world!
The legend of Kaldi, the goat herder, is just a legend - but coffee beans may have indeed been eaten as a stimulant before people learned to drink it as a beverage.
Is Ethiopian Coffee Arabica or Robusta?
Ethiopian coffee is arabica (Coffea arabica), which falls in three general categories: Longberry, Shortberry, and Mocha (which produces peaberry beans). There are also a wide variety of cultivars of arabica coffee (both wild and developed) in Ethiopia.
Is there anything special about Starbucks Ethiopian coffee?
In 2006, Ethiopia filed its trademark application for Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, and Harar coffee, which at that time was used by Starbucks to market its Ethiopian coffee but did not benefit Ethiopian coffee farmers. Later, representatives from Ethiopia and Starbucks reached an agreement that allowed the trademark to be granted to Ethiopia, while Starbucks continued to market Ethiopian coffee to great success.
What year is it in Ethiopia?
As of September 11th, 2020, it is the year 2013 in Ethiopia. By the fall of 2021, Ethiopia will be looking to head into the year 2014. This is because they do not follow our Gregorian calendar. Maybe we should warn them about what is to come in the next few years...
We hope that you enjoyed our review of Ethiopian coffee and that you learned something new. If you are a bit overwhelmed, just keep it simple and try some of our Yirgacheffe coffee beans. Better yet, if you ever get to visit Ethiopia, and want to experience the region for yourself, be sure to try some coffee freshly produced there.
If you are just making the switch over to the specialty coffee world, you may find these beans to be a bit light since most lack the body of more traditional beans. In time, once you become a coffee aficionado, you'll grow to respect and appreciate these beans, just as Kaldi and his goats did!
Sources(1): World Atlas