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Ethiopian Coffee: A Legendary Origin

By Connor Wilson

October 21, 2020

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Coffee has been around for centuries, and to mention it without including Ethiopia as a primary growing region is unthinkable. Considered to be the origin of Coffea arabica, Ethiopian coffee is one of the largest exports worldwide.

In this article we'll discover the beauty behind this country's coffee culture and uncover its legendary beginnings. Read on to learn more.

Legend has it that a goat herder named Kaldi first discovered coffee when some of his goats stumbled upon it. Kaldi's goats were calm animals that explored the highlands of Kaffa, a region in Ethiopia.

They traveled the land during the day and slept peacefully at night. However, this would soon change.

One night Kaldi noticed his goats frantically jumping and bleating loudly. Assuming this was a one-time incident, the Ethiopian goat herder, Kaldi, thought nothing of it.

But this strange behavior became a pattern.

The goats did the same thing the next night and the one after as well. Soon, Kaldi felt the need to follow his goats more closely.

The next day he noticed them grazing from a shrub with small bright red berries. Kaldi then plucked a few berries himself and began chewing on them.

He learned that the berries gave him a significant energy boost.

He shared it with a nearby Islamic Monk, at a Sufi Monastery, but the monk disapproved of them, so he threw them into a fire.

Soon, an aroma began to fill the air. 

They raked up the beans from the burning embers, ground them, and combined them with hot water.

The result has made a considerable impact on society. Since the 15th century, brewing coffee has now caught on almost all over the world.


Why is Ethiopian Coffee so Good?

Ethiopian coffee is one of the highest quality beans available on the market today. The country is a highland area, which creates the perfect conditions for growing coffee.

Ethiopia grows coffee naturally and wildly without any chemicals and additives. Because it is wild, the Ethiopian coffee plant usually grows under the shade of larger trees.

This coffee growing method is one of the three primary ways Ethiopian coffee farmers grow their beans.

Forest coffees are the most naturally wild coffees in the country. At the same time, small garden coffees are also standard in the southern regions.

Much of Ethiopian coffee grows on large plantations, so people often refer to it as plantation coffee. However, Ethiopian farmers plant it alongside other crops in smaller gardens as well, creating specialty coffees.

Ethiopian specialty coffee is in high demand worldwide because farmers grow and process it naturally from the beginning until the end of production.

With this attention to detail, it is no wonder that coffee farming is a highly respected form of agriculture in Ethiopia.

When planting the coffee, seedlings are taken care of separately until ready to be planted in the forest, plantation, or garden.

This individual care ensures the plant will grow strong and give healthy berries that farmworkers can quickly harvest later on. 

In Ethiopia, where sunshine is abundant, the coffee tree takes in the sun all year round and produces fruity flavored coffee bean.

Ethiopian coffee trees take nine months to mature before the berries are ready for harvesting. Local farmworkers then harvest the coffee and lay the beans out in the sun to dry.

This added sun exposure gives the coffee beans a more robust flavor. The resulting coffee tastes wild and fruity.

Ethiopian coffee has excellent flavor and is among the best coffees for those who can appreciate its nuance.


What is Unique About Ethiopian Coffee?

Ethiopia is one of the largest exporters of Arabica coffee worldwide. The demand has increased over the years because the flavor and quality of Ethiopian coffee are unmatched elsewhere.

The fact that the production and processing of Ethiopian coffee are natural all the way through is astonishing on its own. Still, the real reason it's noteworthy is that Ethiopians rarely drink coffee alone.

Of course, there is a coffee shop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, that sells coffee drinks to individual people. However, drinking coffee at home, even in Addis Ababa, is not a solitary activity.

Drinking coffee is considered a social event in Ethiopia.

Coffee brings people together in a way that seems foreign to our western society.


Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Ethiopian people don't just drink coffee, but instead, they make a ceremony out of it. Gathering in a large circle around the ceremonial coffee table or "Rekebot," everyone can see the ceremony, chat and mingle until their cup of coffee is ready to drink.

Similar to Asian tea ceremonies, there are heft and meaning attributed to the practice. Ethiopian coffee ceremonies start by roasting green coffee beans to a medium or dark roast.

The roaster circulates the roast in the open air so that the people may absorb the unique aroma before the brewing process commences.

Once the coffee's spirit permeates the room, someone grounds the beans in a specially designed mortar and pestle.

Once ground, she places the beans in a bulbous clay pot to brew and leaves it to steep until the more massive coffee grounds settle.

After completing the brew, she pours the mixture into specially made cups without handles. She serves it to everyone, starting with the elders.

Ethiopian coffee ceremonies continue until the ceremonial leader brews three quality coffee pots, each having a different body.

This ritual has been the way since ancient times, so much so that a common Amharic saying for gathering around and socializing at home is "nu buna tetu," which translates to "come and drink coffee."

During the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, it is customary that people stay until it's officially over.

As a participant, you will remain until the ceremonial leader serves all three pots, even if you don't want any more.

In Addis Ababa and other larger Ethiopian cities where commerce moves faster, this ceremony takes less time to complete.

Still, in most rural places and residences, the ritual lasts for quite a while, sometimes even intertwined with serving food. This inclusion shows how much respect Ethiopians have for their coffee.

Ethiopian coffee ceremonies are vital in Ethiopians' social lives because they provide energy to social gatherings. That is why Ethiopia exports less than half of what they grow even if they are one of the largest coffee exporters.

"Buna Dabo naw" is a common saying that signifies how important coffee is as it translates to "coffee is our bread." 

Unlike the western world, Ethiopians drink coffee after a meal, usually lunch, not on an empty stomach or with breakfast.

It's not just the uniquely fruity flavor or the smooth taste, but also the bonding and social experience associated with it. Suppose you find yourself traveling to Ethiopia.

There are many exciting things to experience, but the brewing ceremony is one you shouldn't miss.


Is Ethiopian Coffee Strong?

Yes, naturally grown Ethiopian coffee is robust and flavorful. Ethiopian coffee farmers use unique methods to grow their coffee, focused on the finished product's flavor and strength.

Because farmers don't add chemicals or fertilizers to the soil, coffee plants generally take longer to fully mature and reach a state ready for harvest.

A longer growing season might seem counter-intuitive, but it's the only way to ensure the coffee retains its most natural and original taste.

After harvesting, the drying process is done under the Ethiopian sun on raised beds to keep mold from forming. Once dried, the hulling process begins.

Coffee cherry hulling involves washing green coffee beans with clean water rather than chemicals.

The water washes off any dust and remaining debris that the hulling process leaves behind and prepares the roasting beans. Workers do not use any chemicals, so the taste and flavor of the green coffees remain pure. 

What can you expect from this flavor?

The coffee grown in Ethiopia is slightly more acidic and fruity. The taste is punchy and intense.

Because it's naturally grown, the caffeine content varies, but this doesn't mean it is low in caffeine by any means. Ethiopian coffee is robust and full-bodied, perfect for a medium roast


Coffee Growing Regions

There are different varieties of coffee produced in Ethiopia. The difference in taste and strength is brought forth by the terroir difference in each location.

Because Ethiopia has different elevations throughout the country, there are regional differences to each coffee producer.

You see, coffee is a delicate plant that adapts to its environment and changes its characteristics according to how it's grown.

That is why coffee from different countries taste different.

In Ethiopia, there are different producers of Ethiopian coffee classified based on their region. 

Sidamo coffee beans, Harrar coffee beans, Yirgacheffe coffee beans, and Limu coffee beans are the four major coffee bean varietals available to consumers.

Each of these coffee varieties has a full body and presents a unique fruity taste and offer unique characteristics that suit different brewing methods and a person's preference..

The differences result from production and terroir, which give them a unique and distinctive flavor that you'll notice during consumption.

Sidamo Coffee

Sidamo coffee is one of the top-rated Ethiopian coffee beans. It comes from the Sidamo region, elevated at an average 6000 feet above sea level.

The plant is a variety of the Arabica Heirloom, which is a distinctive single-origin Ethiopian variety. After the harvesting, Sidamo coffee is wet-processed or washed.

The coffee beans are then are spread out under the sun. Sidamo coffee has a well-balanced berry-like and lemony sweet flavors with substantial and complex acidity.

During the roast, this coffee bean will give off a slightly woody and floral aroma. Sidamo coffee has a smooth and medium body with a wine-like edge.

Harrar Coffee 

Harrar coffee beans are single-origin Ethiopian coffee beans found in the Harrar region of the country. Grown in an area with elevations ranging from 5000 to 7000 ft, they have different options depending on the berries' growth pattern.

The berries are classified as shortberry, longberry, or peaberry, although the flavor profile and the taste are identical.

The Harrar coffee bean is naturally processed and sundried on concrete slabs to avoid contamination during the drying process.

These coffee beans are best known for being heavy-bodied and having a fragrant aroma, aided by spicy and sweet notes.

With winey and fruity like acidity, Harrar coffee beans are rich with floral notes and give off a slight hint of a blueberry smell.

Yirgacheffe coffee 

Yirgacheffe coffee is undoubtedly the top-rated out of all the single-origin coffee varieties. In Ethiopia, Yirgacheffe beans are one of the most sought after coffee beans on the market.

Yirgacheffe coffee grows at altitudes higher than 5500 feet, so the coffee beans qualify as strictly high grown (SHG). 

Note: Coffee beans must grow higher than 4400 feet to be eligible as an SHG coffee varietal. 

Yirgacheffe bean processing, like all other Ethiopian varietals, is wet-processed and dried on raised beds under the Ethiopian sun.

When roasted and prepared, Yirgacheffe beans give off a chocolatey and nutty aroma. These beans exhibit high tones with citrus and floral notes and are vibrantly acidic.

Yirgacheffe coffee tastes clean and intense with a bright aftertaste of wine or berries. When properly roasted, most people prefer Yirgacheffe coffee to all the other Ethiopian options.

Limu Coffee

Unlike Harrar and Yirgacheffe coffee beans, Limu coffee beans have relatively low acidity. Limu coffee grows at altitudes ranging from 3600 to 6200 ft, a relatively lower average altitude than the rest.

Even though they grow at a lower elevation, Limu coffee beans undergo similar processing to other Ethiopian regions.

Limu coffee tastes slightly different from the other Ethiopian varieties due to decreased levels of acidity. Although less acidic, the taste remains a bit sharp, which may catch you a bit off guard.

It has a distinctive, vibrant taste with sweet hints of floral notes. It has a well-balanced medium body and a winey and spicy aftertaste.


What is the Best Ethiopian Coffee?

To understand which Ethiopian roasted coffee beans are the best, it is imperative first to understand what makes each region's beans similar and different from each other.

The Highest Production Standards

Coffee production is taken very seriously by the Ethiopian coffee industry. Officials closely regulate a coffee roaster's output to maintain high standards demanded for export.

They check the beans before roasting to ensure only the highest quality beans go through the roasting process.

During the roast, coffee roasters meticulously control the temperature to ensure the beans roast the proper amount.

As you might imagine, coffee-roasting is a challenging process to master. Coffee production companies are appropriately regulated to produce only the best quality coffees.

So, it's no surprise that Ethiopia's coffee market employs over 15 million people.


FINAL THOUGHTS

It's Largely A Personal Preference

Light to medium roast is favorable and considered the best for most hot coffee drinkers. However, some people prefer a dark roast.

Locally, sellers often offer their beans unroasted so that families can decide how they wish to roast their beans at home.

As mentioned above, roasting is considered part of the coffee ceremony. As a result, coffee shops typically purchase pre-roasted beans for convenience only. 

Connor Wilson

About the Author

A cold brew coffee enthusiast and blogger, Connor was fresh out of college with a ton of student debt when he realized that a normal corporate job wouldn't cut it for him. He worked his tail off building an online business and now is fortunate enough to blog for a living.

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