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Ethiopia: where it all started.
This eastern African country is the birthplace of coffee. Lucky for us, wild coffee trees continue to grow and thrive there.
Ethiopian coffee is a must-try beverage for any coffee enthusiast.
Here we’ll take you through a brief history of the evolution of coffee as we know it. Ethiopian coffee is rich and varied. We hope you’ll appreciate these treasures as much as we do.
Coffee is a big deal in Ethiopia. Over one-fourth of the country’s population is involved with the coffee industry in one way or another. While we’ll never know the exact moment when humans first learned of the refreshing effect of coffee, we have a few clues… and lots of legends.
The widely accepted origin story of coffee is that it was first discovered in the ninth century. According to legend, a goat herder named Kaldi noticed his goats jumping and dancing wildly after eating the fruit. The stories vary from there.
One Ethiopian tale says that Kaldi tried the fruit himself and was delighted by the effect. Others say that he took them to a local monk. From there, some stories say the monk threw them away into the fire. The people there got the first whiff of roasting coffee. Other stories say that the monk made a drink with the coffee cherries. Energized by the caffeinated beverage, he spread the word to other monks.
For the next several hundred years, humans derived a variety of concoctions from the fruit to get a little kick. The beginnings of our beloved roasted coffee come from Arabia in the 13th century. Muslim communities roasted and consumed the coffee beans to help get them through the long prayer sessions.
Growing coffee was centralized to Africa and the Arabian Peninsula for a long time. Yemen was a particular hot spot. It’s likely that the first roasting and grinding of coffee beans was done there. After Turkey invaded, coffee fame spread throughout the Persian Empire.
To keep the monopoly, exports were rendered infertile by parching or boiling. It wasn’t until the 16th century that fertile coffee beans were smuggled out of the coffee-growing region.
European Christians weren’t let in on the secret until around the early 17th century. And they loved it. By the mid-century, London was home to over 300 coffeehouses.
Over a thousand varietals grow in Ethiopia. The southern regions are marked by fertile mountains with rich soil. Coffee grows there without the need for chemical additives. It grows in the shade of other plants to let the flavor develop slowly. Coffee plantations throughout the world work hard to mimic these conditions.
The taste of Ethiopian beans varies greatly by region and even from farm to farm. The genetic variety of this coffee is the biggest in the world. That makes sense when you realize that all other coffees originated from just a few seeds or plants smuggled out of this area.
In general, Ethiopian coffee is bright with fruity and floral notes. It’s usually roasted to a light or medium profile to preserve the unique flavors. Coffee from Ethiopia tends to have a medium to light body. The coffee beans themselves are small but dense.
Despite being the point of origin, Ethiopia’s coffee crops are remarkably under-productive. Much of the coffee crop is farmed traditionally using organic methods.
The problem seems to be a lack of pruning. Luckily, various initiatives are sparking more vigorous pruning. The short-term loss seems to result in substantially higher yields in a short period of time.
Coffee production in Ethiopia is projected to reach over 7.62 million bags for the 2021-22 growing season. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, over half of that is consumed within the country.
With the advent of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange in 2008, the lives of coffee farmers changed for the better. The government of Ethiopia also stepped in and enacted measures to curb the bad habits of some exporters.
One problem with the EXC was it lacked traceability. With specialty coffee, point of origin is important. Changes made in 2017 fixed the problem. In 2019, further changes enhanced the ability of smallholders to sell their crops directly.
Selling directly to roasters seals the chain of custody and cuts out the middlemen. Many of the roasters on this list do work directly with the growers or coops.
The vast majority of coffee exported from Ethiopia is green coffee. Green coffee is simply processed coffee beans that have not been roasted yet.
Traditionally, coffee cherries from Ethiopia were left to dry in the sun with the seed still inside the fruit. This is called dry-process or natural process. Even with raking and rotation, the coffee would not always dry evenly. This could lead to unpredictable results. New methods of dry processing promote more even drying for better results. Once dry, the coffee is then sent to a mill for husking.
The 1970s saw the advent of wet process coffee production. In this process, the coffee is soaked in large vats of water. The fruit is then thoroughly washed and separated from the seed before drying. This process creates a lighter body and enhances the citrus and floral notes. It also tends to give a more consistent flavor from batch to batch.
Green coffee is good for at least a year when properly stored. When dealing with seasonal crops, that’s important to ensure a year-round supply.
Coffee is a way of life in Ethiopia. Unlike most coffee-producing countries, Ethiopia consumes over half of its coffee crop domestically. It’s an integral part of the culture. You see that clearly with the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.
The ceremony usually takes two to three hours to complete. Traditionally, a young woman performs the ritual. She starts by washing the coffee beans, and then she roasts them over an open charcoal fire.
After grinding the roasted coffee beans with a mortar and pestle, she puts them in a jebena, an earthenware pot with a large handle and one or more spouts. This pot would already have boiling water. After steeping, the jar is removed from the heat, and the grounds are allowed to settle to the bottom. The ceremony is not complete until everyone has had at least three cups of coffee.
Typically, the ceremony is performed at homes with friends and neighbors. But recent trends have seen abbreviated forms of the coffee ceremony in cafes around the country. If you’re ever in Ethiopia, it’s considered an honor to be invited in for coffee. Make sure to stick around at least until the third cup. But don’t worry. The coffee is strong but the cups are small.
The flavor of coffee from Ethiopia varies from region to region and even from village to village. The country has over a dozen distinct coffee-growing regions and thousands of varietals. Three regions are actually trademarked: Sidama, Yirgacheffe, and Harar. Two lesser-known but still important regions are Kaffa and Djima.
This coffee is known by most people as Sidamo, but that is incorrect. The name error dates back to the late 1800s. Following a lawsuit against Starbucks in 2007, the Ethiopian Coffee Exchange formally returned to using the name Sidama.
The Sidama region covers a vast area in the highlands of the Rift Valley. It has some of the highest elevations in Ethiopia. Most of the country’s high-quality coffee comes from this area. Coffee from this region is typically fruity with chocolate undertones. The brew is medium-bodied. The majority of coffee grown here is wet-processed.
Yirgacheffe is actually a sub-region of Sidama. Its distinctly sweet and floral characteristics warrant its own categorization. Coffees grown in lower regions tend to have a more herbal aroma while those grown at higher elevations have a more floral aroma. The Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union (YCFCU) represents over 45,000 farmers.
This region is considered the birthplace of the wet-processing mill, which was established in the 1970s. Most of the coffee in this region is washed processed. Fairly recently, growers in this region have experimented with new methods of natural processing. These new methods produce more even drying and result in some excellent dry-processed coffee.
This region is currently called Oromia, but the trademarked coffee carries the former name for the region. Coffee from here is primarily harvested from wild coffee trees. The cherries are mostly naturally dry processed. The brew has an intense winey flavor and pungent aroma.
This region is notable as the birthplace of coffee. Remember the story of the goat herder from Kaffa? Most of the coffee from this region is still grown wild in the forests. It’s almost exclusively wet-processed. The brew tends to have low acidity with a sharp, spicy taste. The body is well-balanced.
This coffee region virtually overlaps with the Kaffa region. But Djima (or Jimma or Djimmah) is usually dry processed. The brew is heavy-bodied and silky. The flavor profile typically includes winey, chocolatey, and sometimes nutty tones.
The names Sidama, Yirgacheffe, and Harar are trademarked. That means you can be fairly certain that you’ll be getting what you pay for when you buy Ethiopian beans from these regions. But the coffee can still vary in quality between roasters. Here are five contenders for the title of best Ethiopian coffee.
Volcanica is a family-owned company. It focuses on providing the best single-origin coffee. It delivers the coffee as fresh as possible by roasting to order. Volcanica’s coffee is sustainably sourced. The company also takes active measures to reduce its carbon footprint. Most of its coffee has certifications such as Rainforest Alliance, Bird Friendly, Fair Trade, and Organic.
This organically grown Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Coffee is Volcanica’s best-selling coffee. It’s available as whole bean or ground for a drip, espresso, or French press coffee maker. The coffee plants in this region of southern Ethiopia come from the wild coffee trees the area is known from.
The brew is medium-bodied with floral and fruity tones. The flavor profile includes lemon, blueberry, and blackberry notes. Because this coffee is purchased from small farms, there may be slight variations in flavor profile between batches. But it will always be sweet, fruity, and complex.
Out of the Grey Coffee began as a small, family-run coffeehouse in Pennsylvania. The founders began experimenting with new blends and flavors. They eventually opened a small-batch roastery in Virginia. Their most recent project is a Mobile Coffee Roasting Unit (MCRU). You just might come across it at an event or on a university campus.
This single-origin coffee is sourced from the Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Co-operative Union. The coffee beans grew at elevations between 5,000 and 6,500 feet. The plants grow alongside cardamon, ginger, and fruits. They are naturally fertilized by fallen leaves and other decaying plant matter for a minimal impact on the environment. It is hand-harvested between November and March.
This coffee won third place in the 2003 cupping trials of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). The flavor profile includes molasses, dark chocolate, Asian pear, and daffodil notes. The brew is rich and sweet with a silky mouthfeel. It’s available as whole bean or ground for French press, automatic drip, pour-over, K-Cup pod, espresso, or Turkish brewing methods.
This coffee roaster may be best known as an industry leader in cask-aged coffee. Cooper’s has a full line of coffees aged in recently-empties casks of wine, whiskey, bourbon, and rum casks. Cooper’s also offers a line of single-origin coffees from around the world.
This Ethiopian coffee is roasted in small batches. Flavor notes include lemon, honey, and floral nectar with berry undertones. It has a vibrant aroma and bold taste. It’s available as whole bean or ground for French press, automatic drip, and espresso brewing methods.
The biggest drawback of Cooper’s Cask Coffee is that it doesn’t put the roast date on the bag. That means that you don’t know how fresh the coffee is. You can be pretty certain it will be fresh when you buy directly from the roaster. But be wary when purchasing from a third party. There’s no way to know how fresh it is.
Fresh Roasted Coffee LLC was founded in 2009. It roasts coffee to order in eco-friendly Loring Smart Roasters. The company is committed to ethically sourcing its coffee beans with minimal impact on the environment. Indigenous, heirloom varietals are included in this single-origin coffee from Ethiopia.
This brew has a medium body with a flavor profile that includes lemon, tangerine, and lime notes. It is sweet and bright with a tea-like finish. The cherries are harvested between November and February and exported between February and August.
This Ethiopian coffee is available in a range of sizes from a 2.5-ounce sample to a 5-pound bag. You can order it as whole bean or pre-ground fine, medium, or coarse. You can also find it in a K-cup. You can save money by signing up for their auto-delivery.
Fresh Roasted Coffee LLC does not put the roast date on their bags. Even though the company says it ships right after roasting, there is no date to guarantee that.
What is unique about Cubico Coffee is that they allow you to tailor your coffee to your exact taste. Every single-origin or blend can be roasted to whatever level you prefer. You can also select up to three varieties for your own custom blend.
Cubico’s Ethiopia Yirgacheffe coffee comes from a single farm. The coffee grows at about 6,500 feet in elevation. While the company states that these Ethiopian coffee beans are grown organically, it does not have any certifications.
The flavor profile includes lime and floral notes with a chocolatey finish. This brew has a creamy body. It is available as whole bean or ground. It does include the roast date on the bag
Coffee beans from Ethiopia are small, hard beans. They can vary in screen size, and there are over 10,000 varieties. Because of these factors, they’re not forgiving when roasting. You can lose a great deal of flavor if you roast incorrectly. Be sure to do plenty of sample roasting before committing a whole batch.
Having said that, there are some things to keep in mind to help you find that perfect roast profile. The worst thing to do is give them a sudden blast of high heat. Slow temperature increases are best for both washed and natural processed Ethiopian beans. When judging by color, keep in mind that naturally processed coffee beans will darken quicker than wet-processed beans.
You’ll also probably want a lighter roast than you do with coffee from other countries. Ethiopian coffee beans are prized for their sweet fruity and floral notes. These desirable traits can easily be roasted into oblivion.
This coffee is known for its sweetness with fruity and floral notes. It usually has a light to medium body.
Because of its fruitiness, coffee from Ethiopia is often enjoyed as a pour-over coffee. But many Ethiopian coffees also do well as espresso. In particular, Out of the Grey Coffee Ethiopian Oromia Harrar Single Origin is a good one to try for espresso.
Many consider coffees from Ethiopia to be the best in the world. After all, this is where the coffee plant originated. There are thousands of Ethiopian varietals, and many coffee farms include several varieties in their harvest.
Coffee Ethiopia is usually superior in terms of brightness, clarity, sweetness, and fruitiness. If you prefer a less acidic coffee with a medium body and bold flavor, you might prefer Colombian.
These beans are strictly Arabica coffee grown at altitude.
Coffee beans from Ethiopia are somewhat lower in caffeine than other arabica coffee beans.
This coffee is fairly acidic. But you can find lower acid Ethiopian coffees that were grown at lower elevations.
In our opinion, Volcanica’s Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is the best Ethiopian coffee. Volcanica’s reputation for ethical sourcing makes it a reliable company. This is their best-selling coffee, and there’s a reason for it. This naturally processed coffee delivers the best of coffee from Ethiopia with all its fruitiness and sweetness. It’s fair trade, organic, and kosher certified. Out of the Grey Coffee Ethiopian Oromia Harrar Single Origin and Fair Trade Coffee runs a close second best Ethiopian beans.
If you need pre-ground beans, you might try Cooper’s Cask Coffee Ethiopian Single Origin Light Roast. If budget is your top priority, we recommend trying Fresh Roasted Coffee LLC Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Single Origin Light Roast.
Ethiopian coffee is a must-try for any coffee lover. You can’t go wrong with any of our choices here. We hope you enjoy the true taste of coffee from where it all started.