A Guide to Ethiopian coffee

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Ethiopia is one of the largest coffee producers in the world and a mainstay on specialty coffee menus around the globe. Chances are that if you’re into single-origin coffee, you’ve come across a fair few varieties from Ethiopia.

But what makes Ethiopian coffee so great and what varieties should you look out for?

Read on as we take a deep dive into the world of Ethiopian coffee and cover everything from the famous Yirgacheffe coffee beans right through to where to buy Ethiopian coffee in Australia.

The history of coffee in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee but it wasn’t until the 1500s that it started being cultivated. At this point it was only farmed in small amounts to be consumed locally.

During the 1800s, coffee production started to grow on a commercial scale, becoming one of the strongest industries in Africa.

There is a tale that claims that a goat herder named Kaldi was the person who first discovered coffee. One day he saw his goats eating coffee cherries from the trees and being energized by it so he decided to try them for himself. After presenting the benefits to a monk, the monk threw the cherries into the fire causing them to start roasting.

Quick facts:

  • Southwest Ethiopia is known for its Gesha forest, which is where the original variety came from before reaching Central America.
  • Ethiopia has 99% diversity when it comes to coffee trees; most of them go under the name “heirloom” as they haven’t been classified yet.
  • Most coffees in Ethiopia are processed naturally but there are some that have a washed process as well.
  • Half of the coffee that Ethiopia produces is done for domestic coffee consumption.

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Ethiopian coffee production

Ethiopian coffee cups

Coffee cultivation has long been a big part of Ethiopian culture.

Ethiopia is the 5th largest coffee-producing nation in the world and the biggest in Africa. Around 6.5 million coffee bags are produced yearly but only half of them (around 3.5 million bags) are exported. The rest of the bags stay in the country for domestic consumption.

In 2008 the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) was established in order to help farmers sell their coffee through a standardized procedure. Nowadays, farmers can also keep some of their inventory in order to sell outside ECX.

Ethiopia alone accounts for 3% of the world’s coffee market. Out of the 3 million bags that are exported, half of it goes to Europe, 1/4th to Asia and the rest to North America.

Ethiopian coffee varieties

Sidama

This coffee comes from the province of Sidamo. Sidama coffee grows slower and has a robust flavour. You can find very distinct citrus notes such as lemon.

Sidama coffees also include Yirgacheffe and Guji, which are considered the highest quality coffee beans that Ethiopia produces.

Genika

Genika is a type of Arabica coffee plant that is grown exclusively in the Bench Maji Zone in Ethiopia.

Genika green beans are small and have a grey undertone to them. When roasted, they offer a cup of coffee that tastes like wine and chocolate.

Harar

Harar is one of the oldest coffee beans produced in the world. The shell of the beans is used in a tea called hasher-qahwa.

The beans themselves are dry-processed by the farmers by hand.

The medium acidity and full body of this coffee resemble a mocha flavour with notes of chocolate.

Where to buy Ethiopian coffee in Australia

There are many Australian roasters that sell coffee from Ethiopia online. Here are a few examples to get you started:

Coffee Beans Shop: These are Sidamo Grade beans that offer a light body with citrus and floral profiles as well as medium acidity.

Just Fresh Roasted: These Yirgachefe beans have a medium body and a jasmine aroma. The high acidity contrast the black tea and honey notes.

Coffee Cartel: These roasters offer over 10 different beans from Ethiopia. All of them have a natural process and feature jasmine, citrus, tea and fruit notes.

How to roast Ethiopian coffee beans

Ethiopian beans can be tricky to roast due to their difference in density, size and variety, so it is important to start sampling the coffee before you roast.

A small increase in temperature can bring out the best flavours in the coffee, which is why we recommend using a light roast for the coffee to shine.

A low-temperature increase after the first crack is recommended (especially in washed and natural beans) so that the beans can have an average development.

Natural processed coffee darkens faster than washed coffee, it is important to keep this in mind while you roast your beans.

Sudden intense heat is one of the things you want to stay away from if you want to keep the delicate notes and prevent the whole bean to be overdeveloped.

What is Yirgacheffe coffee?

Yirgacheffe is a town located in Southern Ethiopia in the Sidamo region. The area grows one of the highest-quality Arabica coffee beans in the world.

Yirgacheffe coffee is known as one of the best coffee beans in the world. This region is known for its washing stations, as most of the coffee is wet-processed and sun-dried.

This single origin coffee is well balanced with fruit, lemon, tea and floral notes. Yirgacheffe is one known for producing the most famous Sidamo coffees, with farmers being members of a cooperative union.

Yirgachefe coffee is also known as Strictly High grown, meaning that it grows at an elevation of over 2,000 meters above sea level.

Ethiopian Highlands

Higher elevation means that the cherries take longer to be harvested; however, this allows the arabica plant to deliver nutrients to the coffee and develop even more flavour.

Most of the coffee that comes from Yirgacheffe has either a light or medium roasting process in order to allow the delicate flavours to shine.

What is an Ethiopian coffee ceremony?

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is an important social event that brings friends and family together. It is performed by the woman of the household (the host) and to be invited as a guest is considered a great honour.

Usually, the floor will be covered with grass and flowers before the ceremony begins. The hostess will begin the event by burning incense to ward off evil spirits and will continue to burn incense throughout the ritual.

The green coffee beans will be washed, then roasted in a pan. The aroma that fills the room during the roasting process is intense and plays an important role in the ceremony.

Once, roasted to a medium brown colour, the beans will be removed from the pan, allowed to cool, and then ground with a tool similar to a wooden mortar and pestle.

The ground coffee is then added to a traditional Ethiopian coffee pot called a jebena, which contains water that has already been heated. The coffee is then brought to a boil before serving in small ceramic cups.

An Ethiopian coffee ceremony

The host pours the coffee in a continuous stream from about 30cm above the cups, filling each cup equally without breaking the stream. She will stop pouring just before the pot is empty so that the coffee grinds in the bottom don’t make it into any of the cups.

Salt, sugar and butter can be added to the coffee after serving.

FAQ

Why is Ethiopian coffee so good?

Thanks to the high elevations and various mountain regions, Ethiopia has one of the most favourable environments to grow coffee. Ethiopian coffees are known for their bright acidity and complex notes. Some of the beans can have floral notes while others have a winey quality to them, making them extremely versatile for all sorts of brewing methods. Most Ethiopian coffee beans go through a natural process that allows the natural fruit flavour to come through, making them some of the best single-origin coffees.

Is Colombian or Ethiopian coffee better?

We believe that preferences between Ethiopian and Colombian coffee are a matter of personal choice. Colombian coffees are less acidic, offering more balanced and traditional notes such as caramel, chocolate and slight hints of flowers. Ethiopian coffees, on the other hand, are known for their bright acidity, juicy notes and delicate flavours that include Jazmin, tea and fruit. One is not necessarily better than the other, it’s just a matter of preference.

Is Yirgacheffe coffee good for espresso?

Yes, Yirgacheffee coffee beans can work very well for espresso, with red fruit flavours remaining prominent. The natural sweetness and bright acidity make this coffee a great candidate for both espresso and other brewing methods.