Coffee Origins: Ethiopia – Ethiopia is possibly the most intriguing of all the coffee-producing countries. Its allure arises not only from the extraordinary coffees it produces but also from the mystique that surrounds so much of it.
Ethiopian coffees, with their explosively aromatic and fruity flavors, have opened many a coffee professional’s eyes to the variety of flavors that coffee can have.
Although Ethiopia is known as the origin of coffee, there are numerous caveats to this claim. Coffea arabica is thought to have originated in southern Sudan, but it only became popular once it migrated to Ethiopia.
It was here that people first began to consume it, initially as a fruit rather than a beverage. Yemen was the first country to cultivate coffee as a crop, but it had long been collected in Ethiopia from the wild.
Ethiopian coffee was possibly initially exported in the 1600s. European traders were regularly turned down, and interest decreased as coffee plantations popped up in Yemen, Java, and eventually the Americas.
At the time, Ethiopian coffee was primarily harvested from wild coffee trees in the areas of Kaffa and Buno, rather than from plantations.
Interest in Ethiopian coffee resurfaced in the early 1800s when a record of the export of one hundred quintals of coffee from Enerea, today’s Ethiopia, was discovered.
Harari (cultivated around the town of Harrar) and Abyssinia (cultivated around the town of Abyssinia) were the two most frequent grades of Ethiopian coffee in the nineteenth century (grown in the wild in the rest of the country). As a result, Harrar has a long-standing reputation as a desired and high-quality brand (which it does not always earn).
The Ethiopian coffee industry became more structured in the 1950s, and a new grading system was implemented. Ethiopia’s National Coffee Board was established in 1957. In the 1970s, however, the toppling of Emperor Haile Selassie brought about change.
This wasn’t a peasant insurrection, but rather a coup by the ruling class, which was fed up with famine and conflict. The military, which was heavily influenced by socialist ideals, filled the power vacuum. Until then, the country had been akin to a feudal system of government in several ways.
Land redistribution was one of the new goals, and the government swiftly began to nationalize it. Some say that this migration benefited the people greatly, increasing the earnings of the rural poor by up to 50%.
Land ownership and hired labor were prohibited under strict Marxist restrictions, which had a significant impact on the coffee business. Ethiopia returned to picking coffee from the wild after abandoning large-scale production. The 1980s were a decade of famine, with eight million people affected and one million people killed.
The movement in the direction of democracy
The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front deposed the military government in 1991. This ushered in a period of liberalization and democratization in the country. Ethiopia gained access to international markets, but with it came the effects of fluctuating market pricing.
Ethiopian coffee growers, in particular, have had to deal with enormous and uncontrolled price changes. This has resulted in the development of cooperatives that provide assistance to their members in the form of money, market information, and transportation.
The exchange of Ethiopia commodities
The launch of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) in 2008 was the most significant development in Ethiopian coffee trading in recent years, and it was a source of great concern for specialty coffee purchasers.
The ECX was established in Ethiopia for a variety of commodities with the goal of building an efficient trading system that safeguarded both sellers and buyers. Those who wanted to acquire a unique, traceable product rather than a commoditized one were frustrated by the system.
Coffees were sent to the ECX warehouse, where they were given a numerical designation of regional origin (ranging from 1 to 10) for washed coffees.
All natural-process coffees were given a score of 11 out of ten. The coffees were then rated for quality and given a number between 1 and 9, or they were labeled UG (ungraded).
Before the auction, this process stripped the coffee of its exact traceability, but on the plus side, farmers received payment for their beans sooner than before. The method also limited the types of coffees that could be sold on the international market and boosted contract financial transparency.
Today, there are more chances to work outside of the ECX paradigm, and more high-quality, traceable coffees are reaching international customers.
Ethiopian coffees from a single estate are feasible to find, but they are uncommon. It’s more likely that traceability will go back to a certain cooperative. However, despite the lack of transparency, a coffee roaster may just have purchased a coffee that had come through the ECX and found it to be amazing.
Because these coffees have so much to offer, I recommend seeking out a roaster whose coffees you currently appreciate and asking them for recommendations.
Profile of taste
Ethiopian coffees have a wide range of flavors, from citrus (typically bergamot) and orals to candied fruit and even tropical fruit flavors. The best-washed coffees are beautiful, complex, and tasty, while the best naturally processed coffees are wildly fruity and enchantingly odd.
Number of 60kg (132lb) bags in 2013: 6,600,000
The growing regions of Ethiopia are among the most recognizable names in coffee and are used to sell coffee today and probably will be in the foreseeable future. The genetic potential of the indigenous and wild varieties of Arabica make the future of coffee in Ethiopia an exciting one, too.
Sidama is one of the three regions (along with Harrar and Yirgacheffe) that the Ethiopian government trademarked in 2004 to bring wider recognition to their distinctive coffees. It produces a mixture of washed and naturally processed coffees that are incredibly popular among those who enjoy a fruity and intensely aromatic cup.
The region was named after the Sidama people, but it is often referred to in coffee as Sidamo. In recent years, there has been some movement to reject the name Sidamo, as it is felt to be derogatory.
However, it is something of a brand and deeply embedded in the industry. For this reason, both Sidamo and Sidama are used to describe coffees from the region. This region grows some of the highest coffee in Ethiopia.
While it does not have the same reputation as Sidama and Yirgacheffe, Limu still produces some astonishing coffee. This region’s producers are mostly smallholders, but there are some large government-owned plantations in the area.
This region, in the southwest, produces a large portion of Ethiopia’s coffee. Coffees from this region have recently been a little eclipsed by those from other parts of the country but they are de nicely worth investigating. The name of this region can also be written as ‘Jimmah’, ‘Jimma’ or ‘Djimmah’.
The regions surrounding the two towns of Ghimbi and Lekempti are often combined into one, and a roaster may use one name or the other, or sometimes both. Lekempti is the capital city, but a coffee that is described by this name could actually come from Ghimbi over 100km (62 miles) away.
This is one of the oldest producing regions, surrounding the small town of Harrar. Coffees from this region are quite distinctly different and are often grown in environments requiring extra irrigation.
Harrar has maintained a strong reputation for many years, although the naturally processed coffees can veer between an unclean, woody earthiness to a more explicit blueberry fruit flavor.
The coffees are often so unusual that they are remembered fondly by those who work in the industry as the coffees that opened their eyes to the diversity of flavors possible within a cup.
The coffees from this region are, in many ways, truly unique. So many of the great washed coffees from Yirgacheffe are explosively aromatic, full of citrus and oral notes, and have a light and elegant body, so this is undeniably one of the greatest and most interesting regions for growing coffee.
The best coffees from this region fetch rightfully high premiums, and while they can remind some people more of a cup of Earl Grey tea than of a cup of coffee, they are absolutely worth seeking out. There are naturally processed coffees produced in this region too, which can also be exceptionally interesting and enjoyable.