Ethiopia’s not your typical coffee origin. It’s the birthplace of coffee. It’s the land of natural, ancient coffee forests. It’s the land of coffee dreams. With unrivaled coffee plant genetic diversity and, thus, unrivaled coffee flavor diversity, the Ethiopian coffee scene would take a lifetime to explore thoroughly.
Buckle up. This is going to be a fun (and tasty) one.
A History Of Ethiopian Coffee
Unlike with other countries that have well-documented coffee histories, Ethiopia’s coffee has no beginning—at least, not a recorded one. This story begins with a legend.
Kaldi was a young goat herder who lived around 850 AD (or, so the legend goes). Every day he would take his goats to different pastures to graze. One day he noticed some of his goats were acting strange and jumping excitedly. He investigated and discovered that the wild goats were eating small berries off a shrub. Kaldi ate a few berries himself, felt elated and energized, and knew he’d found something special.
Kaldi brought a pocket-full of berries back home, where his wife encouraged him to take them to the monastery at Lake Tana. He did, but the monks didn’t react how he expected. “Devils work!” exclaimed a monk as he threw the berries into the fire.
But the aromas of the roasting berry seeds (ahem, coffee beans) couldn’t be resisted. Monks from other areas of the monastery came to investigate, and the lead monk ordered the seeds be soaked in hot water to preserve the flavors. That night, as the monks drank the coffee and experienced the energy it gave them, they vowed to drink it daily to help them stay alert for their nightly devotions.
This is the most common legend, but we also know that some monks in Ethiopia were already chewing the coffee berries for energy before 850 AD. We also have reason to believe that tribal warriors would eat coffee berries before going into battle. Arabic scientific documents from 900 AD mention brewed coffee (“buna”) for the first time, proving that the drink was gaining traction over a thousand years ago.
Modern Ethiopian Coffee History
Coffee wasn’t cultivated in Ethiopia until the 1500’s (though some scholars believe it was cultivated in modern-day Yemen as early as 600 AD). Before, coffee beans were just harvested from coffee plants growing naturally across the country. This initial cultivation was very small in scale.
By the 1800’s, commercial coffee production was in full swing, though many farmers were still harvesting coffee cherries from natural coffee forests. Income from coffee is what led to the rise of the Kingdom of Shewa in the 1800’s, a breakout government within the Ethiopian Empire. Between 1950 and 2,000, Ethiopia changed governmental types three times and faced multiple wars. It was a difficult time, but the coffee industry remained strong.
These days, Ethiopia is the 5th largest coffee producer and is known around the world as one of the highest-quality producers in the world.
Ethiopian Coffee Growing Facts
You can still find coffee harvested from Ethiopia’s natural coffee forests. One particularly famous forest is Gesha Forest in the Southwestern area of the country. This is the forest where the original gesha coffee plants came from that are now so famously grown in Central America. However, the modern ‘geisha’ variety plants are actually genetically distinct from plants in Ethiopia’s Gesha Forest because of natural mutations over time.
Most coffee growers are smallholders, producing just 300kg per year on average. In many cases, it’s more accurate to describe these harvests as from “garden lots” rather than farms.
Over half of the coffee grown in Ethiopia is consumed in Ethiopia. Coffee is an important aspect of daily life for the locals, and there’s even a phrase in a local language that roughly translates to “coffee is our bread”. The ‘coffee ceremony’ is a social experience where the host harvests, roasts, and brews several cups of coffee all in one go. It’s a long, communal process that walks participates through the stages of seed to cup.
What Does Ethiopian Coffee Taste Like?
The better question is: what does Ethiopian coffee not taste like. With 99% of the world’s genetic diversity for coffee plants, Ethiopia’s not short on flavor diversity. In fact, most plants aren’t even genetically classified—we just call these ‘heirloom’ varieties.
So, while you’ll find coffee with flavors all over the board, there’s a particular flavor profile that comes to mind more powerfully than the rest when we think about Ethiopia’s specialty coffee.
Blueberries. Strawberries. Lime. Red Fruit.
Natural processed Ethiopian coffees are famously, fascinatingly fruity. The aromas are rich and unmistakable: berries—sweet, sweet berries. It’s incredible, and very different from your average coffee from anywhere else in the world. If you ever get a chance to try one of these exceptional coffees, don’t skip the chance.
Ethiopian Coffee At A Glance
- Flavor: Low acidity, medium body, extraordinary fruity flavors and aromas.
- Processing: Washed, Natural
- Main Growing Regions: Sidama (including Yirgacheffe), Harrar, Limu, Djimma
- Harvest: November to February
Now that we’ve walked you through the basics, it’s time for you to experience the wonderland that is Ethiopian coffee for yourself. Check our our current single origin Ethiopian and savor the rich fruity flavors you won’t find anywhere else.