Is Ethiopia The Birthplace of Coffee?
A contentious issue within the coffee community, the birthplace of coffee has many legends. Out of all of them, by far the favourite is the story of Kaldi and his goats. The legend tells of a 9th century goat herder from Kaffa -a former province to the southwest of Ethiopia bordering Sudan- stumbling upon these intoxicating berries after witnessing his goats eating them and gaining caffeinated energy. He excitedly took these berries to the nearby monastery, which was met with poor reception. The monks branded the berries as the devils work and tossed them into a fire. However, when the berries started to burn up, a beautiful aroma filled the room, and the monks dug the roasted beans from the flames, crushing them up to put out the embers. It is said that they then preserved the beans in a jug of hot water which gave birth to what we know as Coffee today.
Though the tale is indeed an amusing one, there’s little evidence to prove it more than legend. Coffee wasn’t mentioned in writing until the close of the 9th century by an Arabian physician, but it can be assumed that it was found growing wild in or around Ethiopia before that time. There are a few small sources that suggest Ethiopian tribes ground the beans into a paste, mixed with Ghee to create a stimulant for long treks or to be eaten as a porridge-like substance. Interestingly, evidence implies that there was small-scale coffee trade between Ethiopia and Yemen around the middle of the 15th century, where wild coffee bushes were harvested in Ethiopia and transported across the red sea.
Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony
The ‘Buna’ or ‘Jebena Buna’ Ceremony is a social tradition within Ethiopian culture, completely removed from the more western idea of quickly grabbing a cup of coffee ‘to go’.. The entire process is lengthy, and involves preparing the room, readying the coffee, roasting, brewing, and finally drinking the coffee. The host, usually female, will prepare the room with an assortment of fresh grasses and flowers. An incense burner filled with frankincense or sandalwood is lit to add to the ambiance of the ceremony. Raw coffee beans are washed and prepared before being roasted in a skillet over an open flame until they are blackened and charred, adding to the aroma in the room. These beans are then removed from the heat, ground down with a pestle and mortar before being added to the Jebena, a special spouted pot containing water. This mixture is placed back in the fire to brew before being served out to guests. It is customary to drink at least three cups of buna during one session, savouring each one and talking with fellow guests.
Coffee Farming in Ethiopia
There are two main production methods in Ethiopia. The more common being shade grown: coffee grown under tree shade, in forests or specifically curated environments with native shade producing crops and trees. The other form of production is known as sun coffee, where plants are grown exposed to the elements. Irrigation is an issue when it comes to landlocked countries such as Ethiopia, and is confined to a few locations where water can be more easily diverted from rivers. The Amhara and Benishangul-Gumuz regions have the most practice with irrigation, though it is also found in the north east of Oromia in Harar. Pesticides and other chemical inputs are rarely used in Ethiopia, and while official organic certification is not common, Ethiopian coffee can often be considered as organic by default.
As the largest coffee producing region in Africa, Ethiopia is responsible for 4.3% of the global coffee market. From a 2019/2020 report, Ethiopia was declared the 5th largest coffee exporter with an estimated 4 million 60 kg sacks exported annually or 450,000 metric tonnes of coffee shipped. A 2022 report averaged this at about $3.46 per kilo of coffee. There are an estimated 15 million individuals that rely on this income from coffee trade in Ethiopia, made possible because of a tight system of Co-operatives. These small holders grow their coffee on a small parcel of land, then combine their harvests and process them as one lot.
Where is Ethiopian Coffee Grown?
Coffee plants mainly grow in the south-west part of Ethiopia at an altitude of 1000-2750 metres above sea level. Yirgacheffe, Sidama and Harrar are all well known locations of coffee production, but there are many more growing regions across the country. Altitude, rainfall, temperature and humidity all have impacting factors on coffee growing. Typically, Ethiopia’s coffee landscape is tropical, but due to the large central highland area being above 1000 m.a.s.l, a lot of the country can be classed as a cool-tropical environment. Ethiopia experiences yearly rainfall of around 2000 mm, with temperatures that fluctuate from 15°c - 30°c and an average harvest period from November to January.
One of three regions, along with Yirgacheffe and Harrar, trademarked by the Ethiopian Government in 2004 to bring a wider recognition to their distinctive coffees. The Sidama region was named after the people and is often referred to as Sidamo. This region grows some of the highest elevated coffee in Ethiopia and produces a cup with bold citrus notes, crisp acidity, a tea-like body and occasionally some spice notes. Coffee grown here ranges from 1,400 – 2,200 m.a.s.l, producing a mixture of both natural and washed coffee of Heirloom Varieties.he harvest period in Sidama is between October – January.
The Limu region is located in the Southwest highlands, and is mostly made up of small holder farms. Coffee from this region is wet processed and grown around 1,400 – 2,200 m.a.s.l. Typically, the varietal here is a wild grown Heirloom arabica with well balanced wine notes. Limu’s Harvest period is between November – January.
Jima, located below Limu in the Southwest, is one of the largest coffee producing regions in Ethiopia. Producing Heirloom varieties between 1,400 – 2,000 m.a.s.l, coffee produced from this region has a great fruit flavour, chocolate notes and a tea-like body. Harvest periods are between November and January.
Ghimbi / Lekempti
These two towns are located in the Northwest, and are often lumped in with the regions surrounding it. In fact, many people use either name or sometimes both to label the region, despite the two towns being over 100km away from each other. Ghimbi and Lekempti process both wet and dry Heirloom coffee, with the harvest period being around February – April, and an altitude ranging from 1,500 – 2,100 m.a.s.l. Coffee produced from this region is often characterised with a low acidity, deep red fruit notes and a buttery body.
Harrar is the oldest coffee producing region in Ethiopia, and another trademarked producing region. Coffee from this region is distinct from its neighbours, grown in environments requiring extra irrigation. There’s no set flavours for Harrar-produced coffee, notes vary from having woody, earthy notes through to big bold juicy blueberry bursts. Heirloom Coffee grown here ranges from 1,500 – 2,100m with a harvest period from October – February.
The last trademarked producing region, Yirgacheffe, is said to produce some of the best Wet & Dry coffees out of Ethiopia. Heirloom varieties from this region can create beautifully aromatic, floral cups with an elegant body. The altitude in Yirgacheffe ranges from 1,750 – 2,200 m.a.s.l with a harvest period from October – January.
What types of coffee are grown in Ethiopia?
The native varietals of Ethiopia include – Heirloom, Bourbon and Typica. Typica was the very first varietal of the Arabica species, found growing in the wild around the Kaffa region. It is noted for its outstanding sweetness, complexity and cleanliness. The Bourbon variety originated on the Island of Bourbon (now known as Reunion Island), and is a mutation of an early Arabica variety from Ethiopia with cherries that can ripen to red, yellow and orange. Bourbon is known for its complex acidities and balance. Lastly, Ethiopian Heirloom coffees are wild Arabica plants that have cross pollinated over species and varieties for decades, creating unique and incredible mutations, unlike any other varietal. These Heirloom varieties can vary so much in taste due to how and where they were grown, but can have notes ranging from funky and winey to sweet and fruity.