Arguably the most famous of coffee producing countries – the birthplace of coffee, in fact – with many believing that Ethiopia is the only place where coffee originally grew natively. This is a country of stories, traditions, and history, all steeped in coffee.
Whether you’re just beginning your exploration into the world of speciality coffee, or you’re something of a coffee connoisseur, chances are, you’ve heard the apocryphal story about the goat herder, Kaldi. The story goes a little something like this: Kaldi noticed that his goats, after eating some coffee cherries, seemed full of energy. Curious, Kaldi picked a few of the cherries, and took them to a monastery where, after he explained what he believed he witnessed, the monks declared the cherries to be the work of the devil—and threw them on the fire. As a delicious smell arose, the beans were raked from the fire and crushed, putting out the embers. Placed in a jug and covered with hot water for preservation, this became the first coffee that the monks would drink to keep them awake during their devotions.
Whether we’re to thank some curious and hungry goats, or, perhaps more likely, the Oromo people for first discovering the coffee plant, one thing is certain: Ethiopia’s roots in coffee remain as deep as ever, and without the successful cultivation of some of the country’s most famed varietals, many other coffee producing countries wouldn’t be so prominent on the world map.
Here, we delve into Ethiopia’s incredible history of coffee, exploring the landscape and plants that are celebrated around the world.
Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country, and the second largest in terms of population. Apart from a five-year occupation by Mussolini’s Italy, Ethiopia has never been colonised—but the country has still faced plenty of turbulence. From drought and civil conflict to numerous changes in government (from a Marxist ideology to a federal system within the space of fifty years), such political unrest, environmental hardship, and economic challenges, has meant that the country has seen little stability, with disputes and armed conflict only heightening Ethiopia’s position as one of the poorest countries in Africa, and the world.
Coffee wasn’t cultivated in Ethiopia until the 1500s, starting very small in scale. And while, by the 1800s, commercial coffee production was well underway, many farmers were still harvesting from the natural coffee forests that cover many regions across the country to this day. Income from coffee was what led to the rise of the Kingdom of Shewa, a breakout government within the Ethiopian Empire. Throughout the country’s numerous governmental changes, the coffee industry remained resilient.
Today, Ethiopia is the fifth largest coffee producer in the world, renowned and revered for producing exceptionally high-quality crops. There are over 12 million people involved in the cultivation and harvesting of coffee, and the crop – and cup – remains an integral part of Ethiopian culture.
One of the world’s oldest countries, Ethiopia lies completely within tropical latitudes (between the Tropic of Cancer, and the Tropic of Capricorn), with one of the most rugged topographies on the continent of Africa. Situated on what is known as the horn of Africa, this landlocked country experiences three key seasons. The dry season, called the bega, takes places between September and February, followed by the belg, which is the short rainy season in March and April. May is normally hot and dry, before the rainy season, kremt, begins in June, lasting through August. Ethiopia’s coffee harvest typically takes place between November and February. With climate change, Ethiopia’s coffee production is under serious threat, with increased periods of drought and severe weather patterns.
The key coffee growing regions in Ethiopia include Sidamo, Limu, Harrar, Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, Djimmah (also spelt Jimma), Lekempti, and Bebeka.
Coffee is Ethiopia’s primary foreign exchange earner—and yet over 50 percent of the coffee grown is consumed within the country, with the drink forming an important part of daily life, embedded in rituals, traditions, and even the language.
Coffee in Ethiopia has traditionally been sold through an auction system, yet in recent years, cooperatives have emerged, providing a way for green coffee to be sold direct. Ethiopia only grows Arabica, but an astonishing number of individual cultivators – many still growing wild and undiscovered – means that the country is truly unique to anywhere else in the world. With 99 percent of the world’s genetic diversity for coffee plants, Ethiopia’s coffee isn’t lacking in flavour diversity; most plants haven’t yet been genetically classified; these are referred to as heirloom.
Most coffee growers are smallholders, producing on average 300kg a year, which is commonly grown on what are known as garden lots—land close to the farmer’s home, where other crops are grown too, often providing shade cover and nutrients, and a sustainable way of farming. It’s not unusual for farmers to harvest from natural coffee forest too; the most famous being the Gesha forest, located in the southwest of the country.
Sidamo is one of three trademarked regions, alongside Yirgacheffe and Harrar, celebrated for outstanding coffee. The region, situated in the highlands of the Rift Valley, offers optimal temperatures, fertile soils, and ample rainfall: all idyllic ingredients for growing coffee. Coffee here is known for being rich and full-bodied, with a vibrant and crisp acidity, with floral and citrus notes. Yirgacheffe is part of the region of Sidamo but classified as its own distinct region for coffee. Like Sidamo, most of the coffee from this region is a washed process, with some natural. From Harrar, a natural process is more common, resulting in intense flavours and a fruit-forward acidity. In Limu, in the southwest, washed process remains the most popular method, with coffees that, often grown at lower elevations, are well balanced, with low acidity.
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