As the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia holds a truly regal position among the coffee growing countries.
Unlike other origins which only cultivate a few varieties of coffee introduced as cash crop, coffee is native to Ethiopia and are so genetically diverse that calling it a “single-origin” coffee is actually quite misleading.
The Legend of Kaldi and His Goats
How coffee started in Ethiopia is shrouded in myth and legend. One of the most popular legend is that of the goat herder, Kaldi.
Kaldi and his goats
It was said that Kaldi was herding his goats through the highlands near a monastery when he noticed that they were bleating loudly and dancing on their hind legs.
He found that the source of the excitement was a small shrub with bright red berries, and he tried them for himself out of curiosity.
Ripe coffee berries
Like his goats, Kaldi felt the energizing effects of the berries. Excited about his discovery, he went to the nearby monastery in order to share these “heaven sent” berries with the monks.
However, Kaldi’s berries were treated with disdain and one of the monks threw them onto the fire denouncing them to be the work of the devil.
According to the legend, the monk was pleasantly surprised by the aroma of the roasting beans. He removed the coffee from the fire, crushed them to put out the glowing embers and covered them with hot water in an order to preserve them.
Curious with the enticing aroma of the coffee, the monks tried drinking the coffee and found that its uplifting effects were beneficial in keeping them awake during their prayers.
And so, these “holy beans” quickly spread to other monastery and consumed as an aid to their religious devotions.
As interesting as it is, this story did not appear in writing until 1671 and is generally considered as a legend rather than a true history.
Coffee Production in Ethiopia
Coffee probably began to be exported from the country as early as the 17th century, though trade didn’t become significant until the 19th century.
Today, an estimated 15 million Ethiopians are employed by the coffee industry and coffee is a major contributor to the country’s economy accounting to close to 70% of all export earnings.
Majority of coffee produced in Ethiopia are from small farmers and some are even harvested off untended wild-grown coffee. Only a very small percentage of Ethiopian coffee are grown on large estates.
In April 2008, the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) was established as a platform for the trade of undifferentiated crops which also included coffee. On arrival at the ECX, coffee is repackaged and graded according to cup quality before being auctioned to the highest bidder.
This intervention has, in some ways, been very positive for farmers and consumers, leading to a more consistent and better cup for most coffees and higher prices for growers.
However, a drawback of pooling coffees based on taste alone means that most coffees exported through ECX (which accounts for about 90% of all Ethiopia’s coffee) cannot be traced back to the grower, cooperative or region.
Currently, rules and guidelines are slowly loosening with 10 percent of coffee grown is now eligible to be purchased through cooperatives.
Coffee holds a very special position in Ethiopian culture and is usually brewed in an elaborate ceremony in these pottery jug called, jebena.
From the bright floral Yirgacheffe to the fruity notes of Harrar, the diversity of Ethiopian coffee adds to the great complexity and variability in their taste profiles.
It is difficult to make generalizations about the taste of Ethiopian coffee. Each coffee-growing region is home to unique flavors.
Ethiopian coffees tend to be grown at middle-high to very-high altitudes, resulting in a hard-bean type, with intense flavors and aromatics.
Fruity notes are common in all regions, though the specific fruit character varies from region to region. Berry aromatics are relatively common, as are citrus and chocolate.
Ethiopian coffees can be full-bodied or light in body depending on their processing method, but in either case the mouthfeel of top quality Ethiopian coffees is generally smooth and pleasing.
It is best to keep an open mind when tasting Ethiopian coffees as it would not be rare to find two Brewers debating over the taste of a coffee which supposedly came from the “same origin” in Ethiopia.