Ethiopia may not be the best-known name in coffee, but it was the first name in coffee. The word itself is thought to be derived from Kaffa, a province in southern Ethiopia. And even as coffee plants have spread across the world — being grown in such far-reaching places as Brazil, Indonesia, and Hawaii — Ethiopia has remained one of the best coffee-producing countries.
Ethiopia is the world’s fifth largest coffee producer, but they only export about half of the beans they produce. Ethiopians have their own robust coffee culture (not to be confused with robusta, which is a type of coffee bean that most Ethiopians have likely never tried — the country mainly produces the higher-quality arabica variety). Coffee is woven into the social fabric of Ethiopia, and they have their own way of preparing, serving, and enjoying it.
We’ll share what makes Ethiopian coffee unique, explain how they drink this beverage in its homeland, and introduce you to some of the best Ethiopian beans you can buy right now.
What Makes Ethiopian Coffee So Special?
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and it’s the only place where wild coffee still grows. You can find it growing under cloud forests in the mountains of Southwest Ethiopia.
They say that, in these forests, coffee was first discovered by a goat herder named Kaldi. He saw his goats eat the berries off a coffee tree. Afterwards, the goats were filled with energy and wouldn’t sleep all night.
But Ethiopian coffee has more to offer than legend and lore. The forests where the wild coffee still grows have more biodiversity than you can find on any coffee farmer’s estate. The coffee industry has planted and replanted the same few varietals of arabica coffee beans all over the world. That lack of genetic diversity makes the plants less resistant to pests, drought, and other problems.
But in Ethiopia, there are hundreds of heirloom varietals of coffea arabica (the scientific name for arabica coffee). This variation not only leads to healthier plants, it also adds diversity to the flavors of Ethiopian coffee.
Most of the coffee produced in the country now comes from family-owned coffee farms, but you can also find foraged wild coffee beans from Ethiopia. The majority of the country’s coffee farms also grow their coffee plants under natural cover from the country’s high-elevation cloud forests.
The Flavor Profile of Ethiopian Coffee
Ethiopian coffee has a light, bright flavor with noticeable acidity.
The coffee beans typically undergo dry processing. This traditional technique involves drying the beans with the coffee cherry still intact. This is different from the wet processing technique used in most of the world’s coffee production.
In wet processing, the fruit is removed first and then the beans are dried. In dry processing, the fruit is only removed right before the beans are sent to the coffee roaster. Leaving the fruit on throughout the drying process infuses the beans with more fruity and floral notes.
To preserve the delicate floral and fruity flavors, Ethiopian coffee is typically prepared with a light roast or a medium roast. A light roast will produce the fruitiest brew with complex flavor, bright acidity, and subtle notes of milk chocolate. A medium roast will add a little more caramelization to the beans, toning down the acidity and bringing out richer notes of dark chocolate.
The Coffee Producing Regions of Ethiopia
The majority of Ethiopian coffee comes from the Sidamo region in the southwestern part of the country. While Sidamo is no longer officially recognized as a province by the Ethiopian government (it was broken up into three provinces as part of the 1995 Ethiopian constitution), it’s still a recognized designation of origin for Ethiopian Sidamo coffee.
The Sidamo region can be broken down into several smaller coffee producing areas, including Sidama, Guji, Limu, and Yirgacheffe. Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee — with its delicate floral and citrus notes — is the one of the most sought after single-origin coffees in the world. But Ethiopian Harrar coffee is equally good.
Harrar is one of the northeastern-most coffee producing regions in Ethiopia. It’s part of the Oromia province. Although it comes from nearby, Harrar coffee shouldn’t be confused with Harar, one of Ethiopia’s most ancient cities. Ethiopian Harrar coffee isn’t as common among specialty coffee roasters as Yirgacheffe coffee, but it has complex flavor with notes of blueberries, blackberries, apricot, and cinnamon.
The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony
Coffee isn’t just a cash crop in Ethiopia — it’s an important part of the culture. In Ethiopian households, they’ll share coffee with friends, neighbors, and passersby during what’s known as the Ethiopian coffee ceremony or buna. It’s a social ritual that often takes several hours to complete, and in some households, they perform the coffee ceremony three times a day.
During the coffee ceremony, a member of the household will burn incense and light a charcoal grill. They then place a pan over the grill and place green coffee beans in the pan. They roast the whole beans until toasted and fragrant. Then, they crush the roasted coffee beans by hand with a mortar and pestle, and put the ground beans into a jebena — a tall, thin coffee pot with a handle and a spout. They add water, place the jebena over the grill, and brew the coffee.
Once the brew is ready, the host will pour the coffee into small coffee cups. They pour a slow, steady stream of coffee from a height to trap the grounds in the bottom of the jebena and keep them from escaping into anyone’s cup of coffee.
After guests finish their first cup of coffee, the host will brew two more pots with the same grounds. While the flavor gets weaker with each brew, the third pot of coffee is said to be blessed.
The Best Ethiopian Coffee Beans to Brew Right Now
Ethiopian coffee is a specialty coffee, so you won’t find it at your local Starbucks. But because it’s a favorite of specialty roasters, you can find plenty of high-quality Ethiopian coffee online. Here are our three favorite places to get Ethiopian coffee.
- Volcanica Coffee Roasters: This speciality roaster gets our vote for offering the widest selection of Ethiopian coffee beans. They have Sidamo, Guji, Limu, Yirgacheffe, and Harrar coffee beans. Many of their beans are naturally processed (instead of wet processed), so they retain their fruity flavor profile. You can even get a gift pack with multiple varietals of Ethiopian coffee to help you start your tasting journey.
- La Colombe Coffee Roasters: La Colombe never disappoints when it comes to freshness or flavor. If you aren’t lucky enough to live near one of this roaster’s cafes, head to their online shop where you can pick up their single-origin Ethiopia coffee. It’s a medium-roast coffee sourced from the Yirgacheffe region.
- Koffee Kult: This specialty coffee brand roasts your beans fresh when you order them so they’ll have the best possible flavor. Their Ethiopian Harrar whole bean coffee is sourced from a single estate in the Harrar region and roasted medium.
The Birthplace of Coffee Never Gets Old
While there are many countries that produce incredible coffee, from Kenya to Guatemala to Brazil, Ethiopian coffee is unique in the world. As the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia is the only place in the world where coffee grows wild. It’s home to many varietals of heirloom arabica coffee beans that you can’t find anywhere else.
And Ethiopian coffee’s flavor profile is as unique as its homeland. Filled with light fruity and floral notes this coffee brews a beautifully delicate cup. Choose light or medium-roast Ethiopian beans from a specialty coffee house that roasts the beans fresh when you buy them. With that first sip, you’ll understand why this coffee is so special.
To learn more about your favorite morning brew — from the best single-origin beans to the best ways to make coffee — head to Cup & Bean.