Colombian vs. Ethiopian Coffee, the Differences Explained

sorting coffee beans in Ethiopia

by Matt Gibson

When trying out single origin coffees from roasteries and coffee farms from all over the world, you will no doubt run into quite a few Colombian and Ethiopean roasts along the way. Colombia and coffee are practically synonymous, and many people around the world think of coffee when they think of the country of Colombia. That is because Colombia is one of the top three coffee producing countries in the world, and has been in the top three for several decades. 

Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee, and thousands of different varieties of coffee grow there in the wild. Ethiopia is the only country where coffee grows in the wild, which is why the coffee from Ethiopia has such a wide diversity in flavor and style.

Ethiopian coffees, like Brazilian roasts, are cured using one of two distinct methods, each of which have a great effect on the final product. They are either cured naturally, in which the cherries dry out around the bean before removal, which results in a heavy, almost syrup-like body, and a fruit-forward, wine-like flavor with hints of blueberries or strawberries. The other popular Ethiopian curing method is known as washing, in which the beans are separated from the cherries by blasting them with water, stripping off the fruit bits and leaving behind just the coffee beans. The washing method results in a more delicate, light-bodied, tea-like coffee, with hints of lemongrass or jasmine

A History of Colombian Coffee

Jesuit priests were responsible for introducing coffee to Colombia in the early 1700’s when they came to the country along with spanish settlers. Colombia’s first coffee farms began producing coffee in the mountainous region in the northeast of the country. However, because of Colombia’s rich volcanic soil and mostly tropical climate, they are an ideal location for growing coffee, and it didn’t take long before coffee farms began to pop up all over the country. 

It wasn’t until the turn of the century before Colombia began to export their coffee, but it didn’t take long before coffee exports became the country’s most important industry. By the late 1800’s, the Colombian coffee business was booming. However, the country fell into a dark period near the end of the century, entering a civil war known as the Thousand Day War. The war also coincided with a drop in demand for international coffee exports, which led plantation owners to abandon the industry, dividing their lands up amongst their workers. 

This dramatic shift in the Colombian coffee industry ended up keeping the country’s economy afloat, as it gave the coffee farmers ownership over their farms, and put money back into the working class pocketbook. In the early 1900’s, the Colombian government helped to create a system that helped to enable small farms to export their coffee more easily and efficiently, giving the newer, small scale, family coffee farms the ability to really begin to profit off of their production. 

In 1927, an organization was created to protect the interest of the country’s many small coffee farms called The National Organization of Coffee Growers of Columbia. The impact of the group on the country’s coffee industry was felt almost immediately, and Colombia became the world’s third largest exporter of coffee. In the 1950’s, an advertisement campaign for Colombian coffee created by the organization, which featured a coffee farmer named Juan Valdez and his donkey Conchita, spread the word about the excellence of Colombian coffee, and helped to keep Colombian coffee in high demand globally. e

A History of Ethiopian Coffee

As the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopian legends tell several different versions of the discovery of the coffee cherry and the discovery of the popular beverage. The legends all refer to a goat herder named Kaldi who is credited for the discovery of the coffee cherry and of coffee itself. Supposedly, the local goat herder noticed his herd of goats gaining large amounts of physical energy and vigor after consuming the plant’s cherries. 

One version of the legend tells that the intrigued goat herder decided to pick a handful of coffee cherries and try one for himself. Finding the cherry to be too bitter tasting for his liking, Kaldi then tossed the rest of the handful of cherries into the fire. As they roasted, he noticed the pleasant smell the smoke created. 

Afterwards, the man would collect coffee beans to roast them lightly throughout the day as an incense, for the pleasing aroma that the smoke from the roasting coffee created. The herder then tried to brew the roasted beans in hot water like a hot tea, and coffee was born. Surely, there was a lot of experimentation early on, which eventually led to the practice of drying, or curing the coffee beans, as well as grinding up the beans prior to extraction. But right away, Kaldi could tell that he had stumbled upon something that people would enjoy, and could benefit from. 

Columbian vs. Ethiopian Coffee: Flavor & Aroma

Colombian coffee generally has a very balanced flavor and a light to medium body with low acidity levels. If you prefer a classic, traditional coffee taste with a hint of nutty, chocolatey, or floral aromas and flavors, you might find some of your favorite roasts are from Colombia. Colombian coffee is rich, and robust, and perfect for medium to medium-dark roasts. Colombian coffee is somewhat similar to Central American coffee, such as Guatemalan, or Nicaraguan roasts, in that it is typically rather mild in flavor and light in body. 

Colombian coffees also have a natural but subtle caramel-like sweetness, which nicely accompanies the nutty and/or floral flavors present in their roasts. There is an acidic presence in Colombian coffee as well, but it is very mild, and subdued by the more robust flavors. The caramel-like sweetness stands out in the forefront of Columbian roasts, while the nuttyness and fruitiness play a more secondary, but complementary role. 

Ethiopian coffees, on the other hand, are typically bright and acidic. Ethiopian roasts are more fruity and tangy than other coffees. The thought of a tangy tasting coffee may not sound very appealing to you, especially if you have never experienced more acidic coffees, but acidity is not a bad thing in coffee, and many people prefer more acidic roasts over more robust, or bitter tasting coffees. 

The term, “tangy,” may lead some to believe that the coffee is sour, which is kind of misleading. Though there is some sourness to coffees with high acidity, it is not typically an overpoweringly sour trait, as it is balanced by the smoothness of the natural coffee bean flavor and the smokiness that the roasting process brings out of the beans. Once you try a good coffee with high acidity, you will understand how important acidity is to coffee, even when it’s playing a more nuanced secondary role. 

Colombian Vs. Ethiopian Coffee: Which Is Better? 

Everyone’s tastes are different and not everyone will like the same thing, especially when it comes to coffee preferences. There are great Colombian coffees, and there are great Ethiopian coffees on the market, and there is too much to like about the coffee from each of these origin countries to pick one above the other with any conviction. If you are looking for a more traditional tasting, robust, full-flavored coffee, you will probably get what you are looking for in a Colombian roast. If you love trying new things and enjoy unique experiences when it comes to your coffee, give a few Ethiopian roasts a try. Coffees from Ethiopia which were cured using the washing method provide truly unique flavors that are unlike any other coffee roasts in the world. 

When it comes to delicious coffee, sourcing single origin beans is essential. Both Colombia and Ethiopia are excellent coffee producing regions to look for when trying out new single origin roasts. You are doing something right if you are getting your coffee beans from small farms from either country. Which one you should choose comes down to a matter of personal preference.  

Learn More About Ethiopian and Columbian Coffee

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