What Is Special About Ethiopian Coffee?

freshly picked red coffee beans in Ethiopia

QUESTION: What makes Ethiopian coffee special? I see coffee described as Ethiopian in advertising pretty frequently and would like to know why Ethiopian coffee is notable. — Lucy M.

ANSWER: You’ll often see coffee on store shelves or in online storefronts categorized by where it was grown. When coffee hounds see beans described as Ethiopian, there are a few assumptions they can make about what the coffee will be like once it’s ground and brewed. This article will delve into just what it is that makes Ethiopian coffee so special, so you can count on knowing exactly what it means for coffee beans to come from Ethiopia on your next shopping trip.

Ethiopia is the fifth largest producer of coffee beans in the world. They also have a history with coffee: literally hundreds of years—centuries of production. All that experience means that manufacturers of coffee in Ethiopia are likely to be using techniques that have been proven winners by years upon years of testing.

Legend has it that a string of coincidences led to Ethiopia being recognized as the “birthplace of coffee.” As the story goes, a goatherder noticed some of his flock chewing on the coffee beans. Putting two and two together, he also observed that the goats that consumed the coffee had more energy and pep than the others. 

The goatherder wanted to try the coffee out for himself, so he popped a few coffee beans into his mouth only to find they were hard and bitter. He tossed the remaining beans he’d collected into the fire to dispose of them … and as they roasted, the goatherder sniffed the delicious smell in the air. He tried steeping the roasted beans in water like tea, only to find it made a weak and bitter beverage. Finally, the persistent goatherder figured out that he needed to grind the beans before brewing them to make a more palatable drink. Perhaps this story took place in Ethiopia because of how many wild-growing coffee trees there are in the country.

sorting ethiopian coffee beans and drying

Ethiopian coffee beans come in a diverse range of flavors.

Ethiopia has several different growing regions for coffee. Each growing region is known for growing coffee beans that have their own unique taste. And the flavors of the coffee growing in the different regions in Ethiopia are vastly different. But they do have some commonalities. Coffee grown in Ethiopia is known for having a bright mouthfeel and tasting something like wine. Ethiopian coffees have higher levels of acidity than most, light to medium body, and nuanced flavors.

  • Guji: Most of the coffee beans grown in this region are cultivated using the wet process. The result is coffee with strong acidity and tasting notes that include lychee, strawberry, and tangerine.
  • Limu: The Ethiopian coffee growing region of Limu is located in the middle of Ethiopia, slightly west of the capital. Coffee beans from Limu are always wet processed. Their flavor is spicy and similar to wine with floral elements as well as some acidic brightness. Limu coffee also tends to be sharper than other coffee beans grown in Ethiopia.
  • Harrar: Harrar is home to “wild coffees.” A natural or dry process coffee can be called “wild” when the fruit is permitted to dry on the coffee bean. Wild coffees are known for tasting notes of dark chocolate and fruit compote. You’re likely to taste these two and more nuanced flavors in a Harrar coffee, such as blueberry jam, cardamom, cinnamon, and cocoa. These are the eastern highlands of Ethiopia, where some of the oldest varieties of coffee bean in the world are grown.
  • Sidamo: Coffees grown in the Sidamo region are known for low acidity, sweet yet complex flavors, and a bright aftertaste. These coffees have rich mouthfeel and full bodies. The flavor consistency of coffee beans from Sidamo has made them sought after by many coffee roasters, so they’re the usual choice when a roaster wants an Ethiopian bean. Tasting notes you’re most likely to detect in coffees from Sidamo include potent blueberry flavors and milder nutty flavors. The Sidamo region of Ethiopia covers the central highlands, where the slow growth rate allows the coffee beans to take in as many nutrients as possible, resulting in a more complex and robust flavor and drinking experience.
  • Yirgacheffe: This type of coffee is named for a town in one of Ethiopia’s growing regions. The town of Yirgacheffe is situated in Ethiopia’s growing region called Sidamo. Yirgacheffes are known for coffee that has a floral flavor and fruity notes like tangerine. The best Yirgacheffes add an aromatic note of toasted coconut, and Yirgacheffes are prized for their aroma. Other flavors you may be able to detect in a Yirgacheffe include berries, chocolate, lemon, nuts, and wine. The body of brewed Yirgacheffe coffee is light to medium. 

Yirgacheffe coffees are frequently honored with awards and have been recognized as the highest quality Arabica coffee beans on the global market. Although you’ll occasionally see comparisons drawn between Yergacheffes and coffees from other parts of the world, such as Central American or nearby Kenyan regions. However, Yirgacheffes are really in a league of their own, and such comparisons are a bit of a stretch. Yirgacheffe is part of the Sidamo region—specifically the areas with higher elevation near a village called Yirga Ch’efe.

There are other coffee growing regions in Ethiopia that you’ll probably hear less about. These include Bebeka, Djimma, Gimbi, Illubabor, Kaffa, Lekempti, Tepi, and Wellega.

The climate and landscape in Ethiopia is perfect for cultivating coffee beans.

Coffee trees are indigenous to Ethiopia, so it doesn’t take a ton of work to keep them thriving. People cultivating coffee in Ethiopia are often dealing with wild trees that have the benefit of growing tucked into shady spots among other plants, and there’s no need to use agricultural chemicals to keep the coffee trees performing well. (These wild coffees are marketed as “forest coffee,” so if you want to experience the flavor of wild coffee, keep an eye out for the phrase “forest coffee” on packaging.) The mountainous regions of Ethiopia have plenty of land at the high elevations required to grow truly delicious coffee.

hand picked ethiopian coffee beans

With most Ethiopian coffees, you know you can feel good about how they were grown.

In addition to the wild or forest coffees we’ve just discussed, garden coffees and plantation coffees are also grown in Ethiopia. Plantation coffees are a larger scale operation, often cultivated by estates on large plots of land. Only a small portion of the coffee produced in Ethiopia is grown as plantation coffee.

Garden coffees are the type most commonly grown by Ethiopian coffee farmers. Garden coffees are not cultivated where they are found in the wild like forest coffees. However, they do use small plots of land. Instead of measuring coffee crops in hectares like the plantation coffees do, garden coffee growers measure their crop in the number of trees they own. 

Garden coffees are not the sole crop of the person growing them, but instead they are grown among a variety of other crops. A garden coffee environment is closer to what we think of as an old-fashioned farm, as opposed to the wild cultivation of forest coffees or the large-scale operation of plantation coffees.

You may see the terms “wet process” or “dry process” used to describe Ethiopian coffee beans. Both types of beans are available on the market, and which one is used has a big impact on the taste of the coffee. Wet processed coffee has a lighter flavor with citrus notes. Dry processed coffee has a rich, complex flavor including nuanced tasting notes like berries or citrus.

As you’ve learned, there’s a broad and diverse range of coffees produced in Ethiopia. In fact, this diversity is one of the mainstays of what makes Ethiopian coffee special. But now you know that there are a lot of assumptions you can make about Ethiopian coffee when you see it on the grocery store shelf or for sale online. After reading this article, you’ve learned a lot about what makes Ethiopian coffee so unique, so you’ll be able to shop with confidence.

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