QUESTION: What kind of coffee is Ethiopian? It’s where coffee originated, right? So is it a certain type? – Brad D.
ANSWER: It is pretty much impossible to describe Ethiopian coffee characteristically, as the types of coffee that are grown (and growing wildly) across Ethiopia vary widely. Ethiopia is widely believed to be the birthplace of coffee cultivation, and it is also one of the few countries where coffee grows naturally in the wild. With a large number of coffee farms spread out across the different regions of Ethiopia, as well as all of the coffee that grows in the wild, there are well over 1,000 different varieties of coffee grown within the country’s borders.
Ethiopia is the largest coffee producer in Africa, and the 5th largest coffee producing country in the world. Coffee makes up 28% of Ethiopia’s exports each year, and over 15 million Ethiopians are employed by the country’s coffee industry. Ethiopian coffee farms are spread out across the entire country, and each region produces its own distinct and unique coffees.
With so much diversity, it’s hard to describe the typical Ethiopian coffee without painting in very broad, general strokes. So, instead of trying to paint a loose, general analysis of Ethiopian coffees, we’ll break the main ones down by the way they are processed, and let you know what to expect from several of the most prominent types of Ethiopian roasts.
The way coffee beans are processed has a massive impact on their flavor. The majority of Ethiopian coffee beans are processed using the natural method, in which the beans are cured with the fruit still intact around the coffee beans, and are not removed until just before packaging. Naturally processed Ethiopian coffees have fruity, wine-like characteristics and a pronounced acidity. Many have very distinct blueberry notes, with a heavy body and a dry finish.
Wet processing is a relatively new technique wherein the coffee beans are washed to remove the fruit from the beans before they are roasted. The majority of wet-processed Ethiopian coffees come from the regions of Sidamo, Herrar, or Kaffa. Wet-processed, or washed Ethiopian coffees tend to have a lighter, drier profile, and complex and aromatic notes, such as lemongrass or jasmine.
The large amount of unique coffee varieties and species that grow in Ethiopia collectively contribute to the unique characteristics of the country’s coffee as a whole. When buying Ethiopian coffee, it is very rare for the roasters to share what variety or varieties of coffee were used. This is because Ethiopian roasters typically don’t label their coffee with species or variety names. Often, a blend of different varieties are used to create a balanced flavor profile.
The species or variety may be undisclosed for several reasons. The farmers may not be certain which species of coffee was harvested, as there are so many different wild coffee varieties which are native to the country. The variety may also be kept a secret so that it is harder for other coffee growing countries to steal some of Ethiopia’s most prized coffee beans.
Geisha coffee beans, for example, were once stolen by coffee farmers from Panama. Geisha coffee beans are amongst the most prized varieties in the world, and when a much greater volume of Geisha coffee beans became available on the market due to Panama’s theft, it drove the price down on some of the country’s most valuable exports. To keep future variety theft from occurring, the species name is not printed on the packaging. Instead, the majority of single origin coffee from Ethiopia is simply labeled Ethiopian Heirloom coffee. Many Ethiopian roasts are blends of several different local varieties.
Due to the simple labeling and heirloom designation, the identity of the type of Ethiopian coffee you are getting can be rather impossible to determine in many cases, and because there is so much variety in the types of coffee that is grown in the country, it becomes a situation where buyers often never really know what they’re going to get.
However, some Ethiopian coffees do proudly display the region in which they are produced, and there are many single origin roasts that don’t use the heirloom title to hide the coffee’s origins. Yirgacheffe is one of the more popular Ethiopian roasts, and is known for its mild and well balanced flavors. In Yirgacheffe coffee, you will notice the flavors of berry, nuts, wine, chocolate, and lemon. The medium-bodied coffees produced in the Sidamo region are also highly rated, and blend deep blueberry notes with a hint of hazelnut. The coffees grown in the Guji region bring a pronounced acidity with fruity hints of tangerine, lychee, and strawberry. Harrar is another Ethiopian coffee growing region that produces excellent dry processed roasts that have a deep character reminiscent of fine wines. Harrar coffees carry a full, rich body, robust, savory notes, and layered fruit-like flavors.
Wet processed Ethiopian beans tend to be milder and more citrusy, while dry-processed beans from the country tend to be more robust and nuanced, with chocolate and berry notes. Ethiopian coffees can be enjoyed using just about any brewing method, but are especially enjoyable when brewed in using pour over or french press devices, or when used to make espresso.