Ethiopian Coffee: A Complete Buying Guide to the Birthplace of Coffee

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Alex DeCapri

Alex DeCapri is a specialty coffee roaster and curious coffee writer. He started sourcing his own green beans to roast and ship worldwide and later became the head roaster at OOP Café in Belo Horizonte. Now on a road trip from the U.S. to Brazil, Alex visits coffee farms and shares his firsthand experience from field visits.


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Are you ready to embark on a sensory journey to the very birthplace of coffee?

Look no further than Ethiopia, where the rich history and vibrant culture intertwine with the captivating aromas and flavors of the world’s finest coffee beans

In this comprehensive buying guide, we’ll unveil the secrets of Ethiopian coffee, guiding you through the diverse regions and distinctive beans that this country has to offer. 

From the highlands of Sidamo to the lush forests of Yirgacheffe, join us as we explore the best Ethiopian coffee and equip you with all the knowledge you need to make an informed purchase and delicious brew. 

Key Takeaways

  • Ethiopian coffee is considered some of the world’s best coffee and is the birthplace of Arabica coffee.
  • The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a significant social and cultural tradition, symbolizing hospitality and community bonding.
  • Ethiopia is a major producer and exporter of coffee, with its own rich culture around coffee consumption.
  • Ethiopian coffee comprises thousands of varieties, referred to as heirloom varieties, and is grown in high-altitude regions with favorable climates.
  • Ethiopian coffee is known for its berry, citrus, and tropical fruit flavors, as well as floral, herbal, and wine-like notes.

What Makes Ethiopian Coffee Special?

Ethiopian coffee is regarded as some of the world’s best coffee. It’s the area of the world where Arabica coffee originated, found growing naturally in the forests. Many experts claim that Ethiopia is the only place where coffee grew natively. (1)

Brief History of Ethiopian Coffee

Legend has it that coffee originated in Ethiopia, specifically in the region of Kaffa in southwest Ethiopia. In this area, coffee grew and continues to grow in the wild. 

The story goes that a goatherder named Kaldi discovered the energizing effects of coffee when he noticed his goats becoming lively after eating the cherries from a particular tree.

He witnessed the goats dancing with lots much energy, and, after making such a crazy discovery, Kaldi wanted to share his findings. He then brought some of the beans to show a group of monks in the area.

They claimed that this “magic” was the Devil’s work, and one of the monks threw the beans into the fire to get rid of them. Naturally, the room was then filled with the wonderful smell of freshly roasted coffee, showing that the beans had some kind of potential!

According to coffee historians, the cultivation and consumption of coffee in Ethiopia can be traced back to the 9th century. Coffee was initially consumed as a fruit or chewed for its stimulating effects. 

Over time, the beans were roasted and brewed into a beverage, which gained popularity among the local population. Ethiopian coffee became an integral part of daily life, with coffee ceremonies becoming a significant social and cultural tradition.

From Ethiopia, the coffee plant was first spread to Yemen, then to Istanbul, Cairo, and Damascus where it found its way into coffeehouses in Europe and eventually North America.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

The cultural significance of drinking coffee is extremely prevalent in Ethiopia. People of all ages spend anywhere from 2-3 hours preparing and drinking coffee together in this traditional ritual that symbolizes hospitality and community bonding.

ethiopian-coffee-featured

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony involves roasting the coffee beans in a pan, grinding them with a mortar and pestle, and brewing the coffee in a clay pot called a jebena. The freshly brewed coffee is served in three rounds, and participants engage in conversations and socialize while enjoying the beverage. 

Most people in Ethiopia drink coffee with a serving of sugar, but milk is never added. Since these ceremonies take a long time, the conversation ranges from politics to local events and socializing. It’s a sacred time for connection, honoring guests, and generosity.

ethiopian-coffee-ceremony

Flavor Profile of Ethiopian Coffee Beans

Ethiopian coffee is known for its rich and complex flavor profiles. Expect vibrant and fruity notes, such as berry, citrus, and tropical fruit flavors. Floral, herbal, and wine-like notes are also very common.

Ethiopian coffees typically have a high acidity with a lighter body. The best Ethiopian coffee I ever brewed was winey with explosive blueberry notes and bright acidity. Yum!

Ethiopia has a long-standing tradition of processing coffee using the natural method. This method is also called the “dry process” and involves drying the coffee cherries on raised beds with all of the fruit pulp intact. These beans tend to taste fruitier with a deeper sweetness and a more syrupy body.

ethiopian-coffee-natural-process
Drying coffee cherries on raised bamboo beds

While the natural method has been used for centuries, wet processing is also becoming more commonly used, especially in the specialty industry that I work in. Wet processing, also known as the “washed method”, involves removing the cherry pulp from the seed and soaking/fermenting the beans in water tanks for an extended period of time to remove any residue stickiness. Once this sticky layer called the mucilage is removed, the beans are set out to dry on raised beds. Once dry, the parchment coffee is then moved to a milling facility to get the beans ready for shipping.

Washed Ethiopian beans tend to produce a cleaner-tasting coffee with bright and complex acidity. It’s much easier to taste unique fruity and floral notes when the beans are processed using this method.

Ethiopian Coffee Production

As the birthplace of coffee, it’s probably not a shock that Ethiopia remains a powerhouse in the global production and exportation of coffee beans. 

In 2020 alone, Ethiopia produced over 7.3 million 60-kg bags of coffee (Source: 2). It was the 9th largest exporter of coffee with 3.4 million bags sent around the world. (Source: 3) This figure is shocking because Ethiopia is one of the few coffee-producing countries that consumes a ton of its own beans yet still manages to be a major global competitor among coffee-exporting countries.

Ethiopia Commodity Exchange

A big reason for the success of Ethiopia’s coffee industry is due to the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX). Established by the government in 2008, the ECX allows farmers to sell their coffee through this platform via a standardized procedure.

While it’s made the process quite easy for farmers, this unfortunately has made tracing coffees back to specific farms very difficult. This lack of traceability is especially an issue in the specialty coffee industry.

Because of this, a new law was made in 2017 that allowed coffee farmers to keep their beans separate until they were purchased directly from individual washing stations. (4)

While 100% traceability is still difficult when buying coffee from Ethiopia, tracing the beans to individual washing stations (who then keep records of beans purchased from specific farmers) helps roasters verify specifically where their coffee is grown.

Production Systems in Ethiopia

Another interesting fact about Ethiopian coffee is that there are three primary production systems within the country: Forest Coffee, Garden Coffee, and Plantation Coffee.

  • Forest Coffee: About 45% of the coffee grown in Ethiopia comes from wild coffee trees that require little maintenance. Generally, local communities care for and harvest the cherries from these naturally growing coffee plants. Depending on the area, “semi-forest” coffee involves more intensive farming techniques such as weeding and thinning trees.
  • Garden Coffee: This system accounts for 50% of the country’s production. Smallholder farmers take seedlings from forest coffee production systems and plant them closer to where they live. More often than not, these systems are organic and use agroforestry principles.
  • Plantation Coffee: A very small amount of coffee grown in Ethiopia comes from large estates owned by the government. 

Coffee Varieties

If you purchase a bag of roasted coffee from this country, it probably lists “heirloom varieties” as the variety of coffee. Unlike most other coffee-producing countries, Ethiopia is home to thousands of varieties of Arabica coffee trees.

Since coffee plants have been growing together and cross-breeding for centuries, this umbrella term refers to all the coffee varietals in Ethiopia. It’s very difficult for farmers to identify and separate varieties in the wild.
Studies suggest that there are over 10,000 unique varieties across Ethiopia, the majority of which have not been formally genetically identified. (5)

Coffee Growing Regions in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has one of the best climates for growing high-quality Arabica coffee. The coffee plant did naturally start and thrive here, after all!

Ethiopia’s general climate is predominately tropical with variations based on elevation, ranging from dry and semi-arid in the lowlands to cooler and wetter in the highlands (which is where coffee beans thrive).

Ethiopia’s coffee-growing regions are located at high altitudes, typically ranging from 4,900-7,200 feet above sea level. The cooler temperatures allow for slow coffee maturation and the development of more complex flavors.

Throw in some fertile soil in mountainous areas with good drainage, and Ethiopian coffee does quite well.

ethiopia-coffee-growing-regions

Here are the four most popular coffee-growing regions in the country that you do not want to miss.

  • Yirgacheffe: This small town is part of the Sidamo region in Southern Ethiopia and produces some of the most popular coffee in the country. The mild temperatures, ample rainfall, and long growing season create exceptional coffees. Expect floral, fruity, and wine-like flavors with hints of citrus, bergamot, and jasmine. A light-to-medium body and bright acidity are the norms, thanks to the wet processing method.
  • Harrar: This region in Eastern Ethiopia has a slightly arid climate with hot days and cool nights. Coffee from this area tends to be bold and complex with deep fruit and wine notes. Your cup will have a heavier body with hints of blueberry, dark chocolate, and brown spice. The body is heavy and syrupy, due to most of the coffee being processed with the natural method.
  • Guji: Also located in the south, this region in Sidamo experiences moderate temperatures and ample rainfall. The coffees grown here tend to be fruity and vibrant with distinct berry flavors. Guji coffee makes for some of the best floral and tea-like coffee beans in the country. Expect a balanced acidity and light-to-medium body.

How to Brew Ethiopian Coffee

Now that you know how this coffee should taste, let’s talk about the best ways to brew these delicious Ethiopian coffee beans. I primarily enjoy coffee from this country in two ways: as a pour-over and as a cold brew.

Pour-Over

If you want to enjoy all of the nuanced notes that your coffee has to offer, I recommend using a pour-over method with a paper filter. My personal favorite is a V60 because it has a thin paper filter that still allows the body to shine through. This is especially important for those wine-like coffees from Hammar with a syrupy body.

Pour-overs tend to place more focus on the acidity and nuanced flavor notes over sweetness, but I find that the V60 still allows a great amount of sweetness to develop. Since Ethiopian coffee is known for its fruity and floral notes, a pour-over will let you experience more distinct flavors than a French Press, for example.

Pro Tip: If you want a bit more focus on acidity and florals, try a Chemex or other pour-over with a thicker paper filter.

chemex-vs-v60-coffee-taste

Cold Brew

Since Ethiopian coffee is so fruit-forward and floral in nature, they make for delicious cold brews. Make sure to grind coarsely and not leave the cold brew to extract for too long. You want to preserve the bright acidity and enjoy those crazy blueberry and tropical fruit notes!

Best Roast for Ethiopian Coffee Beans

In my several years of roasting coffee, I’ve found that coffees with inherently floral notes and bright acidities do well towards the lighter end of the spectrum.

If you have a tea-like coffee from Guji, a light roast will help highlight this note, showcase the acidity, and maintain its pleasantly light body.

If you have a coffee with more of a fruit-forward profile, choosing a medium roast will help bring out more sweetness and body while still preserving some acidity.

Anything darker than a medium roast will start to focus on flavors from the roast (think caramel, chocolate, toasted) over the delicate and unique flavors inherent to Ethiopian coffee beans.

roast-for-ethiopian-coffee

Where to Buy Ethiopian Coffee – Best Brands to Try

Alright, now that you know all about Ethiopian coffee, you’re probably dying to try some. I know I could use a cup right about now!

Here are four of our favorite Ethiopian coffee brands with delicious roasted coffee beans available to order online. 

Volcanica Organic Yirgacheffe Coffee

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Volcanica is one of our favorite roasters and continues to source delicious beans from around the world. They roast fresh before shipping, so you don’t ever have to worry that your coffee will arrive old and stale.

This bag boasts USDA organic coffee from the Yirgacheffe region, available as whole beans. We always recommend buying whole beans if possible, for maximum freshness. 

This washed coffee has notes of lemon, blueberry, and blackberry. As a light/medium roast, these beans showcase the perfect balance between sweetness, body, and acidity.

You can even expect some nice hints of dark chocolate, lavender, pineapple guava, and ripe strawberry. Volcanica coffee is also fair-trade and kosher-certified.

Cooper’s Ethiopian Light Roast

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If you want to experience multiple delicate flavor notes in your coffee, this light roast features notes of lemon tart, raw honey, and floral nectar. The beans come from a micro-lot of a farm located in Goma Woreda, a town that sits at 6,500 feet above sea level.

This dry processed coffee will provide a more syrupy body with a jammy sweetness to boot. While there are no roast dates on bags of coffee from Cooper’s, they claim to roast fresh. The positive reviews seem to agree that this coffee is definitely worth trying.

Fresh Roasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe

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This medium roast features coffee from the Yirgacheffe region with notes of lemon and honey and a medium body. A slightly longer roast lets the sweetness shine through even more, while still preserving some smooth tea-like notes.

This particular bag comes in three sizes and with an option of whole beans or ground. If you are looking for a wet-processed coffee that is less acidic than other Ethiopian coffees, these beans should be perfect for your palette.

Stone Street Gourmet Coffee

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This specialty coffee roasted based out of New York has continually sourced high-quality beans since 2009. This coffee is available in whole beans in either one or two pounds. They roast in small batches and use a light roast profile to preserve the inherent tastes of the coffee.

What are these notes, exactly? This Yirgacheffe coffee produces a bright cup with a smooth body and taste profile of a “floral bouquet”. I recommend trying this coffee as a Chemex to enjoy those delicate floral notes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most popular coffee in Ethiopia?

The most popular coffee in Ethiopia is often considered to be Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. It is renowned for its delicate flavor profile, which includes floral and citrus notes, bright acidity, and a light-to-medium body.

Which coffee is better, Colombian or Ethiopian?

The question of whether Colombian or Ethiopian coffee is better is subjective and depends on personal preferences. Colombian coffee is known for its balanced flavor profile and mild acidity, while Ethiopian coffee offers a wider range of complex and vibrant flavors, often with fruity and floral characteristics. Expect much more acidity and a lighter body with Ethiopian beans. Expect more chocolatey notes and a medium body with Colombian beans.

What should Ethiopian coffee taste like?

Ethiopian coffee should have a diverse range of flavors, often showcasing fruity and floral notes. It can have citrus, tropical fruit, floral, and even wine-like flavors. The taste can vary depending on the region and specific growing conditions, but overall, Ethiopian coffee is celebrated for its unique and vibrant flavor profiles and bright acidity.

Final Thoughts

There you have it! Everything you need to know about buying Ethiopian beans.

In this coffee guide, you learned the history of coffee in Ethiopia, where it grows, how it tastes, and the best ways to brew roasted beans. You even received a few suggestions for our favorite fresh-roasted coffee to try.

Now go get yourself some coffee beans from this country and treasure that perfect combination of bright acidity and delicious fruit and floral notes.

Happy brewing!

References:

  1. The History & Legend of Ethiopian Coffee & the Story Behind Misty Valley – https://perfectdailygrind.com/2015/06/the-history-legend-of-ethiopian-coffee-the-story-behind-misty-valley/
  2. Table 1: Crop year production by country – http://www.ico.org/prices/po-production.pdf
  3. EXPORTS OF ALL FORMS OF COFFEE BY EXPORTING COUNTRIES TO ALL DESTINATIONS JANUARY 2022 – http://www.ico.org/prices/m1-exports.pdf
  4. Fighting the illicit trade in Ethiopian coffee – https://enactafrica.org/enact-observer/fighting-the-illicit-trade-in-ethiopian-coffee
  5. Exploring Ethiopian Heirloom Coffee Varieties – https://perfectdailygrind.com/2020/10/exploring-ethiopian-heirloom-coffee-varieties-nardos-coffee-export/
Photo of author

Alex DeCapri

Alex DeCapri is a specialty coffee roaster and curious coffee writer. During his time living in Brazil, he spent months learning directly from producers how to pick and process coffee the right way. One thing led to the next, and he started sourcing his own green beans to roast and ship worldwide and later became the head roaster at OOP Café in Belo Horizonte. Currently, Alex is traveling slowly from the United States to Brazil in his self-converted camper van, trying to visit as many coffee farms as possible along the way. If you see him on the road, be sure to say hi!