Ethiopian Coffee: origin, Culture, and more

Coffee is the elixir of life for some of us, as it should be! But do you know about the history of our favorite drink?

Today we’ll be going over the history and birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia. We’ll take a look at some of the different regions, characteristics of Ethiopian coffee beans, culture, and some brewing methods for these special little beans.

Coffee Regions

Ethiopia has four primary regions that grow their coffee beans. Each of these has their own brand of coffee, that is usually named after the region that they are grown in.

The four main regions are:

  • Sidamo
  • Yirgacheffe
  • Limu
  • Harrar

Ethiopia is the perfect region to grow coffee in. The climate and vegetation give natural growing conditions for coffee plants. The mountainous parts of the country give birth to a variety of coffee types at different elevations.

Characteristics of Each Coffee Bean

Sidamo

Aroma: Floral, Berry, Citrus

Flavor: Spicey, Winey, Chocolaty, Lemony, Tart Berries, Sugar Cane, Earthiness

Body: Medium

Acidity: Low

Yirgacheffe

Aroma: Floral, Citrus, Toasted Coconut

Flavor: Citrus, Berry, Nuts, Lemongrass, Jasmine

Body: Light

Acidity: Medium

Limu

Aroma: Citrus, Sweet, Floral

Flavor: Floral, Winey, Spicy, Fruity, Sweet, Chocolatey (sometimes toffee-like)

Body: Light

Acidity: Low 

Harrar

Aroma: Berry, Earthy, Chocolatey, Toasted, Honey, Caramel

Taste: Fruity, Blueberry, apricot, Winey(like dry red wine), Mocha/Chocolatey

Body: Heavy

Acidity: Medium

History

As do all great things, coffee also has its own interesting origin story. The most popular version of the story starts with a man named Kaldi.

Kaldi is a goat herder from southwestern province of Kaffa. One day while herding his goats they began to act strangely. They were running and jumping around excitedly. He began to wonder what could have caused his goats to act like this. Kaldi began to look around where the goats had been feeding. He had found that the goats had been eating bright red berries off a small cluster of shrubs.

Curiosity getting the better of Kaldi, he also tried the red berries. What he found was that like his goats, he also was overcome with energy. Having found something this interesting, he filled his pockets until the red berries were falling out.

Upon arriving at his home, Kaldi showed his wife what he had found. She suggested he go to the monastery to share with the monks the berries. When reaching the monastery and sharing his new findings. The monks were not as excited as Kaldi about the berries. In fact they had called them “the Devil’s work” and threw them into a nearby fire.

The crackling of the beans began. The aroma of roasting coffee beans spread throughout the monastery. The smell was enough to rid the monks of their previous impressions of the coffee beans. The monks began to remove the coffee beans from the fire and crushed them to put out the embers. They put them into a ewer(jug/pitcher) and covered the crushed beans in hot water.

All those that were in the monastery came to try out the coffee. The monks had found the effects from the coffee to be helpful. It could keep them awake when they had spiritual practices. That is the origin story of how coffee began in the world.

Processing Beans

Sun Dried

Sun drying coffee beans is the traditional way of processing them. It is still a common method that is being used today in Ethiopia to process them. When coffee beans are sun dried, they are left inside of their fruit. Leaving them inside of the fruit helps develop the flavors.

We’re left with coffee that has a medium to heavy body, almost syrup like. They also give off flavors of chocolate, sweet berry, and blueberry.

Washed

The other way coffee beans are processed is through washing them. The washing method is fairly new in Ethiopia. Although, being new it is becoming more common to have the wet processed, than dried. Sometime within the first day of harvesting wet processing begins. The outer fruit is removed from the bean mechanically.

These coffee beans leave us with something more dry and tea like. This coffee is lighter in body and is not too acidic. Washed coffee beans have floral, citrus, and herbal notes.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

Coffee ceremonies are very important in Ethiopian culture. They involve everyone in the family. This includes children, elders, and guests as well. The coffee ceremony is an important social event to connect everyone. Being invited to a coffee ceremony is a sign of respect and friendship.

Prep

The ceremony begins with a hostess. The hostess sets up a tray with demi tasse cups, also called cini, for serving. During the ceremony, she’ll burn off incense to ward off evil spirits.

Next she’ll start to boil water in a clay coffee pot. The clay coffee pot or jebena is placed over hot coals. During this time, the hostess will begin to roast raw coffee beans in a pan. The raw beans are stirred and shook around the pan until they become a dark brown.

The coffee beans are then put into a mortar and pestle looking thing. A small wooden bowl called a mukecha and a long metal cylinder called a zenezena, are used to grind the beans to a coarse size.

Once the water is boiling, the beans are added into the clay pot for a few minutes to steep.

Serving

The hostess will hold the clay pot quite high above the cups before she pours. She does this so that none of the coffee grounds end up in the cups.

Most people either have their coffee, a spoonful of sugar, butter, or even honey. Along with the coffee there are little snacks, usually in the form of popcorn, fruit, or other sweets.

There are three rounds of serving coffee. The rounds from first to last are called, abol, tona, and baraka.  Each has a different meaning: “The first is for pleasure. The second provokes contemplation, The third is a bestow of blessing.” Tona and baraka reuse the coffee grounds from abol. Each one tastes weaker than the previous one. A few spoonfuls of fresh coffee are added to both tona and baraka.

Here’s a video of famous Youtuber, Mark Weins, participating in a coffee ceremony:

Brewing & Buying Options

There are a couple of things you should consider before getting some Ethiopian coffee for yourself.

The first thing to consider is the roast date. Preferably you’d want to get something that is roasted as soon as you buy it, not before. Coffee starts to lose it’s aroma and flavor after it’s been roasted. If not, your next best option is getting something close to when you’ve ordered it.

You’ll also want to get coffee beans that are whole beans. Getting pre-ground coffee heavily affects the taste of coffee. Pre-ground coffee loses flavor within 30 minutes of being ground.  By the time it gets to you, it’ll already be stale! Getting whole beans also allows you to choose what size coffee grounds you want. This gives you control over what brewing method you prefer.

If you need help making a choice, we have a guide here

Drip

The simplest way to make Ethiopian coffee is to use your regular drip coffee maker. Using a paper filter will enhance the natural flavors of the coffee. This will give your coffee a balanced amount of body and acidity.

Cold Brew

Ethiopian coffee beans are often a little more acidic than others. Cold brewing Ethiopian coffee is the way to go if you want something less acidic, but still flavorful. The easiest way to do cold brew at home is with a french press.

Pour Over

Our last method of making this is the pour over. Like the drip method the filter helps to highlight all the wonderful flavors in Ethiopian coffee beans. Using this method gives you a lot more control over the whole brewing process, which allows you to extract more flavors.

Conclusion

Now you know some of the rich history and culture behind our favorite drink coffee. With this information, get out there and try one of these unique Ethiopian coffees. Comeback and tell us which one you like the most!

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