Ethiopia is commonly called the birthplace of coffee. An old legend says that coffee consumption started there around 700 to 850 AD. At the time, a young goatherd named Kaldi watched his sheep jump and act more energetic after they ate some red berries.
He tried some of the berries from the plant and felt energized as well. The berries were what we now know as raw coffee beans. After he took some to a local monastery, the monks realized their benefits. To preserve them longer, the monks roasted the berries and mixed them with water.
We’ve all heard the saying that whoever decided to smash a coffee bean and mix it with water was a genius, and we can all agree on that. Although there are legends from several countries that take credit for creating brewed coffee, what’s more important is picking the right kind so you can enjoy it.
If you’re looking for an excellent cup of coffee, Ethiopian varieties won’t disappoint. Here’s what you need to know about them.
What Makes Ethiopian Coffee Special
When it comes to coffee, Ethiopian producers know what they’re doing. The country has been exporting coffee since the 1400s, and it accounts for about 70% of the country’s export earnings today.
Most of the coffee is grown at higher elevations, which contributes to the richness and acidity of it. Since the ideal growing conditions in common areas do not require soil modification, the coffee has some exquisite natural flavor and aroma qualities.
Another factor that makes Ethiopian coffee special is that it’s mostly grown by small farming operations. Since the coffee market in Ethiopia is very transparent, you also have the assurance of knowing exactly what’s in every bag of beans.
As you may already know, Arabica beans are highly desired among coffee connoisseurs. Most of the country’s exported coffee comes from Arabica beans.
How To Choose the Right Ethiopian Coffee Variety
Choosing the right Ethiopian coffee for your individual taste is easier once you have an idea of what you want. If you’re new to the wonders of coffee drinking, the best course of action is to read the following points and choose a few varieties to see what you prefer.
Single-Origin or Blends
A single-origin coffee from Ethiopia is sure to give you a more distinct experience. If you already know that you prefer a single-origin coffee, you may want to skip to the section about Ethiopian coffee regions and varieties.
If you’re after a specific type of taste or aroma, a single-origin coffee is the best place to start. Ethiopian blends give you a more well-rounded experience.
Since single-origin coffee has a more distinct flavor, you’re more likely to notice variations as seasons change. If you want exactly the same coffee-drinking experience each time, you may find a blend more suitable.
Some blends that include an Ethiopian variety may also include beans from other African or global regions. If you want one that’s specifically Ethiopian blends, you’ll know what to look for after we cover regions and varieties.
An important factor in choosing Ethiopian coffee is the growth altitude. The difference in coffee beans grown in various altitudes is because of water and temperature variations.
At higher altitudes, coffee plants focus on reproduction and making more beans. This creates a richer flavor, which is accentuated even more with the better soil drainage at higher altitudes.
Coffee grown at higher altitudes above 4,500 feet tends to be more acidic, complex and higher in quality. If you want something with a smoother or milder flavor, a lower-altitude coffee is better.
The traditional method of processing coffee in Ethiopia is drying it in the sun. One of the reasons why many people prefer this method is because of the strong, sweet and fruity flavor it produces. It retains this flavor because the beans are dried with the fruit still intact instead of separated.
If you like a hint of sweet berries or chocolate in a strong cup of coffee, sun-dried beans will suit your taste. One of the most sought-after flavor hints is blueberry, and your best bet of finding that is in a sun-dried Ethiopian coffee.
Washed processing creates a complex flavor with an elegant feel. It may be floral, citrusy or fruity. If you’re after a coffee that’s mildly acidic and has a tea-like delicacy, this is the processing method for you.
Wet processing is a newer method that involves removing the fruit first. It’s processed in a mill after that. Since unripe or bad beans float, this method’s benefit is a greater ability to process only high-quality beans for roasting.
Understanding the Main Ethiopian Coffee Regions and Varieties
The varieties of coffee are divided based on their growing regions. As you consider these, keep in mind what you learned earlier about altitude, processing and blends. Although nearly all Ethiopian coffee is grown at a high altitude, some varieties are grown at much higher points than others.
Often grown in elevations between 5,100 feet and 7,200 feet, Sidamo coffee comes from the Great Rift Valley area south of Lake Awassa. The region has fertile highlands with optimal growing conditions.
Since there is generous rainfall and plants grow slower, they have plenty of time to soak in nutrients and more flavor. If you want a coffee from this region with a hint of blueberry and less acidity, look for a washed product.
If you prefer a more natural taste with a wine-like acidity, sun-dried coffee from this region is better. Washed processing also retains the exquisite fruity and floral aromas.
This coffee comes from the southern mountain region of Ethiopia, and it’s considered one of the finest types. The area is actually within the larger Sidamo region. Grown at altitudes between 5,800 feet and 7,600 feet, Yirgacheffe coffee has a rich body and exotic flavors.
Top-quality Yirgacheffe has a bright acidity and a clean taste. The citrus and floral notes often mimic lemongrass and jasmine. Among coffee connoisseurs, Yirgacheffe is considered one of the finest Arabica coffee varieties worldwide.
You can find it in washed or sun-dried varieties. Aim for sun drying and a higher altitude for more acidity and a stronger flavor.
This region is in Eastern Ethiopia, and the beans from there are simply called “Harar.” What makes them exceptional is that they are almost all harvested by hand. The growing elevation range is between 4,900 feet and 6,900 feet.
The Harari region’s coffee is great if you want a low or medium acidity with a strong wine-like flavor that has hints of blueberry and mocha. After it’s brewed, it has a pungent and rich aroma.
This variety is also known for its exotic flavor attributes, which sometimes include cinnamon and cardamom. The fruity and floral characteristics are distinct. If you want to enjoy the flavors more naturally, look for a sun-dried bag of beans.
This coffee is usually grown at elevations between 4,400 feet and 6,000 feet in Western Ethiopia. Most Jimma coffees include either washed or sun-dried beans. The coffee usually has a medium acidity and body, and you’ll notice a wine-like distinction in the flavor.
If you prefer less boldness, look for a washed variety. Since many people who prefer less strength are after a lighter and more delicate taste as well, this is a good choice in terms of elevation.
For a good and heavy body with more acidity, look for a variety from a higher elevation. Most varieties from this area have a pleasant taste and a nutty aroma. Although some sun-dried varieties are good, several people say that drying this region’s beans gives them a medicinal taste.
Like Jimma, this variety may be grown at lower elevations. They often range between 3,200 feet and 6,200 feet. It also has a distinct and wine-like flavor that has medium acidity. The same tips for Jimma coffee apply here as well.
What sets this coffee apart from the Jimma region’s coffee is that it tends to be a little spicier and sweeter. Its complex flavors and aromas make it a surprising and delightful choice.
Another attribute that makes this coffee region’s beans distinct is the well-balanced body they provide. While many people search for a blend for a balanced mouthfeel, this is one exceptional coffee for producing a well-balanced body on its own.
Another Western Ethiopian variety, Gimba coffee is grown at higher altitudes than Jimma. It’s typically grown at elevations between 5,500 feet and 7,200 feet. This makes it an ideal choice if you want a high-quality coffee with a full-bodied feel and distinct flavor.
Its acidity is more pointed, and it has a definite fruity finish to its nuanced flavors. The heavier body is noticeable even in the wet-processed varieties.
You’ll often find this variety in blends. However, if you prefer it as a single-origin coffee for its distinct flavors, you can buy it from gourmet roasters.
Nekemte is also a region in Western Ethiopia. Like Gimba, the common growing elevations are between 5,500 feet and 7,200 feet. While Gimba is more of a full-bodied coffee, Nekemte has a medium-bodied quality. You’ll notice that it has a distinct and fruity finish.
Although it doesn’t have as heavy of a body as Gimba coffee, it still has a strong flavor. The washed beans in the region tend to be better if you prefer your coffee a little lighter. However, sun-dried Nekemte coffee is better for a bolder flavor.
It’s important to note that this list is not exhaustive. You may find other brands from roasters in smaller regions or sub-regions within these larger areas. Also, not all roasters provide a specific growing elevation.
How To Brew Ethiopian Coffee
You can certainly use any brewing method that you prefer. However, the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony and preparation methods are quite exquisite and lengthy, and they require raw beans.
A traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a social event for friends or family, and it involves boiling water in a clay pot over coals. The raw coffee beans are put into a pan and shaken over heat until the husks come off. Next, they are roasted in a pan until they’re medium to dark, and then they’re hand-crushed in a bowl with a metal cylinder.
The hostess puts the grounds into the boiling water, brews the coffee and proceeds to serve guests. She pours the coffee about a foot above each cup, never stopping pouring to break the flow of coffee. These ceremonies sometimes take place a few times each day. Now there’s a trend we can all appreciate, no matter how we prepare our coffee!
If you’re after a quick cup of coffee, you’ll be glad to know that most varieties of Ethiopian beans are already roasted. Most that you’ll find on store shelves are dark-roasted blends. You can find gourmet and single-origin coffees at specialty shops or online.
Since most people buy Ethiopian coffee for its boldness and strength, a French press is a good method for maximizing those qualities.
A pour-over is also excellent, and cold-brewing is great if you don’t want a hot drink. With a high-quality drip machine or K-cup brewing device, you can still enjoy the exotic flavor combinations of Ethiopian coffee.
The secret to savoring Ethiopian coffee is finding the blend or single-origin variety that suits your flavor, aroma and acidity preferences.
Now that you understand regions, processing methods, and the flavor profiles of each variety, you’re ready to choose what suits your tastes. If you’re new to coffee, you’ll be a more informed experimenter as you try delicious Ethiopian coffee varieties.