A Brief History of Ethiopian Coffee
Legend tells of an Ethiopian shepherd in the 9th century named Kaldi who, while tending to his flock, noticed members of his herd prancing on their hind legs and frollicking about his pasture. Upon further investigation, he found some of his sheep grazing on bright red cherries stemming from a tree, the likes of which he had never seen.
His interest piqued, he picked some of these cherries and took them home to share with his wife. When they tried the fruits they understood his sheep’s change in behavior.
Proclaiming these cherries to be of god, Kaldi took them to local Islamic monks. The monks cursed the fruit, convinced that its effects were of the devil, and threw what was left of them into the fire. As the fire consumed them they began to crack and give off a strong, enticing aroma. Fascinated by the smell, the monks ground the freshly roasted coffee beans with a mortar and pestle then steeped them in hot water, yielding the first cup of coffee.
From this monastery, it is told that the Arabica coffee bean quickly spread throughout the Islamic world and was then brought and traded to Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Americas.
Unlike all other coffee-growing regions, Ethiopia is the only country that did not introduce coffee as a commoditized cash-crop. Rather, it began as a cultural staple, to be consumed in religious and familial ceremonies, and only in the last few generations, with rising demand from the west, has it become a dominant force in their largely agrarian economy.
Ethiopian Coffee Economy
In 2016 Ethiopia grew and harvested approximately 860 million pounds of green coffee, making it the largest coffee producing country in Africa and the 7th largest coffee producing country in the world. Of the 6.5 million bags of coffee produced, about 3.5 million bags are exported, while the rest is consumed domestically. These coffee exports account for about 40% of the country’s annual income from exports.
Coffee was discovered by humans for the first time in Ethiopia and, insofar as we can tell, Ethiopia is its genetic birthplace. As humans spread coffee across the globe, planting it in other countries and climates, only specific seeds and strains were chosen to be planted in other regions. As a result, no other country can come close to matching the genetic and culinary diversity of Ethiopian coffee.
While it is difficult to characterize such a diverse array of coffees, Ethiopians tend to offer lighter bodied coffees with complex, fruity notes, and a pleasant sweetness.
As coffee helps to grow developing nations, and as standards for ethically sourced, high quality coffee increase in the west, the coffee that we get becomes ever-more traceable, to the point that we can now source our coffee not only from specific regions and municipalities within countries, but even from specific farms and cooperative mills. As our ability to see where our coffee comes from increases, we are now capable of pinpointing flavor profiles that are characteristic of specific regions. Notable regions in Ethiopia and their coffee’s characteristics are as follows…
Harrar - A region in the Eastern side of Ethiopia. Coffees feature wine/fruity acidity, a heavier body, and strong notes of blueberry and blackberry.
Ghimbi - A region in the Eastern side of Ethiopia. Coffees feature some of the heaviest bodies of all of the Ethiopian Coffees, with pronounced acidity, a chocolate/nutty flavor, and a lingering floral/perfumey aftertaste.
Sidamo/Yirgacheffe - Produced on the Southern side of the country. Coffees feature a light, delicate body, with a characteristic citrus forward flavor, and a lingering tastes of stone fruit and berries.