Ethiopian Coffee: Origins, Traditions, and Modernity

Ethiopian coffee, part chance discovery, part traditional ceremony, offers a unique and important part of world coffee culture. Coffee lovers often enjoy experimenting with different types of coffee beans from all over the world, so Ethiopia coffee offers a unique way to taste quality and cultural heritage.

Ethiopian Coffee Maker

Ethiopian coffee is now grown in three major regions of the country, and is one of the most popular varieties of African coffee: Ethiopian Harrar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffe all represent the finest coffee beans you are likely to try.

From a slip of the tongue?

What many may not realize is that the ubiquitous Arabica bean was originally grown and brewed in forests of the Kaffa region of Ethiopia. In fact, the word for coffee in Ethiopia is "Bun" or "Buna", so "Coffee Bean" may be a misinterpretation of "Kaffa Bun".

From Folktales to Making Coffee

The history of coffee beans in Ethiopia is very much a part of native culture. Numerous stories about the origin of coffee in Ethiopia exist, with the best known being the story of goat herder Kaldi. The story says that Kaldi saw his goats dancing on their hind legs after eating red berries from nearby bushes. Kaldi took some of the berries to his wife, who told him to take the beans to monks.


The monks, fearing that the berries were the devil's work, threw them in the fire and then ground the embers. Hoping to preserve the mysterious powers that created such a delicious smell while the berries were burning, the monks put the embers into water and drank them. This was the origin of coffee in Ethiopia and throughout the world.

But the secret was not safe with the monks, and soon coffee beans were known throughout the region for their magical properties. Wide-scale cultivation followed.

1,2,3: Ethiopian Coffee

The Ethiopia coffee is grown in three major regions of the country, and is one of the most popular varieties of African coffee.

One interesting fact about Ethiopian coffees is that the names of the three types of coffee are owned and trademarked by the Ethiopian government.

Watching this video will help you get a grasp of all that goes into producing these wonderful varieties of coffees. To read more about the actual coffee beans, just continue after the video 'jump'.

Let's go on and find out about these three types of Ethiopian Arabica that you will commonly find:

Ethiopian Harar is from the Harar region of Ethiopia. It is described as having a complex and fruity flavor that reminds the drinker of red wine. Harar, in the eastern part, dry processes its beans that are sorted by three criteria. Large beans are called longberry, smaller ones are shortberry and the smallest, peaberry, is sometimes referred to as Mocha. Harar coffee is well known for its rather dry edge, fruity acidity and strong aroma.

Ethiopian Sidamo is from the Oromia region of Ethiopia. The bean, with an unsurprising exterior that is small and gray, hides its spicy heart and floral aroma. And they produce a light and flavorful taste. It is available in both dry-processed and washed versions, with the dry-processed variety having a much fuller and stronger flavor.

Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is grown in the Gedeo Zone of Ethiopia. It has a very light and smooth flavor that is popular among most coffee drinkers and is generally considered among the best Ethiopian coffee. When brewed, it produces a strong or intense flavor with a rich body. You'll find that the coffee is also particularly smooth and aromatic.

While these three represent 'coffee royalty', there are other coffees that you may come across including Ghimbi from western Ethiopia, which produces an almost sweet, full-bodied, quality of chocolate taste.

Coffee Traditions: Ethiopian Essentials

Coffee is a vital part of Ethiopia's heritage and social life. If you every get to visit this beautiful country, you may be invited to a traditional coffee ceremony. This is a sign of respect for strangers and an expression of friendship. Be prepared, however, for this ceremony can take hours!

1. Roasting the Beans

The coffee ceremony is usually performed by a young woman in a traditional white dress with colorful borders. Coffee beans are roasted in a flat pan over small charcoal stove; aromatic incense is nearly always burned during the preparation.

The girl washes the beans carefully then stirs and shakes the husks away. She roasts them until the beans are shiny black then uses a mortar and pestle to grind them.

2. Making the Brew

The Ethiopian coffee is then slowly stirred into a handmade black clay pot with a straw lid to brew. It is strained several times due to the inconsistency of the grind. The youngest child serves the oldest adult, then everyone else according to the pecking order.

This symbolically connects all the generations. The coffee is enjoyed with liberal amounts of sugar or salt but no milk or creamer.

3. Accompaniments and Etiquette

Peanuts or cooked barley are also served. In some parts of the country, this ceremony is performed up to three times a day! Indeed, it can be the main social event in a village, a time when everyone gathers to socialize. They discuss the community, life, gossip and also talk politics.

It is considered a minor insult to drink less than 3 cups because the third round invokes a blessing. Although the coffee ceremony is common in small villages, even those living in major metropolitan areas will perform it often. It is a focal point for socializing as well as recognizing tradition.

The video includes a long segment on the Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony from the preparation to the pouring.

Coffee Means Work: Coffee Means Life

Coffee is the largest export from Ethiopia, providing as much as sixty percent of exports. Most of the coffee is grown by small farmers on family owned farms, which is one of the reasons drinkers can expect high quality beans on a consistent basis.

The Arabica beans harvested in Ethiopia are unique in other ways as well. Much like grapes harvested for wine have a different flavor each year depending on the growing conditions of the season, Arabica beans have a distinct flavor given by the environment in which the beans were grown.

So, with over two thirds of Ethiopia's earnings coming from its annual coffee production and over 12 million people who work in cultivating, picking and processing the coffee crop, the coffee beans provide sustenance for a large percentage of Ethiopia farmers.

Tips on Buying Ethiopian Coffee

Ethiopian coffee is a delicious experience for both novice and veteran coffee drinkers. The differences in the flavor of coffee beans from the three different regions is noticeable by nearly all drinkers.

Cup of Harrar Coffee from Ethiopia

If you prefer a full-bodied and strong tasting coffee that is very similar to the earliest forms of coffee ever enjoyed, look for a dry-processed Ethiopian Arabica bean. If you are looking for a smooth flavored, light coffee to enjoy with breakfast, a wet-processed bean will provide you the flavor you are looking for.

Wet and Dry Bean Processing Techniques

Ethiopian coffee comes in both washed and dry-processed varieties. The different processes add distinct flavor profiles to the beans, which you may discover you prefer. Washed coffee beans from Ethiopia have a much lighter and more subtle flavor than the dry-processed beans.

Watch for Quality

Ethiopian Coffee varies from lot to lot, sometimes drastically. It is best to buy from a retailer that has a taster that samples each lot the company purchases. Lots from the earliest harvests are often the best in quality and taste.

If you have the chance, you can look for quality Organic Fair Trade Ethiopia Coffee that helps sustains many poorer farmers who get better prices for their beans and can grow them sustainably.

I've included some samples of Ethiopian Coffee that you can find in stores near you: including these, but the crops are less than certain, so if you can't see what you want exactly, don't be afraid to try other brands.


Larry's Beans Fair Trade Organic Coffee


Coffee Masters Gourmet Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Coffee


Paramount Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Bean

To Find Popular Ethiopia Coffees Click Here

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