For the next several weeks we are going to highlight continents and countries of origin from which coffee is grown, processed, and exported. In coffee terms there are single origin coffees that come from one country and one processing plant. There are also blends of coffee that combine single origin coffees from different countries to bring out specific flavor characteristics. Regular drinkers of specialty coffee can often times decipher from what continent or even what country the coffee was grown. Today we will introduce the country of Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee.
Ethiopia is located on the far eastern side of the continent of Africa, a geographic area known as the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia in size is about the 420,000 sq/m (comparable but slightly smaller than Alaska) and is the most populous land-locked country in the world. As for its geography and climate, it is very diverse, ranging from arid desert climate to tropical mountainous regions.
Ethiopia has been widely accepted as the birthplace of coffee and coffee culture. Coffee is so ingrained into the life of Ethiopians that common sayings often dominate expressions of social function. They commonly use phrases like “coffee is our bread” which suggests the centrality of coffee in every day life. Another phrase “Drink coffee” does not simply mean to drink the caffeinated beverage, but rather to meet up and have coffee. Another popular phrase is “I have no one to drink coffee with” alluding to when a person does not have good friends for them to confide in.
Ethiopia is also the country of focus in the legendary story of the coffee origin story. I have mentioned this in an earlier blog post, A Brief, Non-Exhaustive Summary of the History of Coffee, to which if you click the link you will read about some goats, a goat herder, some hyperactivity, an investigation into the hyperactivity, and BAM coffee is discovered. A challenging alternative story is that Yemen is the birthplace of coffee, but we will talk about that in another post. Dates range between 6th century and 9th century AD depending on which story you believe.
Coffee was not always a beverage. As a matter of fact historians believe that coffee was chewed way before it was brewed. The chewing of coffee beans included uses a substance called ghee which is a butter melted down, with spices added as an option. This is still practice in some parts of Ethiopia like Kaffa and Sidamo. A coffee beverage called Bulletproof Coffee is a variation on this idea of coffee and butter. The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony is widely used in Ethiopia as it is central to life in the Ethiopian community. You can read more here on How To Perform an Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony.
Lindsey Goodwin, writher for The Spruce, breaks down the etymology of coffee, “In the local language, the word for coffee is “bunn” or “buna”. The origin of coffee is Kaffa. So coffee was sometimes referred to as “Kaffa bunn,” or coffee from Kaffa. For this reason, some believe that the term “coffee bean” is an anglicization of “Kaffa bunn”. Given that coffee beans are actually berries, this theory makes even more sense.”
As reported by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Ethiopia produced 7.1 million 6-kg bags (426,000 metric tons). “Exports are forecast to remain at a record 3.98 million bags (~239,000 metric tons). The United States is the fourth largest buyer of Ethiopian coffee, accounting for nearly 10 percent of total exports by volume.”
The report continues, “Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee Arabica. It is grown by over 4 million smallholder farmers and employs 15 million people, or roughly 15 percent of the country’s population at different points along the value chain. Nearly 95 percent is cultivated on small plots, generally less than half a hectare. Pesticides and fertilizer typically aren’t used on smallholder coffee farms and harvesting is done by hand.
“Ethiopia is the world’s sixth largest coffee producer, accounting for 4 percent of production. It is also the largest producer in Africa, accounting for about 40 percent of continental production.” Coffee is Ethiopia’s top export, exporting almost 232,000 metric tons in 2016-17, reaching a value of $897 million.
African coffees are often described as full-bodied and complex in flavor ranging from floral to fruity flavors. Ethiopian coffee is no exception to this rule. Furthermore, Ethiopian coffees can have an even wider range of flavor notes due to the fact that coffee grows wildly in Ethiopia which contributes to the diverse tasting experiences in certain Ethiopian coffees.
Next time you are in your favorite specialty coffee shop and an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, Kaffa, or Guji are on the coffee menu, you may surprise yourself with a whole new appreciation for coffees grown in Ethiopia and coffee in general.