Ethiopia – The Birthplace of Coffee


Written by Tamara Britten and photo credits to Heleanna Georgalis and Tamara Britten of

(Posted 06th July 2020)

Walk down any road in Ethiopia and you’ll see people gathered together drinking coffee. Whether they’re sitting under a tree, in a roadside stall or in a coffee house, what draws them together is a love of coffee. And never is it drunk without ceremony.

The coffee ceremony is performed by a woman usually attired in traditional white dress adorned with one of Ethiopia’s famed scarfs. First, she roasts the beans and brings the steaming pan to the waiting customers so they can breathe in the aroma of the roasting beans. Then she grinds the beans and adds the powder to a traditional round-bottomed clay coffee pot which she sets on the coals. While the coffee is brewing, she burns frankincense, adding to the already enticing scent of coffee. Finally she pours the coffee into small china cups and serves it with fresh warm popcorn.

It’s said that this ceremony stemmed from pagan times when people visited the local wise man to consult him about personal problems or health issues. He would light incense and offer coffee to the spirits in return for their assistance. However it started, the ceremony is very much a part of drinking coffee to this day and the scents of frankincense, popcorn and coffee are entwined in the aromatic memory of all Ethiopians.

According to legend, in around 850AD a goat herder called Kaldi noticed his goats became frisky when they ate the fruit of a particular tree. He took the berries to the local monastery where the abbot boiled the berries and discovered that the drink kept him awake and alert during the long hours of nightly prayer.

Whether this lovely tale is fact of fiction, it’s widely believed that Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee – although Yemen and Sudan also lay claim to the title. From here, coffee was taken to the Middle East and later to the rest of the world.

The thousands of indigenous wild coffee species grown in Ethiopia are all from the Arabica coffee family. The high quality and distinctive flavour of Ethiopian coffee comes from many factors. The Oromia region, in the Rift Valley in the south of the country, is where most of Ethiopia’s coffee grows. The area has plenty of rain, warm temperatures, fertile soil and indigenous vegetation, making it ideal for coffee. The high altitude means the coffee matures slowly, giving it time for more fruit flavours to develop. The natural growing conditions and plentiful shade also contribute to coffee’s diverse and fresh flavours.

Kaffa is considered to be the home of coffee. The province of Kaffa, formerly the Kingdom of Kaffa, was named from the Arabic qahwah meaning ‘a drink from berries.’ The English word coffee is said to come from Kaffa. Of around 6,000 coffee varieties in Ethiopia, it’s thought about 5,500 originated in Kaffa. Unlike most of Ethiopia, Kaffa isn’t Orthodox Christian but has links to Islam – a 600-year-old mosque stands at Bonga – and is the centre of the coffee trade with the Arab nations and Yemen.

Most of the coffee grown in Ethiopia is known as garden coffee, meaning it’s grown in smallholder plots along with other crops. Much of the rest is forest coffee that grows wild beneath a canopy of trees, and is harvested by locals. Very little of Ethiopia’s

coffee is grown on large plantations. All the production and cultivation is done by hand without using pesticides or chemicals. Trees and bees help with the pollination. These methods of growing coffee benefit the ecosystem since the coffee grows in amongst the trees and there’s no deforestation. While it might not all be certified organic, Ethiopian coffee is effectively organic.

Traditionally, coffee is washed after harvesting, then either dried on raised beds or fermented in tanks. These different processing methods, known as washed or dry-processed, produce different flavours in the coffee. Finally, the outer fruit is removed, leaving the bean.

Three regions in Ethiopia have trademarked names for the production of coffee. Sidamo, south of Lake Hawasa, sits at an altitude of between 1,500m and 2,200m. The area has about 50 coffee cooperatives and a similar number of private buying stations. Known for floral flavours with citrus acidity, Sidamo produces vast amounts of coffee most of which are washed although a few are dry-processed. Yirgacheffe, despite being part of the Sidamo region, is trademarked separately because of its flavoursome washed coffees. Steep, fertile and forested, the region is ideal for coffee production and its coffee is known for bergamot and floral flavours. Harar in the east of Ethiopia also holds its own trademark. One of the original coffee-growing regions in the country, Harar’s coffee was recognised as the highest quality from the 19th century. The coffee is mostly dry-processed and has a wide range of flavours including mocha, blueberry, banana and wine.

Other regions known for the high quality of their coffees are Limu and Djima. Limu, in the south west of Ethiopia, has altitudes ranging from 1,100m to 1,900m. Specialising in washed coffee, the region produces flavours that are sweet and winey. Djima, at altitudes of between 1,800m and 2,100m, produces coffee that’s rich, earthy and spicy.

The peoples of Ethiopia have different ways of drinking their coffee. The Hamar people use the husk to make their coffee, so their coffee contains no caffeine. The Kaffa people burn coffee like a charcoal. The Gurage people drink coffee with butter and salt; this has recently become popular in Europe and America where they call it bulletproof coffee.

Ethiopian coffee is special not only for its extraordinary variety and depth of flavour, but because of its economic and social value to the people of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is rare in that one of its largest exports is produced through small-scale farming. For many Ethiopian communities, coffee production is their main source of income; an estimated 15 million Ethiopians are involved in the coffee industry. Unions, cooperatives and companies buy from local growers and export the coffee. The Oromia Coffee Farmers’ Cooperative Union, operating under the principles of the International Cooperative Alliance and the Fair Trade Movement, is Ethiopia’s largest exporter of organic coffee and the second largest exporter of Fair Trade Coffee in the world.

Ethiopia produces around 450,000 tonnes of coffee annually, more than any other African nation, and is the 10th largest exporter of coffee in the world. Coffee is Ethiopia’s biggest export and accounts for a substantial percentage of Ethiopia’s export revenue.

However, the importance of coffee to Ethiopians goes far beyond its significance as an export. Coffee is a way of life here, a daily ritual, a moment to stop and breathe. Much of the coffee Ethiopia produces is consumed within the country. Travel the length and breadth of Ethiopia and you’ll struggle to find an Ethiopian who doesn’t adore the drink, consume it every morning and relish the coffee ceremony as a meaningful part of their day.

Sincere thanks for their assistance with this article to Heleanna Georgalis of Galani Coffee, Antenah Mulu of The Ethiopian Coffee Company and Vicky Weddell of Moneyrow Beans.

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