How does the birthplace of coffee maintain its status as one of the most important growing regions today? Find out in our latest profile report of Ethiopian speciality coffee production.
We love Ethiopian coffee, so much so in fact that we’ve even been to serve our Ethiopian beans to members at their embassy in London. You’ve likely heard the story, the monk on the hill and the hyperactive goats. Whether the origin story is fact or fiction, Ethiopia is where it all began as far as coffee is concerned. Today, Ethiopian farms produce some of the world’s most unique and delicious speciality coffees. Those awesome beans begin to arrive in ports across Europe around this time of year, which means they’ll soon be brewing in your favourite speciality bar. So, why not brush up on your knowledge before you taste the latest batch.
Ethiopia is Africa’s largest growing coffee region, delivering around 7.7 million sacks (ICO) to the market each year – that’s 462,000 tonnes approximately. According to an article published by New Business Ethiopia, that number is set to triple in the next five years. This is all thanks to major modernisation of its farming methods and business planning, which should see an export growth to 600,000 tonnes in 2019. By 2024, they’re aiming to hit a whopping output of 1.8 million tonnes.
This could be the true realisation of the potential by somewhere as important to coffee as Ethiopia is. It currently sits sixth in the world’s top 10 coffee producers behind Honduras and above India. We’re about to find out why it’s more than just numbers that matter when it comes to Ethiopian coffee, it’s importance reaches far beyond its reputation for producing seriously good beans.
Without Ethiopia, the coffee industry wouldn’t exist. Records suggest that harvesting began there and the first exports too. The country is the native home to the coffea arabica plant, which produces cherries, and inside those cherries are the beans we brew. Back in the 1600’s, coffee plants were being lifted from their home soil and taken aboard ships that were out discovering new worlds and trade routes. Coffee had already become an enjoyable vice for those who could afford it!
Some plants landed in European countries such as England, Holland, France and Germany. As you may expect, they were susceptible to diseases, bugs and generally miserable weather that made farming impossible. Other regions like in South America and Asia allowed the plants to thrive, now Brazil is the largest coffee producer in the world exporting over 3 million tonnes of coffee each year. Unlike the introduction of the ‘New World’ in wine, major coffee production regions haven’t changed since the then, and it all began with a few plants from an African mountain range.
Ethiopia coffee farming and production
It’s reported that some 15 million people rely on coffee production in some way in Ethiopia. Unlike Brazil, coffee farms in Ethiopia work on a much smaller scale, with a 1,500 sq mile area made up by a patchwork of tiny lots. In even the most iconic regions like Harrar and Sidamo (where Yirgacheffe is), the average farm size is less than 1 hectare. For this reason, Ethiopian coffee production heavily relies on cooperatives who share processing and buying stations
These regions are renowned for having the best coffee growing environments in the world. Sidamo is a naturally rich and fertile region covering a land made up valleys that surround Lake Awasa. It has great soil and the perfect balance of sunshine and rain, most farms are also between 1500 – 2500 masl. All three of the main recognised growing regions share similar micro climatic characteristics.
The beauty of its patchwork nature is that some truly unique and characterful speciality coffees come out of Ethiopia. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of varietals, the term ‘Heirloom Ethiopian’ acts as something of a catch-all on packaging. Needless to say, if they’re from here and they’re high-scoring, then they’re undoubtedly delicious to drink.
As we said in our recent profile on Colombian speciality coffee, in these concentrated areas with many different producers, the flavour differences from one farm to another can be massive, even if they’re only a few kilometers apart. That’s why the very best Ethiopian coffees come in small lots and on very short runs, so you have to get in there quick to try them.
So what should Ethiopian coffee taste like?
The one thing you can safely say all Ethiopian speciality coffees share is bags of character, after that it’s really a case of suck it (or sip it) and see. When fully-washed and grown at the highest altitudes, they can be bright and floral. Ethiopian naturals on the other hand are full-bodied with super funky flavours (candied fruits, jam). It is an even 50/50 split in our cupping lab between people who absolutely love them and those who can’t stand them.
We’ve always got amazing Ethiopian coffees on rotation here and there is usually something great to try for everyone whatever your flavour preferences might be. Our Konga cooperative is also available in Sainsbury’s supermarkets across the UK. Ethiopian coffee tastes amazing when it is lightly roasted and brewed as a filter, which is probably the best way to try them all and extract all of that character. Its full body and punchy flavours also make for a bright and juicy espresso too.