The color of the land in Ethiopia reflects the vibrance of the culture, and from the ground springs a crop and history that has fueled the world now for centuries. Although the roots of coffee can be traced back through a wild and colorful history, they always end up back in Ethiopia where high altitudes and fertile soil has set the scene, standard, and heritage of the coffee industry.
Separating the tale of coffee from Ethiopia is much the same as trying to discuss your grandmother while leaving out the fact that she’s the best cook in the world. Sure, you could try, but doing so leaves a huge gap in really conveying the holistic truth. Cultivated coffee, likewise, acts as such an identifying factor when it comes to Ethiopia. In fact, coffee trees still grow wild throughout the Ethiopian highlands, and it’s no rarity to see locals casually pluck a few cherries to dry out, grind, and brew later, much the same way someone from the west might snag a few blueberries for an afternoon snack. While Ethiopian coffee trees in the backyard seem like a dream come true for a specialty coffee enthusiasts, it also reflects a deeper ingrained culture and way of life central to Ethiopia.
Ethiopia has been a country historically marked by tribal sectarianism, poverty, and a nomadic way of life revolving around agriculture and pastoralism. While being a land full of shepherds and livestock has its benefits and pitfalls, it goes without
saying that when your life revolves around animals you tend to be pretty observant to their habits and reactions to the world around them. It’s no surprise then that the tale of how coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia starts with a man and his goat. Legend has it, an Ethiopian shepherd noticed an increase of energy in his flocks after they munched on the fruit of coffee trees. From that point, the story takes multiple interesting and conflicting turns depending on who’s telling it, but its generally agreed that somewhere along the lines the fruit is dried, crushed, and brewed by Sufi monks to fuel their nightly devotions.
As with most origin stories, the exact tale of the discovery of coffee is clouded with tradition and legend, but this only excites the element of mystery. However, the part about the brew eventually getting into the hands of Sufi monks likely holds some validity, as history also tells that coffee later arrived and was commercialized in Yemen through monks some centuries later.
And while Yemen would become the international hub of the coffee market, the
heritage remained in Ethiopia which boasts the native heirloom varieties of the arabica coffee bean. But what exactly encompasses Ethiopian arabica coffee beans? A closer look shows there’s quite some variety under this umbrella.
For starters, all Ethiopian coffee is grown at high elevations, usually between 1500-2200 meters, which means a slower growing process yet a more dense and flavorful bean as seen in Yemeni coffee and other strictly high grown (SGH) varieties. While the growing altitudes stay pretty uniform, the setting coffee is grown in varies throughout the country.
In particular, Ethiopia features four different varieties of coffee farms: forest, semi-forest, garden, and plantation. Forest coffee denotes wild grown coffee under forest canopies with little human impact or involvement on the land with human involvement environmental impact increasing as you move further down the spectrum towards plantation coffee. Semi-forest and garden coffees dominate the current growing practices in Ethiopia.
Apart from farm style, the next variation you’ll find in Ethiopian coffee is related to processing method. Coffees are usually either wet processed, which means separating the bean from the fruit before drying, or dry processed, that is dried with the bean still encapsulated in the fruit. The method of processing is often one of the biggest
determining factors for the taste of a cup of coffee, and as such, wet processing tends to be the go to for polished and pristine exported coffee, while dry processing is usually reserved for batches of coffee intended for local consumption.
The Modern Expression
Ethiopian coffee toes an interesting line between cultural heirloom and world renown commodity. As the crop and its farmers have persevered through political turmoil, economic downturn, and all kinds of strife, it’s intriguing to observe how Ethiopian brew continues to be expressed in both the cups and eyes of locals and foreigners alike.
For locals, coffee remains a cultural focal point, even to the spiritual level. The Ethiopian Coffee ceremony is renowned throughout the world, and is a privilege for any foreigner on Ethiopian soil to behold in its fullness. The ceremony involves washing, roasting, and brewing coffee in a lengthy process right before the eyes of the guest, all the while undergoing spiritual rituals to ward off spirits and invoke the sacred. This ceremony remains the symbol of friendship, hospitality, and reverence that is has been for hundreds of years, and serves as a cultural reminder and time machine for the Ethiopian heart.
The modern, foreign expression of Ethiopian coffee, though slightly less reverent, is nonetheless exciting. Ethiopian coffee continues to enjoy some of the highest prestige available in specialty coffee circles, especially the sweet and floral flavors found in the esteemed Yirgacheffe coffees. However, no coffee can match the reputation of Ethiopian Harrar. As mentioned before, dry processed Ethiopian coffee is usually reserved for local consumption as it is harder to manage and control for defects within the processing. However, the Harrar variety has perfected a consistent dry processing method and produces a pristine, dry-processed Ethiopian coffee for foreign export and consumption that is coveted throughout the world for its unrivaled, wild and exotic flavor.
While Ethiopia tells a stunning tale in regards to coffee history, it also weaves a fantastic modern display of the culture vibrancy and prestige that reflects the spirit of the specialty coffee industry. The future of the brew and Ethiopia’s leading export continues to hang in the balance as the perseverance of Ethiopian coffee farmers is continually tested in the midst of social and economic strife. A cup of Ethiopian coffee celebrates this perseverance and pays homage to the colorful and unique history of Ethiopia’s most celebrated crop.
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