When you think about coffee origins, what places come to mind? If “Ethiopia” and “Colombia” aren’t at the very top of your list, they should be: Not only are these two places famous for some of the Trade community’s most beloved coffees, but they’re also two of the five biggest coffee production countries on Earth.
Coffee from Colombia and Ethiopia are different in many ways, and we wanted to take some time to highlight some key ways that the two are distinct. Both countries have a lot of diversity regarding terroir, varieties and cultivars, regional approaches to processing, and even trade practices, so this blog isn’t meant to be definitive in any way. In the end, we’ll recommend some of our favorite resources for learning more about these two incredible coffee-growing countries.
Let’s find out what’s different about Ethiopian and Colombian coffee, starting from the soil.
At the Farm
Ethiopia's coffee history is rich and varied. Ethiopia is the birthplace of Arabica coffee, and it remains a relatively unique coffee landscape: There are still areas where forest coffee grows wild, as an understory shrub. It’s also grown in small backyard garden plots, as well as on larger, more commercialized farms. There are several prominent growing regions in Ethiopia: Yirgacheffe is probably the most famous, known for delicate coffees with delicate floral and citrus notes thanks to its high elevation and lush terrain. Harrar is a popular region for Natural coffee, as its more arid climate is well-suited to producing the juicy blueberry and dark chocolate notes that many love.
Colombia has nearly 20 different coffee-growing regions, each with its own topography and climate patterns: Coffee is grown at high elevations (above 2,000 meters) as well as at lower elevations (1,000 meters) from region to region, which creates an incredible amount of profile diversity. Lower-elevation coffees tend to have more chocolaty and nutty notes with a harder body, while higher-elevation coffees tend to be fruitier, sweeter, and juicier in the body. Many coffee farms in Colombia utilize shade trees to slow down the fruit’s production, which can create a more nuanced cup, but coffee doesn’t grow wild in forests here like it does in places in Ethiopia.
Another major difference between Colombian and Ethiopian espresso and coffee is the genetic makeup of the plants themselves, which will impact how the beans taste when roasted, ground, and brewed.
A variety of coffee plants are grown in both countries, but overall Ethiopia’s African coffee family tree is much larger and more diverse: For one thing, as the birthplace of Arabica coffee, there is already a vast wealth of genetic diversity among the coffee trees in Ethiopia. Secondly, since the 1970s, Ethiopian coffee institutions have selected and bred specific cultivars to capitalize on regional climate and pest variations. These selections are typically assigned a number, such as 7110 or 7114265. (Not the most romantic naming convention, but it does help agronomists keep track of what’s bred with what, along with when and where.)
When it comes to Colombian coffee characteristics, Colombia has considerably less genetic diversity among its coffee beans, in large part because coffee plants were brought to the region rather than sprouting up naturally there. There are a handful of very commonly found cultivars grown in Colombia: Caturra, a dwarf mutation of Bourbon, used to be very popular but has become rarer. Instead, most producers grow Colombia variety and Castillo variety, both of which are hybrids created and distributed by the scientific arm of the country’s National Federation of Coffee Growers. Castillo and Colombia varieties are both productive and coffee-leaf-rust resistant to a point; they are both capable of punchy acidity and dark red fruit flavors, when managed, harvested, and processed well.
At the Mill
Post-harvest processing has changed so much in the past decade that it seems every country is borrowing something from another—but to be honest, everyone is borrowing from Ethiopia, in one way or another.
The two most common processing methods throughout Ethiopia are Washed and Natural: A very basic explanation of Washed coffee is when the skin and mucilage are removed from the ripe coffee cherry within 8–12 hours of the harvest, though there are various ways to remove the mucilage and different ways of doing the actual washing process, in addition to drying. Natural processing requires the coffee cherry to dry completely around the seed before being removed. Drying the coffee seeds often take place on raised beds, but also sometimes on tarps on the ground.
In Colombia, Washed is the most common processing method, though some producers are experimenting with Honey and Natural process in smaller batches. For some specialty coffee producers in Colombia, a long fermentation time is key: The coffee will be picked ripe and allowed to ferment overnight in the cherry before being de-pulped, fermented again (sometimes for 24–36 hours), and washed clean of its mucilage. Coffee is sometimes dried on raised beds, but also patios and tarps.
In the Roaster
Both Ethiopian and many types of Colombian coffee beans tend to be somewhat dense, as they are grown at a higher elevation: The slower the coffee develops, the denser their beans become. Denser beans are associated with brighter, lighter, sweeter flavors—all of which hold true for both places.
Density is one of the key factors that determine how a roaster might approach her coffee’s process from green to brown: Denser coffees have more cellular material that needs to be penetrated with heat evenly to control the roasting process, while less-dense coffees will take on that heat and development faster. Higher-density coffees like Ethiopian and Colombian beans will have a higher charge temperature or the temperature that the roaster has been preheated to before adding the beans.
Because Ethiopian coffees tend to have a more delicate, almost tea-like quality to them that’s inherent to the plant as well as a product of the environment, many roasters will choose to keep these beans on the lighter side, to let their fruity and floral notes shine. Colombian coffee might be (but aren't always) roasted a bit darker, as there’s no tea-like body to account for and lose in the process.
In the Cup
The moment of truth: What do they taste like?
Again, both Ethiopia and Colombia have many coffee-growing regions, and each will have its own profile and association with coffee tasting notes. However, for the sake of time and brevity, there are a few generalizations we can make.
- Washed Ethiopian coffees generally taste tea-like, light, and delicate with soft florals (think jasmine, not rose), lemon and lemongrass, and stone fruit like apricot. Often these coffees have a honey- or cane-sugar-like sweetness.
- Natural Ethiopian coffees can taste either bold and fruity (stewed fruit, blueberry, or strawberry) with a chocolate undertone, or they can be very chocolaty up front, with a nutty characteristic. And, of course, many things in between…
- Most Colombian coffee is Washed, but it can vary greatly: Everything from juicy red fruits to orange and lime, tropical flavors to cherry might be in these cups. Some Colombian coffee is milder, sweeter, and less fruity, with more chocolate, nuts, and toffee.
Do you prefer Colombian or Ethiopian coffees, and do you have a favorite offering from a Trade roaster? Learn how to make a Colombian coffee drink or take our coffee quiz if you’re stuck on what brew is best for you to help customize and narrow your selection.