Ethiopian Coffee Has a Long History and Exciting Future

Ethiopian Coffee Has a Long History and Exciting Future

The birthplace of coffee isn't resting on its laurels.
by Maciej Kasperowicz | July 02, 2019

The origins we’ve covered so far have mostly been ones we’re excited about because they’re breaking out and gaining new found respect in the specialty coffee scene. Ethiopia on the other hand, is literally the most established coffee origin there is, and one every coffee professional loves. But that doesn’t mean things in Ethiopia aren’t changing and improving in many ways that have us looking forward to an even brighter future.

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. Sometimes we don’t think about globalized crops like coffee having a birthplace, but everything comes from somewhere, and without Ethiopia, coffee would simply not exist. Over a millennium went by where coffee got no further from Ethiopia than Yemen, before various trade and colonial routes took it throughout the world (if you’re looking to learn more about that and decorate your wall, the Specialty Coffee Association has a wonderful map on the subject).

We don’t love Ethiopian coffees just to pay respect to history, we love them because they taste delicious and special. There are lots of different specific flavor profiles to be found in Ethiopia, but we have general ideas about what we expect from Ethiopian coffees based on processing methods. Washed Ethiopian coffees tend to be delicate and depending on the region within Ethiopia can be floral, tea-like, peachy, citrusy, or often a combination of those flavor notes and more. Natural Ethiopian coffees are — for many specialty coffee professionals and enthusiasts — the first coffees that really blow our minds with loud flavors like blueberry that we generally didn't expect to find in coffee.

The Supply Chain in Ethiopia

To learn more about the recent past, present, and future of Ethiopian coffee I called up Aman Adinew, the chairman of METAD, a multi-faceted and forward-thinking coffee company beloved by coffee roasters, and the previous COO at the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX), a centralized auction system established by the Ethiopian government in 2008. Like pretty much everyone I’ve asked recently about developments on the origin side (in any country), he got down to logistics real quick.

When the ECX was set up, the goal was for suppliers to get paid in a more transparent and efficient way. Because the focus was on the 85 to 90 percent of Ethiopian coffee exports that were commercial grade and whose buyers didn’t care where they came from, “The specialty market suffered because roasters’ and importers’ relationships was with exporters and not growers,” Aman said. So when buying Ethiopian coffees in the US, you’d often see no more information than a region (such as Yirgacheffe) and a quality grade. Recent changes mean that we should start seeing more and more specifically sourced coffees. ECX purchases can now traceable down to the mill. Now, as Aman told us, “Exporters don’t need to go through the exchange, they can buy directly from processor. Also, processors and washing stations can actually export directly without an exporter; they can become the exporter.” This should in the future lead to a higher percentage of Ethiopian coffee being as traceable and relationship-based as coffees from other parts of the world already are.

Companies like METAD are investing in technology and education to improve the quality of their coffees. There’s a good chance you’ve seen coffee from the farm they own, Hambela, but they also work with 6,500 outgrowers — farmers with small farms who they train on pre- and post-harvest techniques. They’re also in the process of trying to replicate that setup in other parts of the country. They use Colombian eco-pulpers to wash coffees with less water usage, and they’re about to introduce mechanical drying into their process to increase efficiency and control.

The Mystery of Varieties in Ethiopia

Variety, as with apples or wine grapes, is a common piece of information on bags of specialty coffee, but with Ethiopian coffees you’ll often see terms like “heirloom” or “mixed landraces” instead of specific names. That has to do with a mix of biodiversity, transparency, and logistics. For one, since Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, there are many times more different varieties grown in Ethiopia than the rest of the world combined. The coffee trees in the rest of the world have mutated and been hybridized into many different forms over the last 500 years, but really all come from a handful of different Ethiopian trees. Even with these thousands of different varieties in Ethiopia, it’s not even necessarily that farmers don’t know what kind of coffee they’re growing. But if hundreds of small farms are bringing their coffee to a washing station, you will probably end up with many different varieties in a lot.

That certainly doesn’t mean that Ethiopians are naive about the varieties they’re growing; the Jimma Agricultural Research Center (JARC) has been working on variety research since the '70s. Recently, Getu Bekele and Tim Hill have recently published A Reference Guide to Ethiopian Varieties, which is aimed at farmers. Aman thinks more variety research is crucial: “Colombians and other countries are really spending money and effort developing Ethiopian varieties and integrating them into their own, if you go to Colombia you’ll see this. I was dumbfounded.” He’s excited about the government potentially putting money towards expanding the research center.

… we’re at a really important moment for the quality of coffee from a country we already take for granted as an amazing coffee producing country.

Overall, it seems like we’re at a really important moment for the quality of coffee from a country we already take for granted as an amazing coffee producing country. With new supply chain paths available, infrastructural improvements, and increasing amounts of research and education, there’s no reason to think the coffee coming out of Ethiopia won’t soon be even better and more diverse. Considering the wide variety of completely amazing coffees we’re already getting from Ethiopia, that’s a pretty staggering possibility.

We have so many wonderful Ethiopian coffees on the site right now: try Huckleberry’s Abdi Jebril ($21) or Tandem’s Shoondhisa ($18) for dynamic and delicious washed options or Madcap’s Party, Ethiopia ($19) for a fruity natural processed coffee that brings the funk!

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