Around the Caffeinated World: Ethiopia


Drying naturally processed coffee in Ethiopia. [Photograph: counterculturecoffee on Flickr]

Coffee beans have have been shuffled from their native Africa to new origins far and wide for centuries, but just how much the actual terroir contributes to a bean's flavor remains up for debate. Both the cultivation and the culture around a coffee crop can differ wildly from place to place, origin to origin, as traditions are handed down through generations.

We'll spend the next few columns exploring the history and lore of various coffee growing regions, starting with the place where it all began: Ethiopia.

Ethiopia wears the honorable badge of being coffee's birthplace, though the plant's origins are not without some intrigue and mystery: A huge, largely still uncatalogued array of varieties of the plant exist there, growing wild in forests and christened with colloquial names that recall the town or village to which they are nearest. From its native soil in southwestern Ethiopia (e.g. Yirgacheffe), coffee plants were distributed to points in the fertile east, such as Harrar. These two locales are still where some of the most valued coffees in the world are grown.

Evidence of coffee consumption in Ethiopia dates back to the 11th century, and possibly even further: While there are written clues from then that imply the world's first caffeinated people enjoying the stuff as a beverage, it's likely folks had been chewing or steeping the leaves or fruit of the coffee plant before discovering that the beans could be dried, roasted, ground, and brewed. (And brewed, and brewed, and brewed: Ethiopia is also one of the only coffee-producing nations whose population consumes nearly as much as it outputs.)

Aside from the question of terroir, Ethiopia throws processing into the mix of variables that contribute to the classic flavor profiles common in coffees from its southern reaches. Harrar coffees typically undergo the "natural" or "sun-dried" process, which requires coffee cherry to be picked ripe and dried over the course of up to several weeks on raised beds of metal mesh, constantly raked and turned to prevent spoilage on the fruit. Because of the extended time the bean spends inside its fruity casing, these coffees tend to have heavy bodies and unmistakably berrylike flavors when brewed.

Meanwhile, beans from Yirgacheffe (with rare exceptions) are extracted using the washed process, which has been the case in the area since the 1950s. Seeing the high prices and clean cups that this technique afforded farmers in Latin America, coffee producers throughout Yirgacheffe abandoned the traditional natural process that had been the norm till then, and found that the new methods produced a floral delicacy, lemony pop, and tealike body that commanded a higher dollar in Western markets.

What to try: For a really lovely example of a naturally processed bean from Harrar, brew yourself a cup of this offering from Atlanta, GA roasters Batdorf & Bronson. Compare that with the clean, jasminey lilt of Counter Culture's Konga, a washed coffee from Yirgacheffe.

Next, we'll explore the place where coffee was first transplanted from Ethiopian soil: the spice-trade hub of Yemen.