Ethiopian Coffee: The History & Legend of Coffee’s Birthplace

Ethiopian Coffee thumb

Ethiopian coffee is renowned for being one of the finest coffees in the world, thanks to the country’s long history of coffee cultivation. One of the reasons for its popularity is the high altitude at which the coffee beans are grown, which leads to a slower growth process, allowing more time for nutrients to develop within the coffee fruits. This results in a coffee that is more complex and intricate than other coffee types.

Ethiopian Coffee’s Economic Impact

Despite the challenges faced by the Ethiopian coffee industry, including political turbulence and economic hardship, coffee remains the country’s most significant export. Ethiopia is also the leading coffee producer in Africa and the seventh-largest coffee producer globally.

Coffee has a tremendous impact on the Ethiopian economy, and accounts for approximately 5% of Ethiopia’s GDP, 10% of its total agricultural production, and 60% of its export earnings. Coffee has long been Ethiopia’s most important cash crop and largest export commodity, with 90% of exports and 80% of total employment attributed to it.

Ethiopian Coffee Production

The majority of Ethiopian coffee production comes from small-scale farmers, with estimates indicating that 92-95% of coffee is produced by 4.7 million small-scale farmers, while 5-8% is produced by large-scale plantations. Approximately 15 million people in Ethiopia rely on some aspect of coffee production for their livelihoods.

Map of Ethiopia
Map of Ethiopia

Forecast and Efforts to Improve the Sector

In the forecast for 2021/22, Ethiopian coffee production was expected to reach 7.62 million bags, or 457,200 Metric Tonnes, with an estimated increase in local consumption to 3.55 million bags. Efforts have been made to improve the coffee sector in Ethiopia, such as training farmers in good agricultural practices, incentivising farm rehabilitation, and increasing trade in Ethiopian coffee, both in volume and value. Some have suggested that farmers forming themselves into a co-operative society could enable them to get a share of the profit currently going to middlemen, thus making the industry more sustainable for everyone involved.

Ethiopian Coffee Market

The Ethiopian coffee market is fragmented and highly competitive, with the presence of local and global players operating across the country. In order to sustain their positions in the market, the active players are bringing innovations in packaging and product offerings to cater to consumers’ increasing demand for coffee. However, the Ethiopian coffee industry is also threatened by climate change, with almost 60% of coffee species at high risk for extinction, leading to a drop in its price for the last 15 years.

International Coffee Prices
International Coffee Prices

The Origin of Arabica Coffee

Arabica coffee originated in Ethiopia and is believed to be the first species of coffee cultivated. Today, over 90% of Arabica coffee’s genetic material can be found in Ethiopia. Coffee growing, processing, and consumption have been a daily part of life in Ethiopia for centuries.

Coffee Cultivation Systems in Ethiopia

There are three main Ethiopian coffee cultivation systems: forest coffee, garden coffee, and plantation coffee. Forest coffee comes from wild coffee trees found mainly in the southwest of the country. Garden coffee comes from trees planted around a homestead or dwelling, and it accounts for 35% of the national coffee production. Plantation coffee is grown intensively on large farms and contributes 20% to the gross coffee production in Ethiopia.

The Cultural Significance of Ethiopian Coffee

Ethiopia is widely regarded as the birthplace of coffee, with its people having consumed it since the 15th century. The study of its coffee’s history is important for several reasons, as it can provide valuable insights into the cultural, economic, and social significance of coffee both in Ethiopia and beyond.

Ethiopian Family
Ethiopian Family

Stories and Legends of Ethiopian Coffee

Such history is filled with fascinating stories and legends that illustrate its cultural significance. One such tale is that of the goatherd Kaldi, who is said to have discovered coffee after noticing his goats becoming more energetic and lively after eating the berries of a certain plant. This story, while likely apocryphal, speaks to the enduring connection between Ethiopians and their beloved beverage.

The Unique Taste of Ethiopian Coffee

Ethiopian coffee’s popularity can be accrued to the processing method used for Ethiopian washed coffees, renowned for their graceful and sophisticated profile, infused with floral, herbal, and citrus notes. They are drier and lighter on the palate than naturally processed coffees, with a delicacy reminiscent of tea. The coffee’s body is mild, not too strong, and typically has a pleasant acidity.

Coffee is deeply rooted in Ethiopian culture, with the beverage appearing in many expressions related to food, life, and social connections. Ethiopians often say “Buna dabo naw,” which translates to “Coffee is our bread,” emphasising the drink’s importance in their daily lives.

The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony is a central aspect of Ethiopian culture, typically involving the roasting of coffee beans.

Ethiopian Coffee
Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

The Coffee Ceremony varies depending on the region of Ethiopia, with each area adding its own unique twist to the ceremony. However, the ceremony generally lasts between two to three hours, with guests typically attending three times a day: once in the morning, once at noon, and once in the evening. Invitations to attend a coffee ceremony are considered a sign of friendship and respect, highlighting the importance of hospitality in Ethiopian culture.

The Coffee Ceremony is more than just a social event; it’s also spiritual. Before the ceremony begins, the host burns frankincense or other incense to purify the air of bad spirits. The host also offers guests traditional snack foods such as popcorn, peanuts, or cooked barley. During the ceremony, guests engage in conversations about a wide range of topics, including politics, community, and gossip. There’s also plenty of praise for the ceremony’s performer and the quality of the coffee they produce.

In Ethiopia, coffee isn’t just a morning eye-opener; it’s a fundamental part of daily life. Ethiopians consume nearly half of their annual coffee crop, with the rest being exported. Coffee is not only Ethiopia’s national drink, but it’s also a communal beverage that brings people together throughout the day.