Ethiopian Coffee Overview

Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee. In Ethiopia, we find a fascinating range of enticing aromatics and flavors in the cup. What makes Ethiopian coffee so special?

When we tell the origin story about coffee, it must be the story of Ethiopian coffee. It is in the forests of the Kaffa region of the west and the adjacent Boma Plateau where coffea arabica developed under a canopy of tall forest trees. Coffee is “bun” or “buna” in Ethiopia, so “coffee bean” is quite possibly a an interpretation of “Kaffa bun”. 

We consider Ethiopian coffees to be some of the best in the world, and the greater genetic diversity of the Ethiopian coffee shrub is likely part of the reason. Unique varieties matter, but also their adaptation to the diverse growing regions, from Guji, Sidama and Yirga cheffe / Gedeo zones of the south, to Harar in the east and Jimma, Agaro, Gera, Kaffa and Wollega in the west. 

But how the coffee cherry is processed after it is harvested from the tree has perhaps the most influence on cup character in the end. Wet-process Ethiopian coffees can possess sparkling-bright acidity, with citric fruited suggestions, while sweet spice and florals cand dominate the aromatics. Dry-processed coffees are laid directly on the raised beds from the tree, and this dried-in-the-fruit practice strongly shapes the resulting flavors. Dried fruit notes dominate, from berry to mango to peach to  … well, a literal cornucopia of fruits! Dry process coffees, also called “naturals,” also have thick body and a intensity of flavors overall that is hard to rival. Even people who say “all coffee tastes the same to me” will know when they taste a natural Ethiopia coffee!

An evolving understanding of Ethiopia’s coffee regions

While the topography of Ethiopia’s coffee regions is largely immutable, a clear understanding of them is fleeting and changes over time. When I started Sweet Maria’s, the lingering shadow of the socialist Dirg era was lifting in Ethiopia, a time when few international buyers visited the country or really understood much about the different coffee zones.
The coffee-growing regions were talked about on the meta level. They were lumped together by roughly defined trading terms, just as they were blended together for trading in the capital. It was easy to digest, but oversimplified: There was Harar in the east, and Harar meant naturals (aka dry-processed coffee). Toward the west of Addis there was Jimma, Limmu Lekempti, and Kaffa. Jimma 5 was a name for the low-grade naturals from the west, whether they were really from the area of Jimma town or not. Several regions, like Wollega coffees, were lumped into “Lekempti” which was traded in the town of Nekemte. Not sure how or why N became L there. But local traders weren’t interested in too much clarity or too much transparency, so explanations were hard to find.
In the south there was Sidama, a massive area named after the Sidama people, but sold in the trade as Sidamo. Sidamo were washed (that is wet-process coffees), as were those from a much smaller area that gained much acclaim, Yirgachef, or Yrgacheffe, or Yirga Cheffe. It was spelled so many ways, and defining it’s boundaries was as difficult as finding the correct spelling! (Hint: there is no absolute “correct” spelling, as with most terms they are phonetic approximations. We use Yirga Cheffe because that is how it is written on the signs I see as I enter the town). But as Yirga Cheffe became a ane associated with premium coffee, many washed southern coffees became Yirga Cheffe! 
Harar was considered the king of Ethiopian coffee, for a prized aspect called “Mocha flavor” by local traders. The problem was many naturals were being sold as Harar, even if they were from far afield. And this so-called Mocha flavor was, as far as I can pinpoint it, basically the taste of dusty cocoa nibs; rustic, bittering, basic. I spend years asking local cuppers and exporters what they meant by Mocha flavor, always sensing my own ignorance when broaching the subject … but I ultimately sensed that it was more myth that fact, and nobody really knew definitely what it was. It was just the taste of Ethiopia naturals (those not dried in the dirt, those were Jimma 5’s). And it was special, no matter what it was, because it was Ethiopian! I couldn’t argue with that.
Ethiopia Coffee Map Sweet Marias
Ethiopia coffee farming regions, Yirgacheffe Sidamo Harar Djimma Limmu Guji Shakiso Kaffa Agaro Gera Uraga

See our current selection of Ethiopian Green Coffee at Sweet Maria’s.

Country Profiles:

Ethiopia Regional Coffee Maps

An organization we worked with for several years, Technoserve,  created these coffee region maps with funding from Nespresso. These do not represent all the coffee areas of Ethiopia. Missing from this set is the greater Harar/Hararghe region among others. But they offer excellent detail marking locations of many of the cooperatives and other farm sites we work with. Clicking on the image should open a closer view, from which you can zoom further. The first map below is especially useful to understanding the orientation of the major coffee regions in relation to the capital, Addis Ababa. To this I have also added the maps focusing on the key regions for us at Sweet Maria’s, based on the Woreda (county) map from Wikipedia.

Ethiopia Articles in Our Coffee Library

Ethiopian coffee reminds us that “coffee is a crop.”

Coffee varies because coffee is agriculture. As a culture of coffee consumption, we might not think coffee as a farmed crop. It might seem like any other product that appears on a shelf of the store… 

When you find a really great coffee like the dry-processed types from the South, it is like eating Michigan peaches at the height of the season – sweet, juicy, fruity, and ripe with flavor. But then those peaches are gone, and you hope that the next season will produce the same results.  Similarly, the cup profile of these coffees can be equally amazing, but when they’re gone, they’re gone. If all the factors line up just right, it might be the same next year. But then again, maybe not. 

The fact that coffee attributes can be fleeting from year-to-year makes sourcing a challenge. We often have to look in new places for those prized characteristics. Sometimes other factors of the trade have the same effect. For example, we believe that a lot of coffee previously sold as “Yirgacheffe” was coming into the area from adjacent regions, due to the fact the buyers were all seeking Yirga Cheffe. 

Now this dynamic has changed, and we are finding great coffees from all those other regions, but Yirga cheffe itself can seem inconsistent in quality. At the same time, break-out regions of Sidama, formerly sold in bulk blends, are now distinguishing themselves, such as Bensa, Chire and Nensebo. 

Our focus on green coffee from Ethiopia.

We spend a lot of energy each harvest year looking for Ethiopian coffees to import. The reason is that Ethiopia is worth it to u: It’s our top coffee origin at Sweet Maria’s, and the range of taste attributes and potential for amazing cup quality demands our primary focus. That doesn’t mean all Ethiopian coffee is good, and sorting through the abundant offerings is a huge job each harvest season. As evidenced by the numerous travelogs, cupping updates and videos, we travel every harvest to Ethiopia, usually at least a couple trips in fact. While our first trip will be filled with farm visits and a crop survey from regions we like, the second trek will have more focus on tasting, honing in on the coffees we will offer, and making arrangements with exporters.

The challenges in Ethiopia can be huge. It’s a lot of work to produce nice coffee, to harvest it well, process is right in the wet mill, dry it correctly, and have it milled to the right standard. But getting it through the regulatory and export system, the Letter of Credit and other regulations (which seem to change far too often) is daunting. We don’t do that ourselves, but find reliable partners who know how the system works.

Even then, a shift in policy, issues with transportation from the mill to Djibouti port for export, or any other number of things can go wrong. It is rarely a journey without a setback of some kind. But no matter the risks, our experience is that Ethiopia is worth the highest level of effort, because when everything lines up just right, the coffee can be that good!

Our Ethiopian Coffee Travels

See our current selection of Ethiopian Green Coffee at Sweet Maria’s.