A History of Ethiopian Coffee

Posted by Thomas Minieri on

There’s no doubt that we live in a society filled with major coffee lovers. This caffeinated beverage is a staple in many people’s everyday routines. Coffee is a beverage that can be served in many forms and styles. Beyond the different styles coffee can be served in, there’s also many variations of this beverage. True coffee lovers know that not all coffees are the same. Depending on the roast, origin of the beans and preparation, the flavor profiles can vary wildly. Basically, there’s a coffee blend for everyone, no matter what type of flavor you like.

Since origin plays such a big role in the flavor of coffee, it can be helpful to know where you like your coffee to come from. We’re not talking about which coffee shop or store exactly, but rather the country and growing region. If you spend a lot of time browsing the coffee aisle at the grocery store or noticing the variety of blends served in your local coffee shop then you may have spotted one recurring country appearing on coffee labels. Ethiopia is a major global producer of coffee and is even touted as being the birthplace of coffee. Exploring the history of Ethiopia’s coffee production and culture can help foster a deeper appreciation and understanding of this coffee next time you’re enjoying a cup of it.

Early History

While it’s hard to know with complete certainty exactly where and when coffee first originated, many historians attribute Ethiopia with the creation of it. Ethiopia is a landlocked country located in the Horn of Africa, on the country’s eastern side. With its lengthy history, Ethiopia has a rich background and culture and deep roots to the origin of coffee. There is evidence that coffee first originated in what is now Ethiopia. This is based on both facts as well as stories and accounts passed down through the generations. It is worth noting though, that Yemen as well as other countries stake claim to the origins of coffee as well.

The traditional coffee ceremony in Ethiopia.

The origin story of coffee beginning in Ethiopia details how Kaldi, a goat herder, was tending to his animals when he noticed that some were displaying increased levels of energy after they ate berries from a certain bush. It’s then believed that he took the plant back to his village where it was made into a beverage resembling what we know as coffee today. While this story could be more folklore than fact, it doesn’t take away the belief of Ethiopia serving as the birthplace of coffee. Historians note though, that it is likely that the berries - or coffee fruit - Kaldi noticed his goats were eating, may have been chewed by people for bursts of energy centuries before this story is told as taking place.

So if coffee is believed to have been discovered before the story of Kaldi, then how old is this historic beverage? Experts and historians believe the consumption of coffee is probably close to 1,000 years old, but it didn’t exactly start as the beverage we know and love today. It is believed that when coffee was first introduced it was likely eaten rather than drunk. The coffee fruit was chewed by people looking for energy. Eventually, people began to crush the fruit up and mix it with ghee, a clarified butter, or animal fat in order to create a thick paste. People would then form the thick paste into small balls to make it easier to take on long journeys. As this became more popular among the populations of this area it eventually spread to other areas and people as well. Even today, the method of consuming ground coffee by mixing it with ghee continues in some areas of Ethiopia. It’s also common to drink coffee with ghee added to it to produce a more nutritionally-dense drink.

Overtime, the practice of drinking coffee became popular in Ethiopia before spreading to other parts of the world. One common drink was to crush coffee fruit and then ferment it, resulting in a coffee wine-like beverage. Eventually though, the practice of roasting, grinding and then brewing coffee was introduced as common practice. By the 13th century coffee had spread to other parts of the world and was a big part of the Islamic culture. Here, it was viewed as a powerful medicine and prayer aid. One interesting note about the origin of the phrase “coffee bean” is that it actually started as a mispronunciation of the words “Kaffa” and “bunn”. Kaffa is the region of modern-day Ethiopia where coffee is believed to have originated and “bunn” is the local word for coffee, hence “Kaffa bunn” eventually being referred to as “coffee bean.”

Modern Ethiopian Coffee

Even after all these years - or centuries rather - Ethiopian coffee remains a staple throughout the world. Coffee continues to be a major part of the Ethiopian culture, economy and everyday lives of locals. Coffee is enjoyed in Ethiopia in some ways similar to how we enjoy it in America - as an everyday ritual and chance to sit down and catch up with friends as well as a vital source of energy.

Coffee beans, Ethiopia

Even though coffee from Ethiopia shares an origin country, not all coffees from Ethiopia are the same. The terrain of Ethiopia has a big influence on the coffee that is produced there, but varieties and differences among specific growing regions still vary. In general, Ethiopian coffee has the reputation for being fruity and bright with a relatively high level of acidity. Coffees from Ethiopia are also usually light or medium-bodied, making coffee from here extremely popular for its versatility and palatability. The Southern Ethiopian region of Yirgacheffe is a well-known grower of coffee and produces coffee beans with fruity notes. No matter where the Ethiopian coffee you try comes from, it’s important that it’s properly roasted and prepared to ensure the integrity of the beans. Overall, Ethiopian coffee is unique, even compared to other African-grown coffees, and provides coffee lovers with a bright beverage rich in history.

Original content for Highfalutin Coffee by Minieri & Company, Copyright © 2020 Minieri & Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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