I've been composing a rather long guide to buying coffee in Ethiopia. There are still a few more drafts to go through, but I thought it would be nice to post some of the information here on the blog.
The completed guide will be online eventually, and I'll be sure to post the URL when it becomes available. Some of it is quite technical stuff, but for now, here's a little 101 stuff by way of introduction...
The most important thing to remember about Ethiopian coffee is that Ethiopia is the Motherland of all arabica coffee. In a certain sense, all arabica coffee is Ethiopian, whether it is grown in Latin America or Indonesia or on a hillside in Sidama.
When coffee was taken to other countries, people had to find ways to adapt it to the local climate. You find that arabica coffee grows best — worldwide — in places that have climates similar to that of Ethiopia: mountainous, tropical, with moderate wet and dry seasons.
Generally, in Ethiopia, no such adaptation is necessary! The coffee has been growing there for literally thousands of years, in the forests of southeastern Ethiopia. It is already perfectly adapted to the climate. This is the immense advantage that Ethiopia has over all other coffee producing countries.
As the “origin of all origins,” Ethiopia has another unique feature: hundreds of heirloom varietals. In many cases, farmers grow their own unique heirloom varietals. The majority of these varietals grow nowhere else in the world, and a great many of them have not even been classified.
In many places — often in Sidama and in Harar, for example — many smallholder farms will pool their coffees at a small local milling station, each contributing his own special coffee. The result is a complex melange of unique flavors, the truest expression of local terroir to be found anywhere on the planet. The rich complexity in a cup of Yirgacheffe, for example, is largely a product of this special combination that occurs nowhere else in the world.
It is difficult to make generalizations about the flavor of Ethiopian coffee, for all the reasons stated above. Furthermore, each coffee growing region is home to unique flavors. These are explained in greater detail in this guide, under the subheadings of each region in Part Two.
If one had to make some broad generalizations about Ethiopian coffee — keeping in mind that there are many exceptions to the rule — one can say the following. Ethiopian coffees tend to be grown at middle-high to very-high altitudes. The result is generally a hard-bean type, with intense flavors and aromatics. Fruit flavors are common in all regions, though the specific fruit character varies from region to region. Berry aromatics are relatively common, as well as citrus and chocolate. Ethiopian coffees can be full-bodied (natural Grade 4 Limu, for instance) or light in body (washed Grade 1 Yirgacheffe, for instance), but in either case the mouthfeel of top quality Ethiopian coffees is generally smooth and pleasing.
Ethiopia grows and exports only arabica coffee, not robusta.