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The motherland of coffee still maintains some of the purest, most complex coffees in the world.

Ethiopia, widely acknowledged as the birthplace of coffee (to the chagrin of Yemen and Sudan, who have also laid claim), produces some of the most exceptional and dramatic coffees found anywhere in the world. From the bright bergamot and floral Yirgacheffe to the ripe fruit notes of Harrar, the unique flavours offered by this spectacular country have, over the last 10 years, become some of the most sought after in specialty coffee.

View Coffees
  • Place In World For Coffee Exporter
  • Sacks (60kg) exported annually
    Approx: 3,921,000
  • Percentage of world coffee market
  • Other major agricultural exports
    Sesame seeds, legumes
  • Estimated number of families relying on coffee for livelihood?
    15 million
  • Typical varieties produced
    Native Heirloom Varieties
  • Key coffee regions
    Sidamo, Limu, Yirgacheffe, Harrar & Djima
  • Typical harvest times
    October - December
  • Typically available
Ethiopia square

The Beginning of Coffee

Only Arabica coffee is cultivated in Ethiopia, but the variety of individual cultivars – many as yet growing wild and undiscovered – is unrivalled anywhere in the world. Furthermore, the sheer volume of coffee produced dwarves the output of Kenya and Tanzania at around 450,000 tonnes annually.

Coffee probably began to be exported from the country as early as the 17th century, though trade did not become significant until the 19th century. Today, one cannot overstate the importance of coffee to the country’s economy. An estimated 15 million Ethiopians are employed by the coffee industry, and Ethiopia is hugely reliant of coffee as a major source of revenue: it accounts for close to 70% of all export earnings.

Ethiopia square

Production of Coffee

There are three coffee ‘production systems’ used in Ethiopia: Forest Coffee, where wild-grown coffee is harvested by the local population; Garden Coffee, grown in smallholder plots (usually measured in terms of trees rather than hectares) along with other crops; and Plantation Coffee, a small percentage of Ethiopian coffee is grown on large estates. The vast majority of coffee in the country is produced using the Garden Coffee system, with households harvesting cherries from trees surrounding their homes.

Coffee in Ethiopia was traditionally dry processed, but wet processing is increasingly becoming more common. 50 percent, or even more, of coffee in the country is wet processed now, which highlights the delicate, floral notes for which the country’s coffee is known.

Ethiopia square

The Politics of Coffee

From 1974 to 1991, Ethiopia was ruled by a harsh and restrictive Marxist dictatorship that consolidated large, collective farms that then were required to sell directly to the government at a low price. After the dictatorship fell in 1991, the government began to allow farmers to form co-ops and demand fair prices without the use of middlemen. However, due to the negative connotations given to the cooperatives established under Marxist rule, many farmers distrust cooperative management even today.

In April 2008, the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) was established as a platform for the trade of undifferentiated crops such as wheat, maize, sesame, and haricot beans. Meant to “ensure the development of an efficient modern trading system” that would “protect the rights and benefits of sellers, buyers, intermediaries, and the general public”, the system was idealised as an equalising market force. Coffee was also brought under the ECX’s roof later that same year – in part to enable the government to garner some of the revenue earnings from this substantial crop.

Until December 2008, growers could also sell direct to export markets, but this was subsequently reigned in, and the difficulty of determining precise provenance in Ethiopia – a corner stone of specialty coffee – has been a tremendous frustration to buyers in consuming markets ever since.

On arrival at the ECX, coffee is repackaged and then categorized according to cup profile and quality before being auctioned to the highest bidder. The intervention has, in some ways, been very positive for farmers and consumers, leading to a more consistent and better cup for most coffees and higher prices for growers; however, a drawback to the pooling of coffees based on taste alone is that, crucially, the buyer cannot trace a coffee back to the grower, cooperative or region. Any origin provenance is, thus, effectively lost at the point that the coffee enters the ECX.

This, of course, eliminates most roasters’ and importers’ ability to provide accurate information regarding the precise traceability of coffees purchased through the ECX, which accounts for some 90 percent of all Ethiopia’s coffee. Although rules and guidelines are loosening – 10 percent of coffee grown is now eligible to be purchased through cooperatives – the world of coffee in Ethiopia is moving in the right direction but slowly. All of the Ethiopian coffees that we purchase at Mercanta are selected on the basis of their exceptional cup profile first and foremost. This remains our guiding principle in Ethiopia and in all origins where we source coffees.

Ethiopia is one of only a relatively small number of producing countries that also consumes a large part of its production internally (including Brazil, Colombia, India and Indonesia), and coffee is usually prepared in a complex ceremony using a jebena – a pottery jug with a spherical base, a neck and pouring spout.


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The Main Coffee-Producing Regions

Sidamo (or Sidama – the latter refers to the Sidama people, while the former is what used to be known as Sidamo province) covers a large area spreading through the fertile highlands south of Lake Awasa in the Rift Valley. It is made up of over 20 different administrative areas, or ‘woredas’, with varying microclimates and altitudes; accordingly, there is a big variety of both grades and cup profiles that end up labelled as Sidamo.

The Sidamo region (along with Harrar and Yirgacheffe) is one of three trademarked coffee regions in Ethiopia and is well known for having perfect climate conditions for coffee thanks to altitudes of between a 1,500 to 2,200 metres above sea level, ample rainfall, optimum temperature, and fertile soil.

Around 60% of the region’s coffees are washed, though Sidamo also produces some excellent sun-dried coffees. There are upwards of 50 cooperatives in operation here, as well as many private buying stations – with over 200 washing stations around the various woredas.

Many thousands of bags marked ‘Sidamo’ are sold every year but there may be significant differences in cup quality. Mercanta assesses many samples of Sidamo before we make any purchases. We are looking for a coffee which possesses a vibrant crisp acidity, with refined sweetness, floral and citrus notes, and an elegant aftertaste.

Yirgacheffe is part of the Sidamo region in southern Ethiopia, but its sometimes exquisite, washed coffees are so well-known that is has been sub-divided into its own micro-region, which has been trademarked by the Ethiopian government. This steep, green area is both fertile and high – much of the coffee grows at 2,000 metres and above.

At first glance Yirgacheffe’s hills look thickly forested, but in fact it is a heavily populated region, and the hills are dotted with many dwellings and villages’ growing ‘Garden Coffee’. There are approximately 26 cooperatives in the region, representing some 43,794 farmers and around 62,004 hectares of garden coffee. The production is predominantly washed, although a smaller amount of sundried coffees also come out of Yirgacheffe.

Ethiopia square

Lesser-Known Producing Regions

The third of Ethiopia’s trademarked regional names, Harrar was one of the original ‘grades’ of Ethiopian coffee. In the 19th century, Harari coffee was known as being of highest quality (particularly compared to the ‘other’ available grade at the time, Abyssinia, which was simply wild-grown coffee from everywhere else in the country). Even today, the region is renowned for quality coffee and is highly desirable.

Harrar coffees mostly hail from wild native trees on small farms in the Eastern part of the country, which are then dry-processed and traditionally classified as longberry (large), shortberry (smaller) or Mocha (peaberry).

Harrar flavours range from lots of blueberry through to a whole range of flavours, including banana, strawberry, and bubblegum – some are even minty! These coffees are typically heavy-bodied and have a weighty mouthfeel.

The winey nature of this coffee means that it is not usually well-suited to drinking as a single origin coffee; therefore, Harrar is most commonly used in espresso blends to lend heady, fruity notes. It can be highly variable in preparation and, as a result, can be difficult to roast evenly. All part of the unique charm and appeal of this coffee.

The Limu region is less well-known than the ‘big three’ trademarked regions, but it is home to some excellent coffees. Limu coffee grows in the South-West of Ethiopia between 1,100 to 1,900 metres above sea level and is known and desired for its good cup, sweet, spicy/winey flavour and balanced body. Washed Limu coffee is considered one Ethiopia’s best highland-grown coffees. The bean is medium size, has a distinctive rounded shape and green colour.

This region, in the southwest of Ethiopia, is a large producer of Ethiopia’s coffee. Many coffees from this region are commercial grade.