Ethiopian Coffee Conundrum: Balancing Ethics, Supporting Development, and Savouring Flavours

I've always been fascinated by Ethiopian coffee, not only for its incredible flavours but also because it is often regarded as the birthplace of coffee itself. This rich history adds a layer of intrigue. Yet, I wrestle with the importance of addressing the ethical implications surrounding coffee production in a developing country like Ethiopia. In this article, we'll explore the complex world of Ethiopian coffee, delving into the unique characteristics that make it so special, while also taking a closer look at the social, economic, and environmental challenges it faces.

Throughout our journey, we'll discuss various aspects of the coffee industry, from farming practices and processing techniques to the role of sustainability and fair trade initiatives. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive understanding of Ethiopian coffee, and by doing so, encourage a more informed and conscious approach to coffee consumption.

To help you make ethical choices while enjoying the remarkable flavours of Ethiopian coffee, we'll also share some recommendations for ethically sourced Ethiopian coffee beans towards the end of the article. So, grab a cup of your favourite brew, and let's embark on this enlightening journey together.

Coffee Production in Ethiopia

Coffee plays a crucial role in Ethiopia's economy, accounting for approximately 3% of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). As the largest exporter of coffee in Africa and the 5th largest coffee producer in the world, Ethiopia's coffee industry significantly contributes to the nation's economic development (World Bank, 2021).

Ethiopia produces around 7.5 million bags (60 kg each) of coffee per year, with about 3.5 million bags being exported globally (International Coffee Organization, 2021). The majority of the coffee is grown by smallholder farmers, who cultivate the crop on approximately 4 million hectares of land, providing a livelihood for nearly 15 million Ethiopians. This means that the coffee industry supports around 15% of the country's population directly or indirectly.

The Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX), established in 2008, serves as a platform for coffee farmers to sell their produce through a standardised procedure. While the ECX has helped streamline the coffee trade, it has also faced criticism for making it difficult to trace coffees back to specific farms, which is important for specialty coffee roasters. In response, the Ethiopian government introduced new policies in 2017 to enable greater traceability and direct trade between farmers and buyers.

Ethiopia's coffee industry is not without challenges. Climate change, pests, and diseases threaten the crop's production, while farmers often grapple with low productivity and limited access to resources. To address these issues, various organizations, such as USAID and Fair Trade, are working to promote sustainable coffee production, improve farmers' access to resources, and enhance the overall resilience of the sector.

In conclusion, coffee is of vital importance to Ethiopia's GDP and provides livelihoods for a significant portion of the country's population. Despite the challenges faced by the industry, ongoing efforts to improve sustainability and direct trade relationships are paving the way for a brighter future for Ethiopian coffee and its stakeholders. Sources:

1. World Bank. (2021). World Development Indicators. Retrieved from 2. International Coffee Organization. (2021). Coffee Market Report. Retrieved from 3. USAID. (2018). Ethiopia Coffee Industry Value Chain Analysis. Retrieved from 4. Perfect Daily Grind. (2017). Ethiopia’s Coffee Farmers & The Birth of Direct Trade. Retrieved from 5. Fair Trade. (n.d.). Coffee. Retrieved from

Trademarking of Ethiopian Coffee Regions

Ethiopia has trademarked its coffee regions to protect and promote the unique qualities, reputation, and value of its coffee varieties in the global market. The country's coffee varieties, such as Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, and Harrar, are highly sought after by specialty coffee enthusiasts and roasters worldwide. By trademarking these regional names, Ethiopia aims to achieve several objectives:

  1. Protect regional identity: Trademarking coffee regions helps to preserve the distinct identity of Ethiopian coffee varieties, ensuring that only coffee produced in these regions can be labeled and sold under the respective regional names. This measure prevents mislabeling and misrepresentation of the origins of the coffee. 
  2. Enhance traceability: Trademarking enables better traceability of Ethiopian coffee, allowing buyers and consumers to know precisely where their coffee comes from, ensuring its authenticity and supporting the claims about the beans' unique flavour profiles and growing conditions. 
  3. Increase value: By protecting the regional identity and traceability of Ethiopian coffee, the country can better position its coffee varieties in the high-value specialty coffee market. This strategy can result in higher prices for Ethiopian coffee, benefiting local farmers and the country's economy. 
  4. Support local coffee farmers: Higher prices and recognition of the unique qualities of Ethiopian coffee can lead to better income for coffee farmers, incentivizing them to invest in sustainable farming practices and maintain the high quality of their coffee. 
  5. Promote Ethiopian culture: The trademarking of coffee regions also serves to promote Ethiopian culture and tradition, as coffee is deeply embedded in the country's social and cultural fabric. By marketing their coffee varieties and their unique characteristics, Ethiopia shares its rich coffee history and heritage with the world.

History of Coffee in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is widely considered the birthplace of coffee, and it is home to Coffea arabica, the most popular and widely consumed coffee species globally. The country boasts a rich history and numerous legends surrounding the origin and discovery of coffee.

The wild coffee forests of Ethiopia are the genetic origin of the Coffea arabica plant, which now represents about 60% of global coffee production. Ethiopian coffee is known for its diverse range of flavours and aromas, which can be attributed to the unique growing conditions in various regions, such as Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, and Harrar.

One of the most famous legends is the story of Kaldi, a goat herder from the 9th century. According to the tale, Kaldi noticed that his goats became particularly energetic and almost danced after eating the red cherries from a specific tree. Intrigued by this discovery, Kaldi took the cherries to a local monastery, where the monk dismissed them as the work of the devil and threw them into the fire. As the cherries burned, they released a pleasant aroma, which led to the beginning of coffee roasting and brewing.

Although the story of Kaldi and his dancing goats is more folklore than fact, historical records suggest that coffee consumption indeed started in Ethiopia. Indigenous tribes in the region initially consumed coffee cherries as a stimulant by mixing them with animal fat. Over time, the practice of roasting and brewing coffee beans spread to the Arabian Peninsula, and from there, it expanded across the world.


Throughout history, coffee has remained an integral part of Ethiopian culture. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony, an essential social event and a symbol of hospitality, is still practiced today. The ceremony involves roasting, grinding, and brewing coffee beans in a traditional clay pot called a jebena.

Ethiopian Coffee Regions and Varietals

Ethiopia has several distinct coffee-growing regions, each producing unique flavors and varietals due to their specific growing conditions, altitude, and processing methods. Some of the most well-known Ethiopian coffee regions include:

  • Sidamo Region

  • Yirgacheffe

  • Guji

  • Harrar

1. Sidamo (or Sidama): Located in the south of Ethiopia, Sidamo is one of the country's largest coffee-producing regions. The high altitude, fertile soil, and favourable climate contribute to the production of high-quality Arabica coffee. Sidamo beans are known for their bright acidity, medium body, and complex fruity and floral flavours. Some common tasting notes include citrus, berries, and floral undertones.

2. Yirgacheffe: Yirgacheffe is a small town within the Sidamo region and is famous for producing some of the best coffees in the world. The coffee beans from Yirgacheffe are typically wet-processed, resulting in bright acidity, light body, and sweet fruity and floral flavours. Common tasting notes include jasmine, bergamot, and tropical fruits.

3. Guji: Guji is another area in the southern part of the Sidamo region that produces exceptional coffee beans. Guji beans are sought after by specialty coffee roasters for their unique flavour profile, which often features sweet floral notes, such as jasmine, alongside fruity flavours like melon and peach, and a tea-like body.

4. Harrar: Harrar is situated in the eastern part of Ethiopia, and the region is known for its dry-processed coffee. Harrar beans exhibit a winey character, wild fruit flavours, and a syrupy body. Sometimes, you may find Ethiopian Harrar coffee labelled as Mocha Harrar, a reference to the historical Red Sea port from which some of the finest coffees in the world (including those from Yemen) were shipped.

Each of these Ethiopian coffee regions produces distinct varietals and flavours, which are highly valued by coffee enthusiasts worldwide. The combination of diverse growing conditions, traditional processing methods, and a strong coffee heritage make Ethiopian beans truly unique and special, and not going anywhere, with this study showing that the suitable regions for specialty coffee will only grow larger as the climate changes.

Trademarking the regions

Ethiopia, in a totally rock and roll move, has trademarked their coffee regions to protect the unique characteristics and reputation of their coffee and to support the farmers who grow it. By trademarking the names of the coffee regions, such as Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, and Harrar, Ethiopia has successfully branded their beans on the world market, and paved the way for increased traceability and a better life for the 15 million Ethiopians working in the coffee industry. Much to the disdain of Starbuck who have fought the trademarking at every turn claiming it would damage their already immense profiteering and tax dodging operations.

But that doesn't affect the fact that these days, Ethiopia is one Roasters are getting hold of really interesting batches from Microlots across, and you can still find some of the real juicy and light flavours that these regions are known for, by choosing a brewing technique that is suitable to the beans.

Best Brew Methods for Ethiopian Coffee

Whilst we do appreciate the traditional methods of the coffee ritual in Ethiopia, we find to get the most out of Ethiopian coffee beans and retain their juicy, light flavours while minimizing the bitterness from the oils, there are several brewing methods you can use:

1. Pour-Over: The pour-over brewing method, using devices like the Hario V60 or Chemex, allows for excellent control over the extraction process. Using a medium-coarse grind and a steady, slow pour, you can highlight the fruity and floral notes while avoiding over-extraction. The Chemex, with its thicker paper filter, can produce a clean, tea-like body, while the V60's thinner filter allows for a slightly more syrupy mouthfeel.

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2. Aeropress: The Aeropress is another suitable brewing method for Ethiopian beans, allowing for a clean and well-rounded cup. Using a medium-fine grind and a shorter brew time (around 1-2 minutes), you can extract the fruity and bright flavours while keeping the bitterness in check. Invert the Aeropress to allow for full immersion brewing, and then press gently to achieve a smooth, balanced cup.

3. Automatic Drip: Although an automatic drip coffee maker might not offer the same level of control as a pour-over, it can still produce a great cup of Ethiopian coffee. Using a medium grind and fresh, recently roasted beans, you can achieve a well-balanced, flavourful brew. The paper filter will help maintain clarity in the coffee, allowing for the bright acidity and light body to shine through.

4. Cold Brew: Ethiopian beans, with their fruity and floral notes, make for a delightful cold brew. Coarsely grind the beans and steep them in cold water for 12-24 hours. The resulting cold brew will be smooth and refreshing, with prominent notes of blueberry, peach, or other fruity flavours, depending on the specific bean. The slow, cold extraction process will minimize bitterness and create a balanced, enjoyable cup.

When brewing Ethiopian coffee, the key is to focus on highlighting the unique flavour characteristics of the beans while avoiding over-extraction. By using the appropriate brewing method and paying attention to grind size, water temperature, and brewing time, you can enjoy the best that Ethiopian beans have to offer.

Our Favourite Ethiopian Coffee Beans

Here's our selection of the top Ethiopian coffee beans you can find at the moment;

Coffee World Yirgacheffe

This coffee, with its light roast and special processing, has a clean and subtle taste when paired with pour over brewing. The light mouth feel leaves notes of lime, black tea, and just a touch of raspberry sweetness. It's a really pleasant coffee experience for those who appreciate delicate and nuanced flavours.

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