The Best Ethiopian Coffee — Review and Buyer’s Guide

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best ethiopian coffee

For many people, their first foray into specialty coffee came from the smallholder farms of Ethiopia. Indeed, it is believed by most that coffee itself originated in modern-day Ethiopia, in the erstwhile Kingdom of Kaffa — from whence it inherited its name. 

With East Africa being among the most likely origins of humankind as well as coffee, it is no wonder that our stories have become so inextricably interwoven.

The distinct fruit-forward flavor profiles of Ethiopian coffees have continued to endear them to modern consumers. They are the go-to origin cited by coffee aficionados to challenge claims that you can’t tell the difference between coffees from different origins, being distinguishable from more classic “coffee flavor” even by the uninitiated. 

The claim for the best Ethiopian coffee is always hotly contested. As far as our favorite goes right now, we think you can’t fail with this anaerobically fermented, natural Chelbesa from Onyx Coffee. Bursting with funky overripe strawberries and candied watermelon sweetness, offset by an almost astringent black tea finish, this is truly exciting coffee.

The Best Ethiopian Coffee — A Closer Look at Our Favorites

This selection of some of the best Ethiopian coffee covers a little bit of everything great about coffees from the region. From washed to natural, light roasts to medium, and from Yirgacheffe to Guji, there should be something for most tastes featured here.

Onyx Coffee – Ethiopia Worka Chelbesa Anaerobic – Best All Round

At A Glance

Roast Profile: Light – Medium Roast

Origin: Worka & Chelbesa, Yirgacheffe, Gedeo, Ethiopia

Flavor Profile: Ripe Strawberry / Black Tea / Jasmine / Brown Sugar

Processing Method: Anaerobic Process

Variety: Ethiopian Heirloom Varieties

Elevation: 1850 m / 6070 feet

Produced in collaboration with Negusse Debela, who owns and operates SNAP Specialty Coffee in his native Yirgacheffe, this coffee is grown across several smallholdings in the Gedeo zone. It is then processed at the dry mill in the national capital Addis Ababa, where it undergoes anaerobic fermentation.

The process of anaerobic fermentation requires that the coffee cherries are stored in an environment with limited oxygen for a period before drying on the raised beds. This extended fermentation is like an exploded form of natural or honey processing that really allows the winey and exotic notes of the fruit to ferment and absorb into the beans.

East African coffees are particularly well suited to anaerobic fermentation and the practice is growing in popularity with good reason. It’s one of the innovations producing the most interesting results in the coffee industry today.

The deep ripe strawberry notes have taken on the almost wine-like character in this fermented coffee. They are complemented by bold brown sugar sweetness and, more delicately, by black tea and floral tones.

These beans are relatively dense and we found that grinding them finer than usual for a pour over prevented too rapid of a draw-down resulting in under-extraction. Immersion brews like French press, or a hybrid like the Clever dripper, performed well and helped to bring out the sweetness as well.


Panther Coffee – Suke Quto – Best Washed Process

At A Glance

Roast Profile: Light – Medium Roast

Origin: Guji Zone, Oromia, Ethiopia

Flavor Profile: Peach / Lemon / Guarapo / Jasmine

Processing Method: Washed Process

Variety: Indigenous Varieties

Elevation: 2200 m / 7220 feet

Panther Coffee has produced a real winner here. The Suke Quto is exceptionally clean in the cup and lends itself very well to a pour over like a V60. For best results, we found you should tend towards the less extracted end of the spectrum so as not to mask the ethereal jasmine notes.

Aiming for a brew time of no more than two and a half minutes was just right to bring through the sugars to give the effect of guarapo sweetness without losing anything behind the bitters. You can accomplish this by grinding ever so slightly coarser and pouring at a slightly higher volume to guarantee a good flow rate.

The stone fruit and lemon pairing on display here is very Ethiopian. You almost feel like you could be sitting on the Suke Quto farm when you sip this.


PT’s Coffee – Yirgacheffe Mrs. Gemedech Natural – Best Classic Ethiopian

At A Glance

Roast Profile: Light Roast

Origin: Idedo, Yirgacheffe, Gedeo, Ethiopia

Flavor Profile: Berry Jam / Peach / Cardamom

Processing Method: Natural Process

Variety: Wolisho, Dega, Kurume

Elevation: 2050 m / 6725 feet

From well-established roaster PT’s Coffee, this Yirgacheffe grown by Mrs Gemedech Fulasa in Idedo is probably the best example of the typical Ethiopian characteristics that we have on offer here. The natural process allows the blueberry fruit flavors to develop strongly in these beans, with evidence of stone fruit, citrus, and floral spices.

Gemedech’s 4.5 hectare farm is managed as an agroforest set-up, where coffee is shade-grown as an understory crop amongst native trees and other food crops. The enset (or false banana) tree companion planted with her coffee not only provides an extra crop to diversify the farm’s income but also helps greatly with moisture retention in the soil.

We found this coffee does best in a flat-bottomed pour over like the Kalita Wave, where it benefits from the slower flow rate and can develop a slightly fuller body. Another interesting option might be the Stagg X brewer from Fellow, which can incorporate an aspect of immersion brewing by pouring high volumes into a restricted flow brewer.


Volcanica Coffee – Ethiopian Limu 

At A Glance

Roast Profile: Light – Medium Roast

Origin: Gembo, Kaffa, South West Region, Ethiopia

Flavor Profile: Rose / Lemon / Tart Citric Acidity

Processing Method: Natural Process

Variety: Traditional landrace varieties

Elevation: 1700 – 2000 m / 5580 – 6560 feet

Volcanica’s Ethiopian Limu is confusingly designated. It is actually grown on the Tega & Tula farm by owner / operator Ahabu in the Gembo district in Kaffa, the zone next to the Limu producing districts of the Jimma zone. It is possible that the marketers at Volcanica opted for the name of a better known neighbor over transparency.

Nonetheless, this is an exceptional coffee. The landrace native varietals from which it is produced benefit from centuries of genetic ancestry dating back to the original arabica plants of Kaffa. In many ways, this coffee represents the offspring of the first coffee plants in a fairly direct line — making the decision not to label them as Kaffa coffee all the more confusing.

Full of brilliant acidity, the sharpness of this coffee is offset perfectly by a floral sweetness reminiscent of hibiscus tea sweetened with rose syrup. Although a lot of the nuances would be lost in a cold brew, this is a good candidate for a refreshing iced coffee in summer. Be sure to make your ice out of brewed coffee to avoid over dilution.


Sightglass – Ethiopia, Worka Chelbessa, Yirgacheffe 

At A Glance

Roast Profile: Medium Roast

Origin: Gedeb, Yirgacheffe, Gedeo, Ethiopia

Flavor Profile: Peach / Boysenberry / Elderflower

Processing Method: Washed Process

Variety: Heirloom Ethiopian Varieties

Elevation: 1900 – 2200 m / 6230 – 7220 feet

Produced in Gedeb by Negusse Debela’s SNAP wet mill, this is exactly the same unprocessed green coffee as featured in Onyx Coffee Labs anaerobic fermentation. This one serves well to highlight the difference between the processing methods when washed in a wet mill compared to anaerobic fermentation of the same coffee.

Although there is still plenty of fruit flavor here, it produces a much cleaner, more light-bodied, cup than does the coffee used by Onyx. The clarity allows the elderflower notes to sit much more in the foreground than they would with a natural. 

This roast is taken a little darker than the fermented one, while still remaining fairly light. The almost boozy and jammy strawberries found in the Onyx coffee are replaced here by a far brighter boysenberry, verging on the under-ripe and almost sour. 

While it makes for an excellent pour over, this is also a good candidate for espresso if you enjoy single origins brewed in that way. Be sure to drink it black though, as the flavors are not bold enough to carry through a milk drink. Even a macchiato would likely spoil this offering.


Verve – Ethiopia Tima Guji Natural SOE

At A Glance

Roast Profile: Light Roast

Origin: Shakiso, Guji, Oromia, Ethiopia

Flavor Profile: Sugar Plum / Dandelion / White Chocolate

Processing Method: Natural Process

Variety: Heirloom Ethiopian Varieties

Elevation: 2000 – 2180 m / 6560 – 7150 feet

Another beautiful Guji natural, the stone fruit on offer here is further from the tart plum skins and leans more towards jam and sugared plums. Paired with the almost milky white chocolate and the very faint florals evocative of dandelion this coffee has a very delicate profile. 

This example is roasted incredibly light, any lighter and it would be in danger of becoming vegetal. It may not be for all tastes, but if you enjoy a very blonde coffee this will be for you. Care should be taken not to under-extract this one, it feels a little hollow until you hit the three minute mark on a pour over.

Grown by the Tima Farmer Group in the Shakiso district, the cherries are all hand picked and left to dry in the sun on raised beds before the beans are separated from the fruit. This is the most traditional processing method in Ethiopia and it shows up in a very classic profile here.


What Is Ethiopian Coffee?

Although there are over 10,000 distinct varietals of coffee unique to the East African country, Ethiopian coffee generally refers to beans grown in the nation of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is one of the biggest producers of coffee globally and the biggest in Africa. It is a nation that relies on coffee production for a stable economy, with an estimated 15 million people working in the industry.

The History of Coffee in Ethiopia

Despite the reliability and veracity of the origin story of Kaldi and his goats discovering coffee in ninth century Ethiopia being somewhat questionable, it is highly likely that Ethiopia was at least among the birthplaces of Coffea Arabica. 

Across the indigenous nations that now make up modern-day Ethiopia, coffee was historically enjoyed in a variety of ways. Although roasting and brewing the dried beans eventually won out as most popular, there are other ways coffee has been enjoyed. Some of them include fermenting the cherries into a kind of wine and even using them to make porridge.

It was from Ethiopia that coffee first found its way to Yemen and the near east, and then across the wild via Dutch colonialists with other Europeans following in their wake. 

Indisputably then, the histories of coffee and the nation of Ethiopia are intertwined. Perhaps this is one reason that Ethiopia, unlike many other coffee-producing nations, retains a coffee culture of its own — keeping around half of its crop for the domestic market. 

The Ethiopian coffee ceremony remains an important tradition and a must-see for any coffee tourist visiting the region. Specialty coffee fans, however, are unlikely to get the best cup of coffee they’ve ever experienced. 

In the traditional preparation, beans are roasted from green over a fire in a wok-like pan and ground in a pestle and mortar (or zenezena and mukecha). The ground coffee is then brewed in a jebena, which is much like a Turkish cezve. The whole ceremony can be expected to last around three hours and is very social and ritualized.

What Makes Ethiopian Coffee So Special?

The center of origin of arabica coffee, it is no surprise that the nation has such a rich diversity of varietals. [1] It is in part this genetic diversity that gives Ethiopia such a range of distinct regional cup profiles.

There is a very strong historical convention for growing coffee in Ethiopia as well, with the industry still being largely dominated by traditional smallholdings run by families.

Beyond this, the climate in Ethiopia is perfect for growing coffee, evidenced by the fact that it still grows wild across the many mountainous forests.

Coffee Growing Regions of Ethiopia

For the most part, coffee growing is concentrated in the south west of the country. While the following is by no means an exhaustive list of the coffee growing regions of Ethiopia, it should give you some idea of what to look for in terms of reputable subdivisions of the origin.

Coffee regions of Ethiopia. Source: Dailycoffeenews

Yirgacheffe

Although actually only a small village in its own right, Yirgacheffe has become so close to synonymous with quality Ethiopian coffee that the wider region around the village often markets itself as Yirgacheffe coffee. 

The extent to which the village has become a mark of quality is made obvious by the government’s decision to trademark the whole coffee region, along with Sidamo and Harrar. Incidentally, Starbucks initially attempted to block the trademark over concerns that they may have to pay a higher price to Ethiopian farmers for a protected designation product.

Sidamo

You won’t find Sidamo on a map anymore, but coffees from Sidama’s districts are still labeled under the designation. Historically the province was home to the Kingdom of Sidama, but in 1995 it was separated between the Oromia Region, the Southern Peoples Region, and the Somali Region. A 2019 referendum reinstated it as an independent region.

Another of Ethiopia’s most famous coffee zones, the coffee beans from Sidama are very highly prized for their crisp, citric acidity.

Harrar

The third of the trademarked coffee regions in Ethiopia, Harrar has declined in popularity since the advent of the specialty market. This, despite being the most likely first global site used intensively for commercial coffee production. Although still less well known to most than Yirgacheffe and Sidamo, it is beginning to regain some of its prestige.

Jimma or Djimmah

Named for the 18th century Kingdom of Jimma, the modern zone produces sought-after coffees with typical flavor profiles. They are fruit-forward and tend a little more towards nuttiness and cacao than other Ethiopian coffees.

Guji

A more recent star of the Ethiopian coffee industry, Guji coffee was sold lumped in with Sidamo until 2002. The coffee industry in Guji was eclipsed by its rich gold mines. The tight security around them made it difficult for larger coffee farms to get established. It is now far easier to access Guji coffees internationally and they have become a firm favorite.

A Buyer’s Guide to the Best Ethiopian Coffee

When you’re looking for your best Ethiopian coffee there are a number of general things to keep in mind. Depending on exactly what you like in a coffee, where you settle on these may vary.

Roast Degree

Typically Ethiopian coffees are better served by a lighter roast. Some more developed medium roast Ethiopians can also be excellent. Any Ethiopian coffees that you may find dark roasted should be approached with caution though. If you know and trust a roaster you may find a rare gem, but generally, we’d advise to give them a wide berth. 

Flavor Profile

The most classic Ethiopian flavor profile runs from blueberry fruitiness, through the winey East African tones, usually with high levels of citrus acidity. Particularly the natural processed examples will almost invariably be very fruity. 

With so many micro-climates, and literally thousands of distinct varietals native to each different one of them, Ethiopia perhaps has the most diverse range of flavor profiles of any coffee producing nation. That being said, the above rule of thumb tends to (at least mostly) hold true.

What Certifications Should You Look Out For?

Most Ethiopian coffee is traditionally grown by smallholders, so tends to be shade-grown with limited use of pesticides. Some of the larger plantations have signed up for the Rainforest Alliance and USDA organic labels, but cost can preclude accreditation for a lot of smaller farmers that would otherwise be eligible.

With the natural growing practices outlined above, Ethiopian coffee is predominantly very bird friendly. The Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly certification is a great scheme to look out for and support. 

Fair trade is probably the most important concern to look out for in Ethiopian coffee — although the Fairtrade mark may not be the best guarantee of this. It is better to look out for roasters that work closely with producers in a direct trade relationship.

Our Verdict

Hopefully, this article has left you feeling better informed about all things Ethiopian coffee. For our money, the best Ethiopian coffee available right now would be Onyx Coffee’s anaerobic Worka Chelbesa. It’s packed with complex fermented flavors whilst remaining bright, fruity, and accessible. 

The best advice we can offer regarding Ethiopian coffee, though, is just to buy some, experiment, and enjoy it. Try shopping from different regions to see what you like best. With so much variety on offer, it will be a long time before you’re bored of Ethiopians.

See Also: Best Colombian Coffee

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Author
Aidan is a former barista and coffee industry professional, turned writer and passionate home brewer. He never travels anywhere without his emergency coffee kit (hand grinder, scales, and v60).

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