Ethiopia is the birthplace of Arabica coffee, and Ethiopians have been drinking coffee longer than anyone else. Coffee is the national drink, with over 50% of the country’s production internally consumed. Wild coffee trees still grow below the canopy of forests in southern and southwestern Ethiopia. The coffee trees’ natural diversity makes them a unique repository for selection and breeding around the world. Around 25% of the Ethiopian population is involved with coffee production, which represents over 50% of Ethiopia’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Coffee is grown over a wide area, from the southwestern to the southern and eastern regions. By far the two most recognized of these are Harrar, to the east, and Sidamo, in the south. There could not be two more different coffees than those produced by these regions.
Harrar is a natural processed coffee and provides a preferred flavor profile of the Middle East: medium-bodied, acidic, winy, even “wild”, a euphemism for bearing the traces of vinegary fermented fruit. (I refer to Harrar as a rustic coffee, borrowing from modern wine terminology) This coffee is often “enhanced” in the Middle East with cardamom and other ingredients. Since production is limited and demand in Middle Eastern centers is great, prices for Harrar can be quite high.
On the other hand, Sidamo to the south specializes in washed coffee. These coffees are delicate and can attain a unique floral aroma. Within the region of Sidamo lies the valley-town of Yirgacheffe. It is the coffee from the slopes bordering this valley that Ethiopian coffee attains the fullest expression of terroir. No other coffee in the world has its perfumed, sweet, lemon-apricot aroma. It has been prized by coffee blenders since cultivation began after World War II.
Kenya began serious coffee cultivation in the early 20th century. In the short period since, its coffee has become one of the most sought after in the trade, respected for its exceptional quality. Arabica coffees are grown in several areas of Kenya, from the slopes of Mt. Elgon to the far west bordering Uganda, where the Blue Mountain variety (brought back from Jamaica) is grown. The greatest coffees of Kenya, however, have always come from a small crescent zone just north and northeast of Nairobi, along the gentle slopes of the Aberdare Mountains to the west and along the south-facing slopes of Mt. Kenya to the north. They are grown on tiny farms averaging half an acre in size, dotting the landscape at altitudes ranging from 5,500 to 6,500 feet.
No other groups of small farmers anywhere in the world have come close to producing consistently extraordinary qualities the Kenyans do, year after year. This is due not only to the generous combination of equatorial sunlight, red-orange volcanic loamy soils, unique moderate climate and special varieties of Arabica originating in Kenya and still unique to East Africa (the SL28 being the best), but also to the organization of the farmers into small, craft-oriented, cooperative processing centers. These cooperatives are spread out so that one is always within walking distance of any farmer. Each day’s harvest is separately processed into small boutique lots of finished green coffee that are then sold individually at auction in Nairobi. Auctions are the answer to a quality seeker’s prayers; unblended lots of extraordinary quality can be found and purchased by relatively small but high-quality buyers willing to pay the price.
All quality coffees are washed, and then carefully sorted. The highest grade is AA, which consists of large, high-density beans, followed by AB, slightly smaller beans. The grade AA is no guarantee of quality; an AA coffee can vary from mediocre to spectacular. AB can also be of very high quality, but, in my experience, never attains the heights an AA can.