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Discovering coffee in Ethiopia

Jenny Williams
27 August 2013
Blog team: 

Jenny Williams, steadfast tea-drinker, takes you along on her journey of discovery into the heart of Ethiopia and the home of coffee.

Coffee newbie

Ethiopia is the ‘home’ or ‘evolutionary birth place’ of coffee and I was lucky enough to go there in March as part of a Kew Herbarium expedition to map wild coffee. The irony is that I am a ‘tea-only girl’. Whereas most people know whether they like coffee and what kind of coffee they prefer, I set off to the home of coffee a coffee newbie - but determined to find out more about the ‘good stuff’.

The team thought a little preliminary research was in order and so, before leaving for Ethiopia, we went for a barista session at Union Roast in London. Here we discovered that just a gram of ground coffee can dramatically change the taste of a cup. A mere 15g was the unanimous vote for a medium roast in this instance, and the black coffee was actually very smooth and drinkable, a totally new experience for me. 

Photo of Jenny Williams at Coffee Union

Jenny Williams tasting coffee at Union Roast, London

Mapping Ethiopia

Three members of the Kew Herbarium team were fortunate enough to visit Ethiopia on the Coffee Discovery Expedition. I was the resident ‘mapping’ person on the trip, and let’s just say we covered a lot of ground; as you can see from the map below.

Map of the coffee expedition

Map of the team's route through Ethiopia

The research undertaken on this expedition is best summarised in the excellent film “Kew Gardens - Beyond the Gardens - The Forgotten Home of Coffee“ (see the bottom of this page). The film is showing in the Princess of Wales Conservatory for the duration of the IncrEdibles festival at Kew Gardens until November 2013. 

The home of coffee

In Ethiopia things were a little more raw, compared to our coffee tasting session in London. There can be a whole ceremony attached to roasting (pan over coals), grinding (wood pole in a wood hole) and brewing (special round closed coffee pot).

Photo of coffee beans being roasted

Roasting coffee beans

We just had to try at least a cup in every village we stopped at, and as they were small cups, sometimes more than one. Of course we wanted to determine whether we could taste the difference in the bean due to geographic variations such as soil, rainfall, which side of the rift valley we were, etc. 

Photo of coffee being poured

Pouring coffee in Ethiopia

The coffee beans in general were really darkly roasted so had quite a strong initial flavour. In some instances steamed milk (to create a macchiato), or sugar improved the taste, but surprisingly this wasn’t always the case. I found it quite hard to tell the difference between the coffees, but the ones I enjoyed were crisp and smooth, and those I wasn’t so keen on tasted citrus and spicy. The latter happened to be the more habitual coffee drinkers' favourite, so it is really just a matter of taste.  

Photo of a cup of coffee

Cup of coffee in Ethiopia

 My coffee low-down by region

  • Jimma – the coffee there is referred to as Limu. My personal favourite: very smooth and a daily drinker.
  • Yirga Cheffe – fruity, citrus. A bit too acidic for my liking, but I understand this is a real high-end coffee and can command very high prices. A specialty coffee for a weekend brew or occasional cuppa.
  • Dole Mena – we were informed that this might be salted! Thankfully in our case it wasn’t, but still that did little to endear it to me. This was the only cup that I couldn’t get through, not even with a lot of milk.
  • Harar – another famed coffee. I did enjoy this coffee, but only black. For some reason the taste was all wrong when milk was added.  

Photo of coffee being farmed

Coffee farming in Ethiopia

Coffee leaf, coffee husk and coffee bean

Photo of coffee leaves and husks in bowls

Coffee leaves and husks in bowls (Photo: Jenny Williams)

We had a unique taste session in Harar which involved not just the coffee but the leaves and husks too! My opinion:

  • leaf - much like green tea, but with immense and raved about detox properties
  • husk - difficult to describe, not really coffee not really tea, just like you have drunk husk water!
  • harar coffee - rich, crisp, citrus coffee

Washed and unwashed

For unwashed coffee, the coffee bean is left inside the cherry when it is dried so the sugars from the cherry are absorbed by the bean. This is quite unique in processing, and the coffee flavours are apparently a lot more citrusy and spicy. My palate is not developed enough to appreciate the ‘complex notes’, but I understand that unwashed is considered some of the best coffee out there.  

Photo of coffee cupping

Coffee being cupped

Coffee Cupping

Coffee cupping refers to the official tasting and grading of ground coffee. The coffee was roasted (medium), ground, weighed (coming in at 13.5g), and the fragrance smelled. It was then poured into 5 cups with 250ml water added (see photo above). Then, the coffee foam crust was broken 3 times and the aroma smelled. A deep spoon of each is slurped and spat out (but in our case we drank it!). Of 5 cups with seemingly the same ingredients and measurements, there was definitely one cup that I preferred. Such a taste science, I loved it.  

Photo of coffee transported by donkey

Coffee being transported by donkey

Ethiopia: What a fantastic education on the culture and life of the coffee bean, the home of coffee, and the way of life of coffee farmers. In summary, I started a non-coffee drinker and now feel like a slightly educated, non-generic-coffee drinking coffee snob (to the point of annoyance) - sharing my new but limited knowledge with all the coffee drinkers out there!

Tips and titbits

  • Apparently you’re supposed to keep ground coffee in a dry airtight container for a fresher taste
  • Instant coffee is often a mix of both Coffea arabica and C. robusta
  • Experiment with different amounts of ground coffee to find your favourite cup
  • Fragrance refers to a dry component (ground coffee), aroma is the liquid based scent (brewed coffee).
  • Wild coffee in Ethiopia is sustainable and ecologically sound, as a good forest canopy protects the coffee and maintains biodiversity

Read more about our adventures on Storify.

- Jenny - 

Watch a video - "The Forgotten Home of Coffee"

Did you know that Arabica coffee originally came from Ethiopia? A study conducted by scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in collaboration with scientists in Ethiopia, reports that climate change alone could lead to the extinction of wild Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) well before the end of this century.



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7 November 2013
Hi Tim, Yours wasn't the first comment about the 'freezing' of coffee, apparently air-tight is the way to go! Blog has been updated so that I don't lead anyone else astray. Cheers.
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30 August 2013
Hey Jenny, Great article. I've shared it with my networks. Wanted to make one comment, though: freezers typically will dry out coffee (they such out the moisture while freezing). And ground coffee, in generally, goes bad pretty quickly. Think about it, the moment you grind you smell a fresher coffee smell, right? That's tiny bits of coffee floating into your nose, and over time more and more of those tiny bits are lost to the air. I only buy enough coffee to keep in my house for at the most 3 weeks. Any older than that and it starts to lose a ton of flavor. Buy buying only what I'll drink that month, I know I always have a fresh cup of coffee waiting for me in the morning. It's an oft-misunderstood thing to think we can keep coffee "fresher". It's produce, just like any other food out there, and so it won't last long on the shelves.

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