A cup of coffee is not just a welcome pick-me-up — there’s a whole culture based around the bean that plays a huge part in many people’s lives. This Shanghai Daily column offers an introduction to coffee culture: from bean varieties to famous producing areas; from brewing to tasting to terminology; from the drink’s history to up-to-the-moment city cafe choices. So make yourself a cup, relax and read on.
COFFEE novices may be surprised to learn that Ethiopia is the largest coffee producer in Africa and the fifth largest in the world.
But they shouldn’t be too surprised as it is traditionally believed that drinking coffee originates from this country in the Horn of Africa, and there are numerous stories explaining these origins.
The best-known one is the story of a legendary goat herder named Kaldi who noticed that his goats would bound around energetically after eating the bright red berries of a dark- green leafed bush growing nearby.
Kaldi’s wife suggested he take some berries to monks in a nearby monastery.
The monks, however, worried that these berries had been created by the devil, threw them in the fire.
The berries emitted a delicious aroma while burning and afterward the monks then put embers into water and drank the brew, hoping to preserve the mysterious powers.
The beans came from the coffee arabica shrub and this is how coffee was first made. Well, at least according to legend.
Main growing regions
Ethiopian has a long-established history of coffee growing and its coffee is regarded as among the world’s finest, thanks to its perfect combination of the perfect altitude, rich black soil, high temperatures and sufficient rainfall.
Almost all coffee beans produced in Ethiopia are still picked and processed by hand.
There are three major growing regions in Ethiopia: Harrar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffe, which are also the best-known Ethiopian coffee names on the market. You can spot these names in the hand-drip coffee menu of many cafes nowadays.
In the eastern highlands of Ethiopia, Harrar is renowned for its distinctive fruity flavored coffee beans, reminiscent of dry red wine.
As it is one of the oldest coffee bean varieties still produced, it remains using the traditional dry process — also known as natural process. Entire coffee cherries are first cleaned and allowed to dry in the open air for 4 to 6 weeks after harvest, with sorting and processing done almost entirely by hand.
As a result, Harrar coffee usually has a full-bodied taste with medium acidity.
Grown in the highlands of Sidamo Province, Sidamo coffee has a complex sweet taste with a floral aroma and a bright but soft finish. Hints of spice, wine and chocolate are also noticeable.
Unlike Harar, Sidamo is available in both dry and wet processed versions. If you prefer a fuller and stronger flavor, go for the dry-processed beans.
The name Yirgacheffe has become more popular in recent years. Yirgacheffe is a town in Sidamo Province and its coffee beans are famed for their light-bodied smooth flavor and flora tones with hints of chocolate, nuts and citrus.
Yirgacheffee coffee beans are usually wet-processed beans. Usually, they are first washed and then soaked in tanks of water for fermentation for up to 72 hours. When brewing, the coffee often gives out an intense floral aroma.
Occasionally, if you’re lucky, you can also find dry-processed Yirgacheffe — which is more labor intensive to produce — on the market.
Ethiopian coffee traditions
As you might expect, coffee is an essential part of everyday life in Ethiopia.
If you happen to visit the birthplace of coffee, taking part in a local coffee ceremony can be a fun experience. The ceremony consists of three parts; roasting the coffee beans, brewing the coffee and serving. The local preference is for coffee drunk with lots of sugar or salt, but no milk.
The youngest child will first serve the oldest adult present as a mark of respect and as a connection between all generations.
As a guest, remember to drink at least three cups, as the third round is for a blessing.
If you don’t, it will be viewed as a minor insult. The ceremony is very common in small villages and can be performed up to three times a day!
In big cities in Ethiopia, it’s still a popular social event, though not performed so often.
Next time I’m ordering coffee, I will definitely try a hand-dripped Ethiopian coffee with a liberal amount of salt, as I am really curious about the taste. Why not try a cup of Ethiopian coffee and have a taste adventure yourself?
Let’s build up our own glossary of terms and dive into the world of coffee!
Arabica vs Robusta
There are two major coffee plants grown widely around the world: arabica (Coffea arabica) and robusta (Coffea canephora). Other species include Coffea fadenii, Coffea liberica, Coffea mongensis.
More than 70 percent of all coffee beans grown worldwide are arabica. Arabica plants grow better in higher altitudes and mountainous tropical forests. They require the shade provided by large trees. Most premium coffee beans are arabica as they are more flavorful than robusta.
Robusta plants are easier to grow than arabica as they are more tolerant of climate and soil conditions. Most instant coffee is robusta, due to its low market price and because it has twice as much as caffeine as arabica.
Dry processing vs Wet processing
Generally speaking, different processes will add different flavor profiles to coffee beans. The dry process is also known as the natural process, while wet-processed beans are usually referred to as washed beans.
Fresh-picked coffee cherries are spread out on a floor or open area to dry in the sun for several weeks. Drying machines are also used these days. Cherries are turned regularly. Dried cherries are moved to a warehouse for storage.
The skin and pulp is removed from the coffee cherries in a pulping machine. The pulp is washed away with water. The beans are separated by weight — the lighter beans float to the top while the heavier, ripe beans sink. Beans are separated by size in a series of rotating drums.
They are transferred to fermentation water tanks and soaked for a certain time, based on the condition of the beans, climate and the altitude.
The beans are then rinsed. They are dried in the sun or in a drying machine.
Here are some coffee shops in town that serve Ethiopian coffee.