Widely understood as the birthplace of arabica coffee, today Ethiopia is the world’s seventh-largest coffee producer, with approximately 400,000 hectares dedicated to its cultivation. A combination of diverse genetic varieties and natural growing conditions have given rise to some of the best coffees on the market.
While its impressive diversity makes it difficult to pin down, Ethiopian coffee can often be identified by its bright acidity, floral aroma, and citrus flavour notes. However, to unlock the distinct characteristics of Ethiopian coffee beans, specialty roasters must learn how to effectively roast them.
To find out about roasting Ethiopian coffee, I spoke with three-time South African Barista Champion and MTPak Coffee Ambassador, Ishan Natalie.
What Makes Ethiopian Coffee Special?
Every year, Ethiopia produces more than 200,000 metric tonnes of coffee, with the majority of production stemming from three regions: Harrar, Ghimbi, and Sidamo. Yirgacheffe, a town located in Sidamo, is known to produce some of the best coffees in the world.
With the exception of a few government-run estates, almost all Ethiopian coffee is grown on smallholder farms, generally in the shade, at high altitudes, and without the use of agricultural chemicals. This is in contrast to coffee grown elsewhere in the world, in which farmers often have to plant specific types of coffee and create the perfect conditions accordingly.
It’s estimated that there are between six and ten thousand coffee varieties in Ethiopia. However, a lack of genetic testing means that “heirloom” is often used as an umbrella term to describe a mix of these native varieties.
Although Ethiopia grows both arabica and robusta coffee, arabica is the species most commonly associated with the country’s specialty coffee. Depending on the region, arabica beans are processed by either washing or drying, which has a profound influence on the final flavour of the coffee.
Typically, natural-processed coffees from Ethiopia have deeper, sweeter, and more robust berry tones. Compared to the complex, bright berry notes of washed, they tend to have a delicate, perfume-like fragrance with refined floral and citrus notes.
Ishan Natalie is three-time National Barista Champion and has played a key role in establishing Starbucks in South Africa. He tells me that Ethiopian coffee naturally sets itself apart because its the birthplace of coffee.
“Unlike most other regions and origins, Ethiopian coffees have not had to evolve and adjust their genetics,” he says. “To me, their trees are the purest in the world.”
In 2016, Black Oak Coffee Roasters won two gold medals at the Golden Bean Competition – one of the largest roasting competitions in the world – with two Ethiopian coffees. Both came from Yirgacheffe, with flavour notes of peach, ripe berries, and vibrant tropical fruit.
How Should Ethiopian Coffee Be Roasted?
As is the case with coffee from other regions, there’s no uniform roast method for Ethiopian coffee; ultimately, the decision is based on the preferences of the roaster and their customers.
For example, some roasters may decide to increase the development of their coffee by lengthening the roast time to create espresso blends. On the other hand, those who want to create more subtle flavours with greater acidity will roast their coffee for a shorter time at lower temperatures. These are known as “filter roasts”.
However, when roasting Ethiopian coffee, there are a few important points to consider. Ethiopian coffees are grown at high altitudes, which typically produce a hard, dense bean. This is particularly true for coffee that’s undergone washed processing, which, according to roasting expert Scott Rao, means it requires more aggressive roasting.
This is in contrast to natural processed Ethiopian coffee, which burns more easily and therefore demands lower charge temperatures.
Ishan tells me that as well as density, coffee beans from Ethiopia are also some of the smallest in size, making it difficult to achieve uniformity across roasts.
“Ethiopian beans are naturally among the smallest in size, often with varying sizes in the same bag,” he says. “This makes it extremely tricky to find a consistent roast.”
For that reason, Ishan suggests starting with a fairly low charge temperature, and going into a more aggressive “first crack”, the stage of the roast in which the beans expand and release moisture.
“After the charge, first crack is the next most important stage to consider,” Ishan explains. “Due to the varying sizes of Ethiopian beans, first crack seems to trickle along as not every bean is able to expand at the same rate.”
Therefore, it’s important to manage the energy in the roaster during this phase to avoid muting the delicate but complex floral and citrus notes. Preferably, roasters should apply more energy during first crack, before pulling back or adjusting air flow.
According to an article on Sweet Maria’s Coffee Library, roasters should be aiming for “a nice, rolling vigorous crack”, and should set “a clear endpoint to the crack without too many stragglers”.
For flavour and aroma, roasters can increase development by lengthening the time of the roast. This extends the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction that occurs during a roast, which more than doubles the number of volatile aromatic compounds in coffee.
Generally, by lengthening this phase, roasters will be able to increase perception of body, while shortening this phase will help improve flavour clarity and produce a much lighter mouthfeel. It can also bring out a higher sweetness and complexity.
What’s The Best Method For Brewing Ethiopian Coffee?
Once a roaster has perfected the art of roasting Ethiopian coffee, they must make sure customers know how best to brew it.
Since coffees from Ethiopia tend to be light in body and brighter in acidity, filter brewing methods generally offer the best option for consumers.
Using an automatic dripper will produce a great cup, providing the coffee is roasted and ground fresh. The paper filter often gives a lot of clarity to the flavours of Ethiopian coffee, imparting it with the perfect amount of acidity and body.
However, brewing specialists Home Grounds recommend brewing Ethiopian coffee using a pour over method for maximum results. According to an article on their website, this allows for more control in the brewing process and slows down the brew enough to pull out the best flavours of the coffee.
For washed Ethiopian coffee, they suggest trying a V60, which, thanks to its thinner filter paper, helps showcase the syrupy body and bright, acidic fruit notes, while preventing over-extraction of bitter elements.
To ensure consumers make the most of their Ethiopian coffee, roasters might consider including brewing instructions on their packaging, in addition to the roast date, roast profile, and flavour notes. Not only will it help consumers get the best results from each brew, it will also increase the chance of them coming back for more.
Ethiopian coffee is widely recognised as some of the best in the world. It typically offers delicate, complex flavour notes with a pleasant bright acidity.
However, to bring out the best of Ethiopian coffees, specialty roasters must ensure they finesse their roasting technique, taking into account factors such as its high density and varied sized beans.
At MTPack Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable coffee packaging that will preserve the distinct characteristics of your Ethiopian coffee. With our fully customisable options, you can include information on everything, from its flavour notes to the people behind its production.