Ethiopia: Birthplace of Coffee

Posted on March 17, 2018

Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and coffee one of my favorite things in life, and I’d expected options to get caffeinated here would be exciting, yet the coffee is not making me happy. My hotels all offer scorched and at the same time weak tasting brews, each morning I steele myself for this less than satisfying way to begin the day. I assumed I’d encounter a café culture of the sort found most places in this globalized world, but this is absent, except for a few local copycat editions of international chains offering bland coffee at high prices.


The way locals drink coffee is in a coffee ceremony, I’d not have thought an operation that can be witnessed in multiple locations on any given street would have a name as lofty as ceremony, but that’s the word used. I’ve attended many of these in the company of local friends. Low stools, just inches above the ground are the only seating option and as the ceremony takes some time, it’s been to my advantage I’ve had friends to talk to during the process. Invariably a woman (pals tell me that their mothers or sisters make the coffee at home, this is not a man’s job), roasts the coffee beans in a skillet over a coal fire, this takes some minutes, during the process a cloud of aroma forms, upon completion the skillet is brought to our noses to more fully absorb the aroma. Next the beans are pounded into a powder, mixed with water in a pot, usually ceramic, and placed above the same coals that roasted the beans. Traditionally spices or salt (or nothing), but not sugar is added. With friends who know that I prefer sugar, they’ll request this for me. The resulting brew, which amounts to a bit more than an espresso sized shot, is poured into small ceramic cups. The taste is much like an espresso or even more like Turkish coffee, with some sediment remaining at the bottom of the pot. Traditionally 3 cups are drunk, though my friends I note stop at one or two.


The verdict: I am not in love with Ethiopian coffee. It’s strong, it’s even good, but I’d like more of it, more sugar, some milk and a chair that does nothing to strain by lower back. And a pastry would be an additional fine touch. Coffee in its birthplace a bit too rudimentary for my palate, I need some bells with my coffee experience. The best coffee I’ve had all week (and it was superb) is from an espresso machine in the Ethiopian Airlines Lounge at the airport.


Still I am mightily impressed with Ethiopia and thankful for its gift of coffee to the world. The story of the coffee origins is probably apocryphal, but the oft repeated tale is of an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi, way back in the ninth century who observed his goats all hopped up with energy after consuming the red bean like fruit of a local shrub, so he ate some of the berries to see what the big deal was.  It perked him up as well, and he took the beans to the monastery thinking the monks might be interested. They were tasted, their stimulating effects decried, and then tossed into the fire to destroy them, but the resulting aroma so appealing the monks thought to give them a second chance, and then placed them in water, as they would tea. Voila, coffee is born. It seems entirely too neat and cute a story, though in different variations is oft repeated account. But the indisputable fact is that coffee is native to the highlands of Ethiopia and is undeniably Ethiopia’s gift to the world.