ethiopia is simultaneously one of the most interesting and most misunderstood coffee origins in the world. On one hand, it is presented as mysterious and magical, while on the other hand, it is thought of as daunting and confusing. This juxtaposition exists for good reason: the coffee industry in Ethiopia is really complex. Taking into account the platform and logistics of purchasing, the very basics of processing, and the varieties of the coffee trees, Ethiopia in our opinion is the most complex coffee origin.
Due to this complexity—coupled with the fact that Ethiopian coffees are some of our best and most intricate coffees—we’ve spent the last two years investing more time and energy sourcing and researching coffee in Ethiopia than any other origin. We even have a full-time supply chain manager, Getu Bekele, based in Addis Ababa who has worked with producers to improve communication and help us source the best coffees possible. Because of Getu’s background as a coffee breeder and plant researcher in Ethiopia, we could think of no better person to help us try to unravel and bring clarity to the botanical varieties of the coffee plants found around Ethiopia.
|Area||426,400 sq mi|
the Ethiopian Variety Diagram below is a visual representation of the research that Getu Bekele and Timothy Hill our head of Sourcing and Quality have documented and written over the last year.
- varieties materials -
for more than two years, Counter Culture has been researching the history and origins of the coffees from Ethiopia—all in an effort to better understand the potential of “the birthplace of coffee.” This exploration led us to create a collection of resources that aim to bridge the knowledge gap about Ethiopian coffee varieties. We hope that our varieties reference guide, coffee varieties poster, and map of Ethiopia lead to a fuller appreciation for the delicious coffees from this often-misunderstood origin.
A Reference Guide to Ethiopian Coffee Varieties
Counter Culture Ethiopian Coffee Varieties Map
Counter Culture Yirgacheffe Map
The short answer is "yes." The long answer is "yes," but more nuanced.
When we talk about coffee, we're typically referring to the two main species that are growing in the world: coffea canephora and coffea arabica. Coffea arabica is the species of coffee that makes up the majority of all of the coffee grown in the world. The belief that coffea arabica originated in the southwestern forests of Ethiopia itself is actually fairly new. Originally, coffea arabica was named as such because early scientists believed coffee originated from the Arabian Peninsula. That idea shifted a little over a century ago, and recent genetic testing confirmed that the genetic diversity found in the southwestern forests of Ethiopia mean that coffea arabica likely originated there.
While coffea cenaphora and coffea arabica are the two major species grown commercially, there are more than a hundred other species of coffea found in other countries, many of which are in early stages of research. Wild coffee trees can also be found in southern Sudan and in southern Ethiopian forests. (Kenya also has "wild" coffee growing in the Marsabit forest, but that may be more recently introduced coffee instead of being indigenous.)
The Jimma Agricultural Research Center (JARC) and the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute collected seeds from 7,458 trees and 5,196 trees, respectively, between 1967 and 2009. These 12,654 accessions were pulled from different parts of Ethiopia and catalogued. Many of the accessions are being grown on experimental plots in Ethiopia today for the purposes of conservation, characterization, and improvement for traits like drought tolerance, yield, disease resistance, and quality.
While many of these catalogued accessions might be morphologically distinct, what's not known is how genetically diverse all of them are. (Some published research has shown a fair amount of diversity, but that is only on a few hundred selections, not the 12,654.) While the average coffee farm in Ethiopia is probably more genetically diverse than most other farms in the world, it's not likely that every coffee coming out of Ethiopia has broad genetic diversity behind it.
To answer the question, we know that there are a lot of varieties in Ethiopia, we just don't know the exact number.
There are four main kinds of coffee-production systems in the country: forest or wild coffee, semi-forest, estate, and garden.
Forest coffee: In this coffee-production system used in Ethiopia, coffee trees grow wild in the forest without any human intervention. Farmers in the local community are only allowed to collect red coffee cherries from trees and are prohibited from altering the forest, or introducing new varieties—this is also known as wild coffee. Wild or forest coffee is said to make up about five percent of the coffee in the country, generally in the areas of Illuababora (Yayu), Gera, Bonga, and Tepi. It is also believed that only a small fraction of the coffee marketed as forest coffee is true forest coffee, and that much of what is marketed is better classified as semi-forest, which is the second type of coffee.
While the level of coffee genetic diversity in forest coffee-production systems is assumed to be very high, it's not known how many distinct varieties there are. This is an exciting prospect, where a whole new world of coffee flavors and types could be waiting to be discovered.
Semi-forest coffee: Semi-forest coffees are when farmers have gone in and taken out underbrush and shrubs and thinned the overhead canopy of the forest to plant coffee. Farmers under this system can take out and bring in varieties to the forest. A good percentage of Ethiopian coffee is grown in this system, and it is most popular in the southwestern areas of the country. Under this system, the varietal makeup can vary greatly. There are farmers who have chosen a few varieties from the forest to propagate while others have chosen varieties selected only by research institutions; farmers in semi-forests can have one variety or hundreds.
In general, farmers are strategic about what they are growing. They look at the trees and how they perform and make informed selections. The heaviest seed distribution of selected varieties by research institutions was in the southwest regions, and those seeds have been distributed there for 40 years. This means that the variety makeup in these semi-forested farms may have a high percentage of research-selected varieties—and not just varieties that were wild and taken directly from the forest around them.
Estate coffee: Estates are generally medium to large farms owned by one or more investors. These make up an estimated ten percent of the coffee in Ethiopia. Some estates, however, can be very large with hundreds or even thousands of hectares. In terms of coffee-variety composition, the medium-size estates may be growing a single improved selection or have many regional landrace varieties. Many of the largest farms are concentrated in the southwestern part of the country, and generally only use improved coffee varieties from the JARC. These farms also tend to depend heavily on inorganic inputs for high yields from the improved coffee varieties.
Garden coffee: Coffee that is grown on very small lots around or close to the grower's home is considered garden coffee. The vast majority of these growers have just a few hundred trees and less than a hectare of land, but there are a few larger growers in this category as well. Garden coffee makes up the largest category of coffee in Ethiopia—estimated at around 50 percent of total production. Coffee grown in this manner is especially common in the south, but is also found in the eastern and western parts of the country in Yirgacheffe, Sidama, Guji, Hararghe, and Wellega.
The varieties from these growers is somewhat similar to that of semi-forest growers. Some of these garden plots have trees that were selected from the forest around them and passed down over decades, while others have updated to varieties promoted and distributed by research institutions. These garden plots can have dozens of varieties or just a handful. We have also found in some cases—particularly in southern Ethiopia—that garden producers are renaming and reclassifying their varieties by morphology and that the percentage of improved varieties being grown is much higher than often given credit for.
The term “heirloom” can be ambiguous and mean different things to different people—especially when talking about plants. Most commonly, the term "heirloom" refers to seeds passed down from generation to generation, or farm to farm. Under that rough definition, Ethiopia has the most "heirloom" coffee varieties in the world. However, these handed-down generational varieties make up only some of the varieties being grown by farmers today. A large percentage of the coffee varieties found throughout Ethiopia come from varieties that were carefully selected by researchers and grown for just a single generation.
While the word heirloom has been used to describe Ethiopian coffee for years, we don't believe that the term fully captures the complexity of Ethiopian coffee. We believe that the term is often times more confusing than concise.
While it is not entirely wrong to use the term, we feel that it doesn't give enough credit to the work that researchers have been doing in Ethiopia on varieties for over 40 years, and doesn't give recognition to the many improvements they have made to the varieties being grown. While names like “variety 74110” might not sound as romantic as “heirloom,” using the exact number and specific name for varieties is the first step in giving them the credit they deserve.
Yes, since 1998, Ethiopia has grown hybrids. The first hybrid types were arabica crossed with trees that have robusta genes, also known as an interspecific hybrid. Catimor J-19 and Catimor J-21 are the two varieties that resulted from this crossing.
The second type of hybrid is arabica crossed with another type of arabica, also called an intraspecific hybrid. The varieties Ababuna, Melko-CH2, and Gawe are three examples in Ethiopia of this hybrid group. Generally speaking, these hybrids are found on larger commercial estates in Ethiopia and are usually recommended for lower elevations. In 2016, the JARC approved the release of three drought-tolerant hybrids for mid- and lowland coffee growing areas in southwestern Ethiopia. The full description of these varieties will be published by JARC researchers soon..
Yes and no. While many growers do not know the exact name or types of varieties on their farms, we have found that farmers often know more than they are given credit for. On very-small-scale farms, producers often talk about their coffee trees in morphology categories and, in our experience, are doing a sort of re-classification. For instance, in Gedeo, most of the farmers we have interacted with know the difference in what they call Wolisho and Kurume, which refer to plant traits, but these seem to be a broader group of varieties—not a single one.
However, many of the nurseries found at cooperatives know exactly what they are growing and distributing to growers. We have also been very surprised by some small scale farmers who know exactly what they are growing and can rattle off numbers and names of varieties off the top of their head. In the west we have seen a farm that is growing only one variety, and we have talked to a farmer who grows 50 percent research-selected varieties and 50 percent varieties selected from the forest.
Yes. While it could be argued that all arabica coffee is Ethiopian, there are specific varieties that come from selections made in the last hundred years that have been distributed to farms around the world. Below are some of the most well-known varieties from Ethiopia found in other countries.
Gesha is the most famous variety to come out of Ethiopia by far. What a lot of people don't know is that the country of Malawi also has a variety that is descendent from Gesha that seems to be unique compared to the Gesha found in Panama. USDA or more specifically USDA 230762 is a variety found in Indonesia that was collected by JBH Lejeune in the mid 1900's.
Abyssinia / Java is a variety that was selected in 1928 by the famous researcher P.J.S. Cramer and is also found in Indonesia. This variety is a parent or has direct lineage to a variety called Java grown on some farms in Central America and Asia.
Harrar is named after a region in Ethiopia, and is a variety that was taken to Rwanda and is grown there.
The Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) is a trading platform where commodities like coffees are turned in for sale.
While cooperatives and estates have been able to sell coffees directly outside of the exchange, other farming systems like privately-owned washing stations, have had to use the exchange to sell their coffees. This often resulted in a lack of traceability of their coffees in the market. In 2017 and 2018, significant changes were made to the ECX that created an opportunity for more people to export traceable coffees from Ethiopia. This has been an exciting development, and hopefully will mean more interesting and better coffees in the future.
Counter Culture has consciously avoided coffees that weren't traceable in the exchange over the years because we questioned the models that they were being sold through. However, these new changes have led us to purchase coffee from private washing stations that we didn't have proper access to before.