The Battle of Ethiopia

I had planned on pulling together a big long piece about the differences between the types, but oddly, there’s very little information out there that doesn’t originate from a coffee-selling site. If I had more time, I’d even pull together what I’ve got and replace the stub on Wikipedia under the Ethiopian coffee section.

So here are the basics – coffee was first grown in Ethiopia, discovered by a goatherder named Kaldi. While coffee is now grown in a variety of other regions, many of the beans from Ethiopia are still considered the best in the world.

Like wine and chocolate, the flavour of the coffee beans can vary greatly from region to region, and even farm to farm, depending on a variety of growing conditions. Personally, I prefer Ethiopian beans because you can roast them really dark and the flavours really pop. Some people find they taste like dirt, and they can be very earthy.

The three beans I tried were Yirgacheffe, Sidamo and Djimmeh.

The Yirgacheffe is considered to be one of the best-flavoured coffees in the world. It is grown in the region of Sidamo, and can be considered a Sidamo bean, although Yirgacheffe beans come from a separate sub-region. In terms of coffee characteristics, the Yirgacheffe is actually quite distinctive from its neighbour.

While both beans roast similarly, with an even roast (no stray unroasted green beans or individual burnt ones) and average chaff, that’s where the similarities end. The Yirgacheffe smells round and full, with an undertone of milk chocolate, and a cedary aroma while roasting. The Sidamo is more mellow – the cedar tone is there during roasting, but the Sidamo smells the most “coffee-like” of any of the beans I roast – what I mean by that is, there are no undertones or notes of anything else like chocolate, berries or spice.

Flavourwise, the Yirgacheffe has almost a citrus note, with a touch of caramel. I found the Sidamo to be underwhelming at almost every roast I did – not bad, mind you, just not as exciting as the other beans. Other tasters get a lot of berry notes from their Sidamo, but a lot depends on the specific beans and the drying process.

Left out of the Ethiopian coffee accolades is the Djimmeh, which is harvested in the south-west part of the country. Djimmeh beans are uneven in size and roast unevenly. This earns them a Grade of 5 (most coffees that make it to market are a 1 or a 2), which is why they’re not often found for sale as beans, either green or roasted.

In a home roaster, the Djimmeh beans range from some burnt dark to something past a Turkish roast, while others remain green. They give off a lot more chaff or husks than the other varieties. While roasting, the smell is bright and greenish. Given these characteristics, it’s easy to see why most of the customers at the Merchants of Green Coffee, where I get my beans, dislike them so.

More for me, I say, as I like the Djimmeh beans quite a bit. They require a careful eye while roasting, often taking up to 10 minutes where other beans are done in 5 or 7 minutes. But the flavour is bright and almost crisp, with undertones of fruit and caramel and just the slightest hint of chocolate.

My stash of Ethiopian beans almost done, I’m off to South America now where the flavours are lighter and creamier. I tend to drink my South American coffee with a spoonful of Ghiradelli hot chocolate powder and a touch of vanilla soy milk, a very different coffee experience from the dark exotic flavours of Africa.