The history of coffee in Ethiopia

Legend of the origin of coffee

Kaldi presented the berries to the head monk and added his description of their miraculous effect. "The work of the devil!" exclaimed the monk, throwing the berries into the fire. Within minutes, the monastery was filled with the smell of roasting beans and the other monks gathered to investigate. The beans were removed from the fire and crushed to put out the embers. The head monk ordered that the grains be placed in the forest and covered with hot water to preserve their goodness. That night the monks sat down and drank theabundant fragrant broth, vowing to drink itevery day to keep themselves awake during their long night prayers.

The use of coffee even before the classic drink

While this popular story shows religious approval for drinking roasted coffee berries, there is also speculation that Ethiopian monks have been chewing the berries as a stimulant for centuries before brewing them. Ethiopian records show that Ethiopian and Sudanese traders travelling to Yemen 600 years ago chewed the berries on the way to their destination to survive the harsh, difficult journey. The Kaffa people and other ethnic groups such as the Oromo were also familiar with coffee. They mixed ground coffee with butter and consumed it for sustenance. This practice of mixing ground coffee beans with ghee (clarified butter) to obtain a distinctive buttery flavour persists today in parts of Kaffa and Sidamo, two of the main staged coffee producing areas.

The first written references

Brewed coffee, a dry, roasted, ground soft drink is referred to as Bunna (in Amharic), Bun (in Tigrigna), Buna (in Oromiya), Bono (in Kefficho) and Kaffa (in Guragigna). Arabic scientific documents dating from around 900 AD refer to a drunken drink in Ethiopia known as "buna." This is one of the earliest references to Ethiopian coffee in its brewed form. It is recorded that in 1454, the Mufti of Aden visited Ethiopia and saw them drinking their own homemade drink. They were much impressed by the drink, which cured them of their suffering. On their approval, they made coffee popular among the dervishes of Yemen, who used it in religious ceremonies, and subsequently introduced it in the city of Mecca.

The world's first coffee houses

Thetransformation of coffee as a popular social drink took place in Mecca with the establishment of the first cafés. Known as Kaveh Kanes, these cafes were originally religious meeting places, but soon became social gathering places for gossip, singing and storytelling. With the spread of coffee as a popular beverage, it soon became the subject of intense debate among devout Muslims.

The life of coffee in Mecca

The Arabic word for coffee, "kahwah", is also one of several words for wine. In the process of stripping the cherry skin, the flesh of the cherry was fermented to create a potent liquor. Some have argued that the Qur'an forbids the use of wine or intoxicating drinks, but other Muslims have argued in favor of coffee that it is not an intoxicant but a stimulant. The dispute over coffee came to the fore in 1511 in Mecca. The governor of Mecca, Beg, saw some people drinking coffee in the mosque as they prepared for the night prayer vigil. He furiously expelled them from the mosque and ordered all coffee shops to be closed. A heated debate ensued, with coffee being denounced as an unhealthy mixture, by two erratic Persian doctors, the Hakimani brothers, who wanted coffee banned because melancholic patients who would otherwise have paid doctors to treat them were using coffee as a popular remedy. The Mufti of Mecca advocated coffee. The matter was finally settled when the Sultan of Cairo intervened and rebuked Khair Beg for banning coffee, which was greatly enjoyed in Cairo, without consulting him. In 1512, when Khair Beg was accused of embezzlement, the Sultan had him killed. Coffee survived in Mecca.

Islamic cafes a meeting place

The image of the coffee houses as places of iniquity and frivolity by religious fanatics has been exaggerated... In fact, the Muslim world was the forerunner of the European Café Society and the coffee houses in London that became the famous London clubs. They were meeting places for intellectuals where information and gossip were exchanged and clients were regularly entertained with traditional stories.

Wandering coffee

From the Arabian Peninsula, coffee travelled east. Muslim traders and travellers introduced coffee to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in 1505. The fertile coffee beans, berries with intact skins, were brought to southwest India by Baba Budan on his return from a pilgrimage to Mecca in the 17th century.

The journey of coffee

In 1517, coffee arrived in Constantinople after the conquest of Egypt by Salim I, and in 1530 it was introduced in Damascus. Coffee houses were opened in Constantinople in 1554 and their arrival caused religiously inspired riots that caused them to be temporarily closed. However, they survived criticism and their luxurious interiors became a regular meeting place for those engaged in radical political thought and dissent.

Coffee for the first time in Europe

Venetian merchants introduced coffee to Europe in 1615, a few years after tea, which appeared in 1610. Its introduction again caused controversy in Italy when some clerics, in the manner of the mullahs of Mecca, suggested that it should be banned because it was a devilish drink. Fortunately, Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) enjoyed the drink so much that he declared "coffee should be baptized to make it a true Christian drink". The first café opened in Venice in 1683. The famous Florian café in Piazza San Marco, founded in 1720, is the oldest surviving café in Europe. During the 17th and 18th centuries, cafés proliferated in Europe. Nothing like cafés had ever existed before. It was a new place to enjoy a relatively cheap and stimulating drink in convivial company with a good lifestyle. This created a social custom that has endured for over 400 years.

The first coffee house in England - Oxford

In 1650, the first coffee house in England was opened in Oxford, not London, by a man called Jacob. A coffee club set up near the whole of Souls' College eventually became the Royal Society. The first coffee house in London, in St. Michael's Alley, opened in 1652. The most famous name in the world of insurance, Lloyds of London, began life as a coffee house in Tower Street. It was founded in 1688 by Edward Lloyd, who prepared lists of ships that his clients insured. Due to the rapid rise in popularity of coffee houses in the 17th century, European powers competed with each other to establish coffee plantations in their respective colonies. In 1616, the Dutch gained the upper hand by taking the coffee plant from Mocha in Yemen to the Netherlands, and in 1658 they began large-scale cultivation in Sri Lanka. In 1699, cuttings were successfully transferred from Malabar to Java. In 1706, samples of coffee plants from Java were sent to Amsterdam. Seedlings were grown in botanical gardens and distributed to gardeners throughout Europe.

Coffee travelled around the world

A few years later, in 1718, Dutch coffee was transplanted to Suriname and soon after, the plant in South America became highly prosperous and South America was to become the coffee centre of the world. In 1878, the story of coffee's journey around the world came full circle when the British laid the foundations of the Kenyan coffee industry by introducing the coffee plant to British East Africa, right next door to neighbouring Ethiopia, where coffee had first been discovered 1,000 years earlier.

Coffea Arabica

Today, Ethiopia is Africa's main exporter of Kaffa and Sidamo beans, now known as Arabica, the world's finest coffee and a variety native to Ethiopia. Coffea Arabica, which was identified by the botanist Linnaeus in 1753, is one of the two main species used in most production and currently accounts for about 70 percent of the world's coffee.

Coffea Canefora

Another important species is Coffea Canefora, or Robusta, whose production is now increasing due to better yields from Robusta coffee plants and their resistance to mortality. Robusta is most commonly used in blends, but Arabica is the only coffee that is drunk on its own and not blended. It is the type grown and drunk in Ethiopia. Arabica and Robusta coffee trees produce crops within 3-4 years after planting and remain productive for 20-30 years. Arabica coffee plants thrive ideally in a seasonal climate with a temperature range of 15-24°C, while Robusta prefers an equatorial climate.

Growing conditions

In the Kaffa province of Ethiopia, the majority of Arabica coffee trees grow amidst rolling hills and forests in a fertile and beautiful area. At an altitude of 1 500 metres, the climate is ideal and the plants are well protected by larger forest trees which provide shade from the midday sun and conserve moisture in the soil. Traditionally, these are ideal conditions for growing coffee. There are two main processing methods: wet and dry. Commercially, the wet method is preferred, but a small producer who harvests cherries freely can save time after harvest by drying the beans in the sun and selling them directly to customers in the local market.

The diversity of Ethiopian coffees

Ethiopia's distinctive coffee varieties are in high demand. Each region's coffee tastes slightly different, depending on growing conditions. The most highly cultivated coffee comes from Harar, where the most popular variety is Longberry, which has a wine-like taste and a slightly sour flavour. Coffee from Sidama in the south has an unusual taste and is very popular, especially the beans known as Yirgacheffes. Ethiopian coffee is unique and does not have the excessive pungency or acidity of Kenyan brands. Mocca (the English version is Mocha) coffee of Yemen is the closest to Ethiopian coffee, as it shares a common origin with Kaffa and Sidamo beans. Ethiopian coffee is one of the best coffees in the world. Connoisseurs around the world enjoy the beans from Yirgacheffe for their distinctive flavour.


Harar coffee grows in the eastern highlands. The beans are medium in size, greenish-yellow in colour. It has medium acidity, full body and a distinctive mocha flavour. It is one of the most premium coffees in the world.


Wollega (Nekempte) coffee grows in western Ethiopia and the medium to bold beans are known for their fruity flavour. It has a greenish, brownish color, with good acidity and body. There are many roasters who have added this flavor to their blends, but it can also be sold as an original gourmet flavor or as a choice coffee.


Limu coffee is known for its spicy taste and attracts many roasters. It has good acidity and body and washed Limu is one of the premium coffees. It has medium sized beans, is greenish blue in colour and mostly round in shape.


Sidama coffee has medium sized beans and is greenish grey in colour. Sidamo washed coffee, known for its balanced and good taste, is called sweet coffee. It has a mild acidity and good body and is produced in the southern part of the country. It is always blended for gourmet or specialty coffee.


Yirgacheffe coffee has an intense taste of flowers. Washed Yirgacheffe is one of the best coffees in the Highlands. It has a mild acidity and rich body. Roasters are attracted to its subtle flavours and are willing to pay a premium for it.

Lastly, there are other coffees, such as Tepi and Bebeka, which are known for their low acidity but better body.

Ethiopian coffee ceremony

No visit to Ethiopia is complete without an elaborate coffee ceremony, which is a traditional Ethiopian form of hospitality. The coffee ceremony is an integral part of social life. The ceremony is usually led by a young woman in a traditional Ethiopian white dress with colorful woven borders. The process begins with the arrangement of the ceremonial apparatus on a bed of long fragrant grasses. The lady pulls out the washed green coffee beans, proceeds to roast them in a flat pan over coals and shakes the pan back and forth so the beans don't burn. As the beans begin to emerge, the rich aroma of coffee mingles with the heady smell of incense, which is always burned during the ceremony. To further enrich this sensory experience, after the coffee beans have blackened the aromatic oil has been drawn from them, the lady takes the roasted coffee and walks around the room, allowing the aroma of freshly roasted coffee to fill the air. She returns to her seat to crush the beans and grinds the coffee with a mortar . The ground coffee is then brewed in a black pot with a narrow spout, known as a jebena, which fills the room with aroma.


The brewed coffee is passed through a fine sieve several times before being served to family, friends and neighbours who have been waiting and watching the process. The lady gracefully and expertly pours the golden stream of coffee into small cups called "cini" (si-ni) from a height of a foot or more without spilling the drink. The coffee is served with plenty of sugar, accompanied by traditional snacks such as popcorn, peanuts or boiled barley. It is possible to wait for a second and third cup of coffee. The second and third servings are so important that each serving has a name; the first serving is called "Abol"; the second serving is "Huletegna" (second) and the third serving is "Bereka". The coffee is not ground for the second and third servings; some of the ground coffee is usually saved for these two occasions.

The importance of coffee in Ethiopia

Coffee ceremonies are important social events. They create a time to discuss current issues and politics, which results in a transformation of the spirit as it nurtures and nourishes social relationships. An ancient proverb best describes the place of coffee in Ethiopian life, "Buna dabo naw", meaning "Coffee is our bread!"