Our origins series delves into the history of one country (and coffee) at a time
Every bag of Blue Bottle coffee comes with a story. Written on a little card, you’ll find your coffee’s name, a few details about where it came from and who grew it, and the delightful flavors you’ll soon enjoy
We share these stories because we think the people who grow, select, process, ship, and make your coffee matter, and we share them because coffee is ultimately about people. It’s a history that’s so fascinating, complex, and influential that a few lines on a coffee card don’t even come close to encompassing it. With Jean-Luc Godard, who famously said, “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to,” we must humbly disagree: The roots of our coffee are as vital as their cherries.
We often hear how a single origin from Ethiopia converts the uninitiated to the world of specialty coffee. And no wonder: Ethiopia produces one-of-a-kind profiles that are the sum of place, heirloom cultivars, and processing method. Because no other country comes close to the diverse genetics of Ethiopia—coffee’s birthplace—no other country produces coffees as wide-ranging or ineffably delicious.
Thriving Coffee Culture in Arabica's Birthplace
Ethiopia is one of the few coffee-growing countries that has as strong a coffee tradition as it does an international market for it. Coffea arabica, or Arabica, originates in Ethiopia, and thousands of indigenous variations continue to grow wild today. Theories of coffee’s discovery abound, but one apocryphal tale of a ninth-century goatherder, Kaldi, whose goats were especially lively after eating coffee cherry from shrubs, prevails. As the story goes, Kaldi tried the cherry for himself, and invigorated by them, brought the fruit to a local Sufi monastery to share. A monk admonished Kaldi and threw the cherry into the fire. But the scent of roasting coffee lured other monks to rake the coffee from the embers and drop it into water to cool. After drinking the liquid in which the roasted coffee steeped, a newfound vigor for religious practices drove the monks to develop a coffee habit.
The precise trajectory from fruit to drink matters less than the fact that by the early part of the first millenium, coffee was an intrinsic part of the region’s culture, first as a crushed seed eaten with clarified butter, and then eventually as a brewed drink. Today, coffee is served at all times and everywhere: in cafes, at street-side stands, and at home. It punctuates morning, noon, and night; marks social interactions; and finds itself the subject of idioms, paintings, and songs. Ethiopia’s brief occupation by Italy is evident by espresso machines and macchiatos in urban cafes. But, for the most part, Ethiopian-style coffee prevails, and jebena buna, the coffee ceremony—a ritual performed daily, and in both public and private spaces—is a source of identity and pride.
Traditionally, the coffee ceremony begins when a young woman of the household heats water in a jebena, a clay vessel with a broad base and a narrow neck, over coals. She warms green coffee over a skillet to remove any outer hulls, and then roasts it, constantly agitating the beans so that the coffee doesn’t burn. She grinds the coffee using the wooden tools mukecha and zenezena, which resemble a mortar and pestle, offering guests a chance to smell the fragrant grounds. After steeping the coffee briefly in the jebena, she pours it unfiltered into cups that rest well below the jebena’s spout, an act of grace that foreshadows the first sip.
Method and ingredients vary. Sometimes cardamom or clove is added during brewing, or the coffee’s served with salt instead of sugar. In a style resembling Tibetan tea, clarified butter may be mixed in. Or, a sprig of the herb rue, calledtena’adam, is served alongside; just one leaf adds a menthol-like herbaceousness. Three steepings are the norm, where the third and weakest cup is known as the “one for the road.”
Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and the second most populous, with over 100 million inhabitants. Located in the Horn of Africa, the landscape is fertile in the west and astoundingly hot in the north. Fourteen rivers, including the Nile, begin in the Ethiopian Highlands, Africa’s largest contiguous mountain range.
The majority of Ethiopians are farmers. Coffee is the country’s largest export, and fifteen million people make their living off the supply chain. Smallholder farmers, living on parcels no bigger than one to two hectares of land, grow the majority of the country’s coffee. Amidst subsistence crops and other cash crops like sugarcane or sesame, farmers harvest coffee cherry from old-growth coffee trees. Their modest yields are processed at the closest community washing station. The green coffee is then bundled together and sold, identified by the station, neighborhood, or district, rather than by an individual grower’s name.
The lore of Ethiopia’s exceptional coffee, tied to famous growing regions like Sidama, Yirgacheffe, and Guji, extends beyond the specialty coffee world. And yet, most coffee growers throughout Ethiopia live in poverty, struggling to see the profits for which their coffee is sold.
Today’s Market: The Ethiopian Commodity Exchange
When you buy a single origin from Ethiopia, you may notice that it’s often identified by region, not by farm. This is because of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, which is the marketplace through which most—ninety-eight percent—of the country’s coffee is sold. Stakeholders include the Ethiopian government, as well as buyers and sellers of commodity goods (not just coffee). In 2008, when it began, it was the only commodity exchange in Africa. Economist and Founder, Eleni Gabre-Madhin, points to the devastating famines that hit Ethiopia in 1983 to 1984, and again in 2002 to 2003 as grounds for its establishment. She emphasizes that in addition to drought and civil war, poor distribution of goods and an unreliable commodity market also contributed to the loss of life. During the 2002 famine, for example, it was not uncommon to hear of farmers committing suicide because buyers were negligent in payment. For their part, buyers would complain of poor-quality goods, or lack of delivery altogether. The ECX was set up as the mandatory system through which nearly all commerce would operate, regularizing payment and delivery, while trying to minimize corruption and monopolies.
It was a bold move to address a deeply historical problem: The reality for Ethiopia’s smallholder farmer has long been one of struggle. When the ECX was founded, leaders across Africa, and the world, were excited to see how the unified system would affect farmers. While rate of payment to farmers is much more reliable now, shortcomings of the ECX, in particular for coffee farmers, are impossible to ignore. The fact that Ethiopia’s smallholder farmers produce well below the average of farmers in other countries means that no matter the rate of payment, a farmer’s profit remains too small to allow for any meaningful reinvestment.
In other coffee-growing countries, direct trade with farms is one way to impact low-yield, but high-quality coffee cherry. The ECX’s aim to eliminate corruption is important, but as it is now, even if a washing station’s coffee fetches a high price at auction, the farmer does not see the financial reward. And, it’s become evident that opportunists have figured out how to insert themselves in the supply chain, becoming third-party brokers who buy coffee from farmers and sell to processing stations, pocketing the premiums they charge.
In the past, there have been two ways to circumvent the ECX: Buy coffee processed at an Estate, which is defined as a commercial farm 35 hectares or more; or, buy from a Union, which is a grouping of cooperatives who choose to function outside of the ECX. The restrictions are about to shift dramatically, however. Following at the heels of an international initiative that would increase traceability by labeling export bags of green coffee with barcodes, the Ethiopian parliament just passed proclamations in July of this year to change how the ECX fundamentally works. Now, coffee farmers will more easily sell directly to processing stations, eliminating the chance for third-party brokers to exploit growers and buyers. Farmers will also have a short window in which they’re able to sell their coffee directly to buyers prior to having to go the auction floor of the ECX. It’s far too early to assess how this change affects farmers and the quality of coffee. But, the prospects for more traceable coffee with fewer links between farmer and buyer are applauded by many.
For now, in addition to purchasing coffee from licensed exporters who know how to navigate the ECX and ensure traceable coffee, we especially celebrate a few of our coffees from Ethiopia, like those from cooperative unions in Sidama and Yirgacheffe who are known to pay above-market prices to growers and invest in educational opportunities and regional infrastructure. We also feature outstanding single origins from Royal Coffee, our neighbor importer in the East Bay, who works with individual farmers who own their land, and therefore qualify as “estates.” This incredible partnership gives consumers the rare treat of microlots from just one grower’s land while paying commensurate prices.
Coffee Like No Other
Washed and natural coffees from Ethiopia taste like no other coffees in the world. Natural processing is the original way that cherry transformed into coffee; for centuries, growers have been drying whole cherry beneath the searing sun. In the best naturals, the dried fruit infuses the seeds to make a coffee that’s fruit-forward and syrupy, sometimes with discernable notes of blueberry or strawberry. Washed coffees are differentiated from other origins with their refined and floral delicacy that is sometimes compared to tea. With every new coffee from Ethiopia, the multidimensionality of the fruit from which coffee is made becomes more evident. It’s fair to say that no other country comes close to providing as rich a connection to both coffee’s past and its inimitable present.