Wandering Ethiopia’s rolling highlands, the legendary Sufi goatherd named Kaldi lives a life of casual exploration with his beloved herd. The highlands present a bountiful tract of land for the goats to graze, and with Kaldi’s powerful whistle, it is difficult for the goats to get lost.
Awakening from a peaceful nap one afternoon, Kaldi notices his herd has strayed. Not to worry, Kaldi whistles away for his obedient gang. No luck… Kaldi whistles louder, but to his surprise the herd is out of sight and unresponsive. Kaldi begins to search, slightly worried as his goats always return.
Kaldi journeys higher and higher through the spindly forest. Until…aha! The thumping of hooves and bleating of an excited herd are audible through the thicket. Emerging into the clearing, Kaldi discovers his gang, dancing in a manner never seen before. Upon further investigation, Kaldi notices the bright red berries the goats are nibbling on.
Given his afternoon search, and the fact that the herd is still standing and in surprisingly merry spirits, Kaldi decides to taste this new berry. Naturally, Kaldi joins in the dancing!
With excitement, Kaldi gifts the fruit to a monk, who is a friend in the nearby monastery. The disapproving friend tosses the cherries in his fire, but a beautiful aroma prompts their removal. After the now roasted beans are ground, examined, and dissolved in hot water, the gift of coffee is born.
Ethiopia – part of the horn of Africa – is universally known as the birthplace of coffee, coffea arabica, and the simple story of Kaldi and his goats represents the casual manner in which this plant naturally flourishes. Although unwritten until 1671 (De Saluberrima potione Cahue seu Cafe, Rome), the discovery of the coffee plant is dated to the 9th century. For perspective, coffee was not grown as a crop until the 15th century in Yemen, at which point a large swath of the world became aware via the port of Mocha. However, it was not grown elsewhere until plants were stolen by the Dutch and transplanted in Java, Indonesia in the late 17th century.
Today, Ethiopia is the 5th largest exporter of coffee beans (behind Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, and Indonesia, respectively) and is known specifically for vibrant, explosively floral and fruity characteristics. Nearly 15 million people, 25% of the Ethiopian population, attribute their livelihood to this sector. Although 5th on the production list, Ethiopia leads in its natural diversity of varietals, which is entirely due to its development in Ethiopia throughout history. Specifically, it is estimated that between six and ten thousand different coffee varietals exist within Ethiopia. For comparison, Colombians are known to grow about eight principal varietals. The gravity of this genetic spectrum is mystifying, and adds significant excitement and complexity to each season’s harvest.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters notes that “[Ethiopians] don’t have to fertilize, don’t have to water, don’t have to prune – the coffee wants to grow. All they need to do is look after it.” Although the yield of this practice is low, it is simply true and unique in this region. Although “forest coffees” exist throughout the land, plantation owners also grow coffee trees utilizing standard farming practices.
Unlike some African producing countries, Ethiopian’s drink their coffee! The traditional coffee ceremony, Jebena Buna, involves cleaning green beans, roasting over hot coals, hand grinding, and brewing all in one sitting. The first and strongest cup is the Avole, the second Tona, and the third Bereka, each brewed from the same dose of grounds and served in handle-less demitasses.
Although the Jebena Buna is a national tradition, the macchiato is the next most prevalent drink – likely due to the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in WWII. Now, espresso machines are found in nearly all cities and villages!