The Birthplace of Coffee

To visit Ethiopia is to sense the meaning of ancient. This land of antiquity has a history measured in millennia. Every aspect of life in Ethiopia evokes the distant past.

Once known as Abyssinia, to much of the outside world, this land of mystery has been known long before biblical times. The Greek name for Ethiopia appears twice in the Iliad and three times in the Odyssey. Herodotus spoke of Ethiopia and it is mentioned numerous times in both the New and Old Testaments. Early Egyptians referred to it as the land of Punt and the source of the Nile.

It is believed to have once been the kingdom of the Queen of Sheba who was received by King Solomon in 950 BC.

Even though the peoples of Ethiopia are represented by 80 ethnic groups and as many indigenous languages they share an over-riding culture based on religious faith.

Ethiopia has close historical ties with all three Abrahamic religions. It is one of the first Christian countries in the world, having officially adopted Christianity as the state religion in the forth century. Half the population is identified as Christian.

Two notable Christian shrines are the stone-hewn churches of Lalibela and the monastery in Axum said to be the sanctuary of the Ark of the Covenant.

Negash is home of the oldest Muslim settlement outside Arabia and dating back to the time of Muhammad himself and the founding of Islam. Today one third of Ethiopians identify themselves as Muslim.

A small ancient group of Jews, the Beta Israel, live in northwestern Ethiopia, though many immigrated to Israel in the last decades of the twentieth century. Some Israeli and Jewish scholars consider the Ethiopian Jews as a historical Lost Tribe of Israel.

In recent times the Rastafari religious movement that arose in the 1930’s consider Ethiopia their spiritual homeland.

Ethiopia is an ecologically diverse country, ranging from the deserts along the eastern border to the tropical forests in the south to extensive Afromontane in the northern and southwestern parts. It is in these cool highlands that Sidamo coffee originates.

We know the Coffea species originated in Ethiopia and we have all heard the popular myth that its discovery was attributed to browsing goats reacting to eating the caffeine-laden berries. Regardless the truth of the tale, from a time immemorial, herdsmen have made a snack food that included coffee peels to keep awake, aware and nourished while minding their flocks. Arabs later picked up the habit by making a tea from the dried peels.

Coffee cultivation around the Muslim city of Harrar probably predates coffee production in the southern province of Sidamo even though coffee was and still is growing wild throughout the country. A notable European coffee trader in Harrar during the 1880s was the French expatriate Arthur Rimbaud.

Modern coffee cultivation and processing was developed in the Sidamo region in the 1970s. The sophisticated and mechanized system of peeling the freshly harvested fruit, sequestering it for a day or so and then washing it before drying, yielded an elegant flavor unknown in any Ethiopian coffee before. This advanced method softened the fruity, wine-like profile of dried-in-the-fruit coffees like Harrar and turned it into a gentle, round, delicately complex flavor with fragrant floral innuendo.

Ethiopians so love their coffee that like the Arabs they roast it fresh and brew it fresh and drink it fresh as a cultural tradition. Every household has their own clay roasting pot and specially designed brewing pots called jabenas. Coffee is prepared as ritual and enjoyed with ceremony.

Linda Lorenzetti writes in her book, The Birth of Coffee.

“–there is nothing quite as rewarding as watching and waiting for a traditionally brewed cup of Ethiopian coffee. One’s senses come alive while inhaling the aroma of coffee beans slowly roasting over a wood fire.  

While waiting for the beans to cool and be ground, while watching the grounds be placed in a jabena with sugar and water, and while waiting—yet again—as the coffee slowly brews. Cups are warmed in the meantime, and, to tantalize the senses, even more itan, incense made of myrrh, is lit. Corn is often popped and passed to those that have gathered, but it is for the coffee that everyone waits.  

When served it is sweet, hot, and fresh on the tongue, like no other coffee beverage. The first cup is savored while more water is added to the grounds in the jabena and a second pot is brewed. Conversation may continue long into the afternoon or evening, for serving coffee this way is social artistry. In the manner of its slow preparation, coffee itself is honored as a presence in the lives and history of the Ethiopian people”