To most coffee drinkers, Ethiopia as a place feels forever on the other side of a tantalizing gap. The coffees themselves, when made well, can be mind-alteringly complex and overwhelmingly fragrant. They taste different from all other countries’ coffees and are never convincingly interchangeable with any other washed or sun-dried arabica on Earth. From Ethiopia’s landscape comes some of the best-known flavor descriptors in the coffee world (blueberry, jasmine, bergamot) that are considered global benchmarks of flavor. The source of Ethiopia’s allure as a truly sovereign and ancient culture of coffee is its imperviousness to so much of the industry that cash-cropped the coffee belt around it.

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A Brief History of Ethiopia Coffee

Ethiopia’s coffee is best known for its florality and complexity, a result of the heirloom (i.e. locally adapted but varied) genetics propagated on family plots throughout the highland regions, the range of screen sizes typical to most lots, and high elevations throughout the supply chain, allowing coffee to stay above 1600 meters until the moment it’s trucked to port in Djibouti. The majority of Ethiopia’s top washed coffees are produced in the southern zones and can be perfume-like and  juicy, with fresh stone fruit, honey, tarragon, mouthwatering tea-like aftertaste, and zesty textures, then at turns herbaceous, or reminiscent of potpourri. Natural, or “sundried” processing enjoys a national market and a global status unique to precious few coffee countries, including Yemen and Brazil, expressing some of the most beautiful and most literal syrupy fruit flavors and heady aromatics available anywhere in the coffee world.

Southern Ethiopia’s Sidama, Gedeo, and Guji zones are by far the country’s most competitive areas, with the most infrastructure, farmer density, and best reputations. These areas together form part of a wide highland plateau with ideal conditions for arabica coffee excellence–indeed, the very same in which arabica coffee first evolved. The washed and natural profiles from these regions have become benchmarks for arabica’s potential not only in Ethiopia but across the world. Ethiopia’s western regions of Jimma and Illubabor, thanks to an infrastructure development project in the mid-2000s, have been producing exquisite fully-washed coffee comparable to the south for over a decade. Finally, Harar, home to Ethiopia’s oldest and most traditional arabica cultivation, continues producing earthy and perfumed sun dried naturals, which Royal loyally carries each year.


Ethiopia—the origin of coffee itself—tends to frustrate the outside buyer. Say what you like about how the coffees taste, but most coffee professionals struggle constantly to keep up with the domestic bureaucracy or the tribal politics that influence cooperative membership, let alone simply verifying the varieties in their cup. In equal degree, Ethiopia’s sublime natural assets for coffee quality, as well as the capriciousness of its internal markets, are unique in the coffee producing world, and a foil to outside understanding. And on top of this, coffee here is not founded on colonial profiteering or navigated via a national cultivar system with clear parentage; each a common basis for buyers to grasp the big picture of individual coffee countries. The opacity of its workings, in its way, is a beautiful nonviolent stance against appropriation. To farm coffee in Ethiopia is to struggle against many of the same forces of uncertainty that confront small farms everywhere. If there is relief to the hardships of being the first link in a long global trade network, for Ethiopian coffee farmers it may be the stable export prices, the land rites that allow small farms to safely persist, a vast series of fertile plateaus supportive of the best coffee in the world, and a rapidly-liberalizing export market. Nine cups of jebena brewed coffee a day doesn’t hurt, either. Ethiopia famously consumes at least as much coffee as it exports; a baffling statistic considering it is the fifth-largest producer on the planet and has a population smaller than Japan.

Ethiopia’s coffee varieties are the subject of ongoing research. It is a coffee marketplace forever in flux, whose many languages, federal identity politics, and coffea genetics are impossible to fully track for roasters. After centuries of cultivation and seed saving among farmers, many of the current varieties in production are considered to originate as landraces. The Jimma Agricultural Research Center undertakes the job of collecting, purifying, and distributing regional cultivars to producers looking to revitalize land or plant anew, which are numerically organized by the region where they were gathered. So, coffee varieties in Ethiopia are understood more in terms of where they originated than how they are expected to produce, or their uniformity. Varieties like Kurume, Dega, Wolisho, and other locally-named regional landraces are consistently present throughout the southern producing zones, typically grown until the canopies are tall enough to rest against the roof of one’s house, and still hand-picked. And with increasing numbers of new estates in Guji and the western regions, varieties being planted are carefully selected for suitability to the local microclimate and for quality, so that newer producers are starting to organize their farms more akin to the estates of the Americas, a bit of irony for the world’s most experienced coffee country. 

Ethiopia harvests in November-December and begins shipping coffee in January. The best quality Ethiopian coffee beans become available from February onward. With natural processed coffees, usually a month or two later, due to their later production and increased storage needs. Royal typically starts receiving arrivals in May through October, with top lots like individual farmers, late harvest naturals, etc. continuing to arrive through the very end of this spread. It should be mentioned that Ethiopia, for a country with a single concentrated harvest, has one of the best year-round shelf lives of any origin. Naturals especially can continue tasting incredible for more than 15 months after arrival, meaning up to 2 full years after the coffee was actually processed.

Ethiopia is known equally for its naturals as for its fully washed coffees. And naturals far precede washed in this country. Yirgacheffe was Ethiopia’s first area to begin depulping and fermenting its coffees, and the practice spread quickly to all central processors, and today many produce close to equal parts fully washed and natural, with the exception of Harar. We do see increasing experimental fermentation styles, where instead of the typical underwater fermentation processors are exploring oxygen-deprived fermentations for full cherry, or doing extended cherry contact between picking and depulping to create new acidity and fruit profiles in the cup. With the increasing number of independent processors and exporters, many of whom are also experienced cuppers, we expect Ethiopia’s traditional processing styles to continue expanding for years to come.

Coffee producing zones in Ethiopia have layered canopies and large amounts of old-growth forest, so a typical farm is very well-shaded compared to smallholders elsewhere in the coffee world. Often one single family will live together in the middle of their plot and manage a few hundred coffee trees intercropped with subsistence food crops and enset, a relative to the banana tree whose pulp is used as a staple starch. In certain zones processors are so abundant that families have options for selling their cherry, sometimes all within walking distance. Ethiopia does have large estates, many of which are also heavily canopied, and, being newer, coffee plants are typically smaller and more organized in their placement. Many of the single farmers that Royal buys from process their own coffee at home, often drying on just a few raised beds made of lumber or bamboo and banana leaf, to incredible results.

We commonly describe Ethiopia’s smallholder coffee as organic “by default”, meaning growers are typically organic by way of tradition, thanks to the ideal climate, layered canopy and fertility of the soil. But many are also organic by necessity–to buy synthetic inputs is difficult in such remote areas, not to mention expensive for growers with limited means, so many couldn’t produce otherwise even if they wished. The global market, of course, is accustomed to organic availability from Ethiopia, by far Africa’s largest source of certified specialty. Producer cooperative unions, backbone institutions for smallholders in Sidama, Yirgacheffe, and Oromia regions for decades, understand this demand very well and continue to encourage organic methods and maintain their certifications. 

1-9 are the standard export grades based on cup quality, physical cleanliness, and region of origin. With the addition of coffee to the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) in 2008, all coffees for export are cupped by official ECX cuppers, blind except for region, and each is assigned a grade, with 1 being the best in cup. The ECX also undertakes the sale of a large majority of Ethiopia’s coffee to exporters, via a blind auction system designed to eliminate corruption and price security for farmers; however, cooperative unions and independent exporters are not required to sell their coffees through the ECX, and as a result all of Royal’s coffee buying takes place outside of the Exchange, with direct traceability to farms or associations.

This “Grade Zero” selection comes from a collaborative effort between Royal and Ranger Industry & Trading to design a near-perfect rendition of a top natural, or “sundried” Gedeb coffee. These are experimental microlots that begin as carefully-selected cherry deliveries, sorted for exact consistency and laid out in single layers to dry in the sun on raised beds. Once dried, the coffee is treated to extra sorting steps at the dry mill, including multiple additional passes in the color sorter and a longer, slower hand-removal of imperfections. This particular lot was milled to a precise screen distribution as well: all coffee is 15-16 screen only, in an effort to help roast uniformity and flavor precision. The idea is to present a better-than-Grade 1 result, hence the grade “0”. We want coffees like these to inspire roasters to consider new possibilities for Gedeb’s coffees and producer collaboration, as well as motivate producer groups to come up with innovative targets of their own. Southern Ethiopia has long been a place Royal has wanted to see surpass its (admittedly, ridiculously high) status quo, and each coffee like this is a small step in that direction.