November 4, 2019

Ethiopian Coffee: A Roaster’s Guide


Ethiopian specialty grade coffee beans may be some of the finest you’ll ever roast, but they are also some of the ficklest.

To start with, there’s over 10,000 estimated Ethiopian bean varieties, including the crisp and citrusy Sidamo, bright and floral Yirgacheffe, intense and heavy-bodied Harrar, sweet and spicy Limu, and the tropical, silk-bodied Jimma. 

In addition to this, high density, differences in screen size, and unknown varieties make them tricky to manipulate while roasting. Finding the perfect roasting profile is an exercise in trial and error, and you might need multiple adjustments until you’re satisfied with the results. 

Despite this, it will be worth your while: Ethiopia produces some of the world’s finest Arabica. Here’s how to get the most out of your roasting strategy when dealing with Ethiopian beans.

Lee este artículo en español Café de Etiopía: Guía de Tueste

Coffee beans ready for export at the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union headquarters and processing unit. Credit: Sarah Charles

Ethiopian Coffee Beans: Distinctive Features

Ethiopian coffees grow at high elevations, producing a hard, dense bean. Denser beans tend to have more sugars and flavour precursors, which translates to more flavour after roasting. To choose an effective roast profile, knowing the bean density is key. This will determine the charge temperature (among other variables), and help determine the flavour of the cup.

Ethiopian coffee tends to produce beans that are smaller than other origin varieties (15+ screen). This, in addition to variations in bean size, makes it tricky to roast them without losing their delicate and nuanced flavours. It’s not a predictable or forgiving bean, and the roasting process needs constant monitoring. It’s a fine balancing act.

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Paul Arnephy smells beans to determine the degree of roast. Credit: Goncalo Silva

For further insight into how Ethiopian beans differ from others, I spoke to Paul Arnephy, who is the Q-Grader Arabica, AST Trainer, and co-founder and Head Roaster of Lomi Roastery and Café in Paris. 

He explained that “Ethiopia is distinct from all other producing countries because of the flavour profiles that can be found, production methods (often ideal), the country’s history, and of course the plethora of plant diversity.” He added that while Ethiopian beans have some common attributes, “the flavour profiles are seriously regional”.

Paul recommends the following three books for a closer look into the complex world of Ethiopian coffee:

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Sample of coffee beans being roasted. Credit: San Franciscan Roaster Co.

How to Roast Ethiopian Coffee Beans

It’s apparent that when dealing with Ethiopian beans, there are many variations and roasting adjustments to consider. That said, there are some guiding principles that can help you create your roasting profile. I asked some experts to break it down.

Prepping & Sampling

Paul reminds me that Ethiopian coffees don’t differ from any other coffee when approaching the roast. You need to have a strategy. 

“Good quality sample roasting can provide insight into flavour profile potential at different colour intensities as well as… insight into how the coffee will ‘behave’ during roasting.”

This is of particular importance with beans as unpredictable as Ethiopian beans. I spoke to Sara Yirga, the General Manager of YA Coffee Roasters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She told me that “it’s important to be ready for surprises. Ethiopian coffees are a dynamic bunch when it comes to flavours and tones, even when from the same geographic area.”

Temperature Increase Rate & Roasting Level

A gentle temperature increase and careful monitoring throughout the process will help you bring the best out of your beans. In addition, a light roast will allow their flavours and acidity to shine.

“With Ethiopian coffee, the roaster needs to keep in mind that you’re trying to settle on a delicious average bean development for all the beans in the drum. [This is] mainly due to screen size differences and often unknown varietals comprising a lot,” says Paul.

To navigate these complexities and preserve the delicate and nuanced flavour profile of specialty grade beans, he recommends a relatively low rate of temperature increase during first crack, for washed and natural beans. Always keep in mind that naturals tend to darken faster than washed coffees. 

A slow, temperature-controlled roast is ideal for Ethiopian coffee beans. Credit: Puxan

What to Avoid When Roasting Ethiopian Coffees 

When it comes to roast levels, Sara prefers a slow roast and a medium to medium-dark roasting level. However, she adds that “we do sometimes make slight adjustments in broad terms on the roast degree to either enhance or diminish acidity.” She also says that “We hardly do dark roasts at YA Coffee, unless there are minor defects in the flavour and aftertaste that need hiding.”

When roasting Ethiopian coffees, steer away from sudden, intense heat. Coming in strong might help push some of their gingery or clove spice notes out, but you risk losing those lovely floral notes so distinctive of this origin. 

Paul discourages an intense start for other reasons too. “Coming in with too much energy for a washed will often cause a massive loss of energy at the beginning of [first] crack (baking). [This will] ‘over-develop’ some beans whilst others will be under-developed before the roast needs to be dumped to achieve the desired light colour profile.” 

The same scenario with a natural, he warns, will often produce a temperature spike in the beans before first crack, which will encourage roast defects. This could result in an almost burnt bean exterior or a target exterior colour with a too light or under-developed interior. 

This is inherent to Ethiopian coffees and not applicable to all beans, he explains. A screen size 16 from Huila, Colombia, single variety with no defects, might be “roasted with a nuclear reactor, dumped shortly after crack begins, and have good even bean development”. 

It’s all about tailoring the process and finding that balancing point.

Freshly roasted coffee beans in a cooling tray. Credit: Jean Pierre Flores

From a Local Perspective

Ethiopian coffee is rich in heritage and laden with traditions. I couldn’t help but wonder whether these elements inform the process that Ethiopian coffee roasters follow today. As an Addis-based roaster, Sara relies on four heritages to guide her roasting methods:

1. Brew Colour

Yedoro Ayene” or “eye of the chicken” is what Ethiopians consider to be the best colour for brewed coffee, which is dark brown. “You can’t get that colour with a roast past medium dark”, she says.

2. Heat

Ethiopians have a saying: “yebuna sebatu mefajetu”, or “what good is coffee if it’s not hot”? “Ethiopians need the aftertaste, those lingering flavours and sharp acidity that will linger around after the coffee is consumed hot and fast” Sara tells me.

3. Brew Method

In Ethiopia, the traditional brewing method is “Jebena”, a boiling-based system. “Boiling is a necessity for flavour extraction since we reside in high elevation areas. The boiling can take five to ten minutes, which further transforms the coffee by affecting the roast level” says Sara. It’s why most Ethiopians favour different shades of medium roast (as opposed to dark).

4. Consistency

“Ethiopians only roasted coffee for immediate consumption until a few decades ago at home in an open pan. There was a lot of sorting after the roast to minimise the inconsistency” Sara informs me. This was a time-consuming procedure, fine for household consumption. 

In a commercial setting, consistency at scale with efficient timing is important. She keeps the traditional lessons she learned on bean consistency and applies them to a modern roasting system. Sarah tells me that “the learning is bidirectional for us between our tradition and modern approaches to coffee”.

Lomi coffee roasting facility in Poët-Laval, France. Credit: Mikael Portanier

As with all coffees, origin, elevation, density, screen size, and tradition will all play a role in your roasting profile. That, and having an intended end flavour to guide your process. 

“Ethiopians need a gentle treatment to delicately develop the average. So much of the complexity and fascination with Ethiopian coffee comes from the magic of the bean diversity” says Paul. Sara recommends “a slow roasting approach… to bring out the inherent taste of each coffee.”

For Ethiopian coffee beans, complexity and diversity are the variables to tailor your roasting strategy to. Favour a gentle approach, a light to medium roast, and just the right amount of energy at the right time to tease out the flavour potential. As Paul says, if you get the result right, it’s “nothing short of magic”.

Enjoyed this? Read Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, & More: A Guide to Ethiopian Coffee

Feature photo: Pulling coffee bean samples during the roast provides visual and fragrance cues for monitoring. Credit: Puxan

 Perfect Daily Grind

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