June 4, 2020

Everything You Need to Know About Coffee From Sidama, Ethiopia

Sidama coffee: it’s a phrase associated with spices and citrus notes, crisp acidity, and a rich body. 

Along with Harrar and Yirgacheffe, Sidama is one of Ethiopia’s three trade-marked coffee regions. It’s also the source of most of the country’s grade one and grade two beans, which are its two highest quality rankings. 

But what sets Sidama apart from other coffees in Ethiopia and across the globe? I spoke to Kenean Dukamo, Export Manager of Ethiopian coffee exporter and farm owner Daye Bensa Coffee, to find out more about this origin.

Lee este artículo en español Todo lo Que Debes Saber Sobre el Café de Sidama, Etiopía

Coffee grows in partial shade in Sidama.

Coffee grows in partial shade in Sidama. Credit: Daye Bensa Coffee

One of Ethiopia’s Most Productive Origins

First, is it Sidamo or Sidama? The former is the name you’ve probably heard most often, but it’s also incorrect. The error dates back to the area’s annexation done by Emperor Menelik II, who was the king of Shewa and Ethiopia between 1889-1913. This led to the wider coffee community, and most famously, Starbucks, selling coffee as “Sidamo.” However, the word has been contentious since the ‘90s, and in 2007, the Ethiopian Coffee Exchange also switched over to using Sidama.

Sidama is in the south of Ethiopia and encompasses several other zones (locally known as woredas). It used to be part of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People (SNNP) Regional State, but after a referendum last year, split and became a regional state in its own right. 

It is home to a population of around 7.8 million people, who speak the Cushitic language Sidaama or Sidaamu Afoo. Like many other ethnic groups across Ethiopia, the Sidama people have their own traditions, culture, and even their own UNESCO-recognised New Year, called Fichee-Chambalaalla

So, what makes Sidama so famous for its coffee? The region spreads across fertile highlands south of Lake Awasa in the Rift Valley. Elevation ranges from 1,500–2,200 m.a.s.l., meaning that coffees ripen slowly in cool temperatures, developing sweeter and more acidic flavours. The soil is fertile, and with 1,200–2,000 mm of annual rainfall, the conditions are ideal for growing coffee. 

These high elevations also mean that the coffee tends to ripen slower, with a later harvest season than the rest of Ethiopia. This allows the cherries to develop those complex flavours and aromas characteristic of Sidama coffee. 

Kenean tells me that the region has long had a reputation for quality coffee. “Other regions that are not called Sidama used to be sold under Sidama,” he says. “If you painted the coffee as other regions, people wouldn’t buy it, Sidama is more marketable”.

You might also like How to Roast Ethiopian Coffees

Farmworkers transport washed coffee beans to African beds to dry under the sun.

Farmworkers transport washed coffee beans to African beds to dry under the sun. Credit: Daye Bensa Coffee

What Does Ethiopian Sidama Coffee Taste Like? 

Kenean tells me that “in general, in Sidama, you find spice in the coffees,” along with “fine acidity” and “lasting flavors of lemon and bergamot.” 

However, with 23 woredas, over 50 cooperatives, and around 200 washing stations, there is plenty of diversity in this vast state. According to Kenean, flavour profiles can vary from village to village, due to different soil moistures, altitudes, temperatures, and more. 

Although Sidama has 36 districts, he tells me he operates within three main areas: Bensa, Chire, and Aroresa. In Bensa, elevations range from 1,800 to 2,300 m.a.s.l. Kenean explains that this generally creates more complexity in the woreda’s coffees. “In the Bensa area, you can find more fruits, tropical fruits, sometimes you can find strawberry,” he says. “You are looking at tropical, very rich, fruity profiles.” 

Like Bensa, Chire produces specialty-grade coffees. Kenean tells me that in some areas of Chire, which has an elevation of 1,900–2,100 m.a.s.l., coffees have notes of nuts, dry fruits, and wine. 

Aroresa lies in the east of Sidama, with farms at 1,900–2,000 m.a.s.l. In this woreda, notes such as sugarcane, jasmine, and black tea are possible. Kenean tells me that the flavours tend to be milder while producers generally work with higher volumes. 

Ethiopia is coffee’s birthplace and has some of the world’s most genetically diverse coffee plants. Sidama is no exception to this. The complexities of the coffee is partly due to the unique varieties, many uncategorized, that can be found on each farm.  

Farmers will usually bring their cherries to washing stations where they are often (but not always) processed together, resulting in lots being labelled “mixed heirloom.” Nevertheless, Kenean tells me that the three most common varieties in the region are 74158, 74110, and 74112. The beans of these varieties, he says, tend to be a small to medium size – and the cup profile, a mixture of “balanced acidity and body.” 

Discover more in Understanding The Myth of Heirloom Variety Coffee

An aerial view of natural processed coffees drying under the sun in Sidama.

An aerial view of natural processed coffees drying under the sun in Sidama. Credit: Daye Bensa Coffee

How Is Ethiopian Sidama Coffee Processed? 

Both washed and natural processed coffees are common, with washed processing slightly more popular. When done well, natural processing adds fruitiness and body to the spiced Sidama coffees, while washed processing allows the citric acidity and delicate floral notes to shine.

In Ethiopia, unlike in Latin America, honey and experimental processing are not common. However, you can still find these methods on some farms. Kenean tells me that his company started honey processing select Sidama specialty lots three years ago. This processing method highlights the sweetness and body of these already high-quality coffees.

Yet although buyers are thirsty for well-produced, honey processed Ethiopian coffee, it can be hard to persuade farmers. The country’s coffee production has historically been tightly controlled by the government, down to step-by-step instructions for washed or natural processing of the beans.

“All that time, it was the same thing,” Kenean says, “and now it’s difficult to implement something new… Now, there are no boundaries, you can experiment, but to do so, you must [tackle] old practices.”

Kenean tells me that a lot of hands-on work at the washing stations is necessary to both maintain high standards and encourage producers to try something new. “We are scoring if they are receiving ripe cherries from farmers, if there is floating coffee, how they manage the fermentation tank, how they are drying their coffee,” he explains. 

He hopes that this will allow them to further improve the quality of the coffee from Sidama. They have been doing honey processing for three years now, and the results are so far positive. This year, they have also started working with experimental processing. 

“We do anaerobic coffee, we do yeast fermentation,” Kenean says. This type of processing has allowed producers in other countries to better control the specific qualities that fermentation accentuates, from sweetness through to acidity. Even in Latin America, it is considered innovative – and Kenean has high hopes for it when done with Sidama’s specialty, high-altitude lots.

Read more in How Does Fermentation Affect Coffee Flavour Development?

Honey processed coffee dries on African coffee beds under the sun

Honey processed coffee dries on African coffee beds under the sun. Credit: Daye Bensa Coffee

Common Challenges For Sidama Coffee

Labour is one of the main challenges facing Sidama’s coffee industry. Like many producing countries, the rate of rural-urban migration in Ethiopia is increasing, mostly due to poverty or lack of opportunities. “There is not enough labour now that more people are going to the city to work,” Kenean says.

For those who stay and work in coffee, there are few training opportunities. “There is no school for coffee, so people learn about it from experience,” Kenean adds. “Having a lack of professionals that are very experienced in coffee makes it hard.”

Infrastructure, in general, is also poor. “There are some areas where there is no internet, sometimes phones don’t work, so it is really hard to do business…” Kenean says. “You’ll always need to use cash for the coffee, so that’s a risk as well.”

Sidama’s mountainous landscape, while improving coffee quality, also poses a challenge. Roads are long and winding, and sometimes in poor condition. “Chire is a two hours’ drive [from Bensa], but if the road was good, that would be 40 minutes,” he says. 

Workers sort coffee cherries before the drying process begins.

Workers sort coffee cherries before the drying process begins. Credit: Daye Bensa Coffee

When targeting the specialty market, one significant challenge is tracing who produced a particular coffee. Kenean tells me that there are both independent farmers and cooperatives in Sidama. On average, he says, the farms are less than one hectare in size. With many small farmers taking their coffees to a washing station, it can be hard to keep track of where different lots came from. 

However, traceability is much easier than it used to be. Coffee was traditionally sold through the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. Small farmers would have to take their cherries to an intermediary, and from there, they would be processed, graded, and sold to the highest bidder in mixed lots. For many years, this was the only legal way to sell coffee.

Now, though, things are changing. “The producer, the washing station owner… they can sign a contract with the exporters to export directly from the washing station,” Kenean says.

For those looking for traceability beyond the washing station, Kenean tells me that careful record-keeping and separation is key. “When we receive the cherries, we separate them by village,” he says. The coffee is then kept separate throughout drying, processing, and storage, with labels stating the delivery dates, farm name, lot number, and more. 

Although it’s a lot of work, especially when working with such small farms, Kenean believes it’s worth it. Separating lots like this allows them to focus on producing higher-quality coffee with Sidama’s characteristically complex flavours, experiment with processing methods to accentuate the coffee’s best notes, and on top of that, offer traceability.

Mill workers remove unripe coffee cherries in sorting to improve the lot’s quality

Mill workers remove unripe coffee cherries in sorting to improve the lot’s quality. Credit: Daye Bensa Coffee

There is a reason Sidama is one of the most famous coffee origins in Ethiopia. It offers diversity, quality, and complex flavours, from Chire’s nutty notes to Bensa’s tropical fruitiness.

And while the infrastructure and historic governmental oversight can frustrate people working in this region, there is also a concentrated effort to work with micro lots, experiment with new processing methods, and enable buyers to trace the coffee all the way back to the farm.

Found this interesting? Read How to Roast Ethiopian Coffees

Written by Gisselle Guerra. Feature photo: Women sort drying coffee cherries in Sidama, Ethiopia. Feature photo credit: Daye Bensa Coffee

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Daye Bensa Coffee.  

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!