Coffee Arabica is an indigenous plant of the Ethiopian highlands. The region has a wide range of genetically varying coffee plants (almost thousands of types) with many species being wild and still unidentified/un-recorded. The more variants of a plant, the more diversified flavors of the beans one will find.
Another factor that greatly affects coffee flavor profile is the processing method. Ethiopian coffee processing methods are quite unique and perhaps are uncommon in other coffee growing regions (other than Brazil). These methods give the beans quite interesting flavors.
Coffee makes up for 60% of foreign exchange for Ethiopia and it is deep immersed in the region’s history, culture and traditions. Even today about 15 million Ethiopian people depend upon coffee, in some form or another, to earn a living. Africa’s top coffee producer is world number seven for the same.
As far as the flavor profile is concerned, coffee beans are known to be more special if grown at higher altitudes. In general, coffee plants grow in regions that come under the “coffee belt”. These are the regions found between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Roughly, the band extends 30˚ north and south of the equator. The countries it includes belong to Pacific Islands, middle to Southern Africa and countries of South America all of which are known for growing the high quality coffee.
The tropical climates greatly benefit the taste beans have to offer, a factor that is undeniable. Coffee grown at altitude more than 1400m (or 3000ft) is known to be rich and flavorful. Most of the Ethiopian coffee is grown at an altitude 1500 - 2700m (4900 - 8858ft) and hence is considered the best globally. Coffee plants growing at higher altitudes produce harder and thicker coffee beans resulting in dense flavors.
How does the altitude affect the bean quality? Altitude affects the growing conditions which are more beneficial for the coffee plants. Moderate temperatures and rainfall all over the year, plenty of sunshine and no extreme cold conditions make it ideal for the coffee plants to grow.
The rain water leach down more effectively on higher altitudes and so the developing coffee fruits accumulate less water and more flavor. Lower mountain temperatures also cause decline in the growth rate of coffee plant and slows down fruit formation, hence the beans develop more complex sugars, condensed deep flavors.
The processing methods also affect the flavor notes which are unique to Ethiopian beans. One method is natural drying of the coffee fruit around the beans (under the sun before the beans are removed). The beans thus processed give off fruitier or berry like flavor. Other is the wet processing where the cherries are washed to remove the fruit before drying within the 24 hours that they are picked. Beans thus processed generate lighter or floral notes.
Two amazing coffee producing regions of Ethiopia are Yergacheffe and Harrar region. Mostly the coffee is grown naturally with no artificial fertilizers or even an irrigation system, which leaves only rain water for the coffee plants to survive upon. Small batches of beans are grows by small farmers because of all the above reasons, which means smaller piles of beans and lesser chances of moldy coffee. For example take big coffee farms of Brazil where bulk production leaves the coffee beans laid on the ground in the beneath layers are far likely to grow mold. Bigger the farm lower is the quality. The consumers may never know because most of them receive roasted and grind coffee. Ethiopian coffee although grows slower, is worth waiting in many aspects.