Welcome back to our origin series, where we delve deep into the importance of a coffee bean’s location and how they inform us of the bean’s flavor profile, notes, and body. This week we will be looking at Africa, the birthplace of coffee, which has seen increasing focus from consumers as coffee origin becomes more important to consumer purchase. Once shunned by coffee lovers because of their complex flavors, African beans are now seeing a rise in popularity. This has led to investment and strengthened ties with international buyers leading to a 25% increase in export sales since 2003. With an incredibly diverse landscape and climate, Africa is able to provide many unique flavors that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. We will be looking at three different countries to see how their origin impacts their beans.
Ethiopia is at the heart of Africa’s bean exports and produces some of the best beans in the world, many of which have won countless taste awards. Ethiopia’s relationship with coffee is incredibly deep, and many consider the country to be the birthplace of coffee, originating during trade with Yemen as far back as the 9th century. Ethiopians have such a bond with coffee, they refer to it as their daily bread. Even though 20% of the population is employed in some form by coffee production, most of the coffee produced isn’t actually exported. Of the 470,000 tonnes produced, only a third is exported internationally. Ethiopia has several distinct regions: Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, Kaffa, Harrar, Djimmah, and Limu. Ethiopia only grows Arabica coffee, which grows between altitudes of 1000m to as high as 2200m. This extreme altitude is what generates Ethiopia’s bold and unique flavors. The coffee beans grow in the shades of trees and are usually picked by hand with little machinery involves. They also work as co-ops with many farmers working together to provide batches of beans, resulting in constantly varying flavors.
Yirgacheffe is Ethiopia’s coffee jewel and where most of its award-winning coffee comes from. These beans produce sharp and powerful citrus acidity, with herbal and floral notes and a medium body. This is an acquired taste that coffee lovers have been falling in love with, due to its unique nature and deep flavors. The coffee here leaves a strong oozing aftertaste that lingers long after. The herbal scents are often found in the lower regions and the floral scents are found in the higher altitudes where the coffee beans have time to mature slower.
Sidama is home to a large area in the fertile highlands in the Rift Valley with great elevation between 1400m - 2200m, optimum rainfall, and steady temperatures. The flavors that grow here are intense and fruity with citrus acidity and a strong body. These tastes are often very varied and can be incredibly different from one batch to the next. The fruity flavors can range from apricots to cherries.
Finally, in Harrar, the beans provide a thick creamy body and are often filled with berry flavors of blueberry or blackberry. Its body, often wine-like, is filled with intensity and boldness. This bean is incredibly popular with espresso drinkers for its powerful depth.
Uganda is Africa’s second biggest coffee farmer and one in ten coffee farms globally can be found in Uganda. Uganda is mostly popular for producing Robusta with 80% of its beans being of this variety. Ugandan coffee is grown all over the country and is differentiated into five areas: the Central, Western, South-Western, Northern and Eastern regions. In the Western region you will find the more specialized higher-quality coffee. Robusta coffee is often associated with low quality but due to Uganda’s high elevation for its Robusta bean, the country is able to produce a distinct and wonderful coffee. The Elevation for the Robusta can go as high as 1400m, far greater than the typical 1000 found throughout the world. Meanwhile, Uganda’s Arabica bean has become very popular worldwide and can be found in three main regions.
Mount Elgon borders Kenya and is connected to the world’s oldest volcano in Africa. This densely fertile soil is what leads to such a wonderful brew of Ugandan coffee. On the steep cliffs, coffee beans are often shaded and then handpicked by small groups of farmers. You can expect a cup of wine-like coffee with sweet favors of figs, chocolate, and raisins.
In the West, in the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda produces incredible fine and highly valued Arabica coffees. This fertile lush green landscape, that reaches elevations of 2300m, is referred to as the mountains of the moon. Situated along Uganda’s southwestern border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the beans grow on the slopes. The soil is incredibly nutrient-rich with high levels of nitrogen. With consistent humidity and temperatures, the coffee produced here offers complex and delicious citrus flavors with floral notes and a medium body.
Finally, at lower levels of elevation, is the West Nile region. This region sits in northwestern Uganda and produces coffee at elevations between 1,300m and 1,600m. The lower elevation provides less unique and deep flavor profiles but is known for creating succulent and sharp citrus flavors.
Kenya is another power-house producer of coffee in Africa. Their coffees are famous for being full-bodied, with floral aromas and tastes of bergamot, lemongrass, and blueberries. In such a large country the beans vary greatly depending on region and harvesting methods. Kenya is famous for its small batches with some areas containing just 50 - 500 trees. Kenya's orange and nutrient-rich volcanic soils and moderate climate enable Kenya to produce so much consistent high-quality coffee. Coffees are usually fully washed and dried in the sun on raised drying screens.
Most of the highly valued coffee farms surround Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Ranges, where you can find areas like Meru, Embu, Thika, and Makueni. These areas have high elevation, allowing the coffee to grow slowly and producing a complex fruity taste and high citrus acidity, similar to Ethiopian coffee. However, unlike Ethiopian brands, Kenyan coffee from this area is famous for a very strong aftertaste and wine-like feel.
To the west in the Great Rift Valley there is a highland that is filled with fertile soil. This area sees very mild weather and doesn’t reach the altitudes of Mount Kenya leading to less acidity and fruity, chocolate flavors. Kenya is not all acidity, however. For those seeking a smoother taste, they can look no further than the Nyanza Region. This area near Lake Victoria gets regular rainfall and provides a more unique Kenyan coffee. This provides flavors of cream and mild fruit, with notes of dried fruit and nut.
In a nutshell
Africa has some of the best climates for coffee, and with improved farming and buying systems in recent years, the continent is seeing a rejuvenation in exports. African Coffee is best suited for those seeking bold, sometimes challenging flavors. With most of their best coffee being sharp and high in acidity, their flavors can take time to climatize to, but for those willing to go on the journey will discover a world of complex and rewardig brews.