A Guide to African Coffee
While Ethiopia is commonly regarded as the birthplace of coffee, many of the central and eastern countries of Africa also produce their fair share of excellent coffee beans.
Countries including Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and more recently the Democratic Republic of Congo all now have established export markets.
Each country's coffee has its own distinct characteristics making for a seriously diverse range of coffee flavours on offer.
Let's do a deeper dive into each of these African coffee producing countries to learn a little about their coffee growing history and what the have to offer.
- Democratic Republic of Congo
Coffee was introduced to Burundi when they were under Belgian colonial rule in the 1920s. Since then coffee production steadily increased until the civil war, that started in 1993, caused a major decline.
Most coffees from Burundi are grown by small farms at altitudes above 1,200 metres and are of the Bourbon variety. They are mostly processed using the fully washed method, which results in very clean tasting, aromatic coffees with high levels of acidity.
Recently the coffee producing plantations in Burundi have begun to embrace the speciality coffee scene, with the quality of coffee getting increasingly higher. There is much hope for some exciting coffees to come out of this country now and into the future.
Ethiopia has long been considered the birthplace of coffee, although the facts can't be proven now with some believing that certainly Arabica coffee may have actually come from southern Sudan.
The rich, diverse coffee from Ethiopia is not replicated anywhere else on Earth and it's difficult to believe how coffee can have such fruity and floral flavours until you sample some from this origin.
Coffee was first exported from Ethiopia in the 1600s and since then it has built a reputation for some truly spectacular and high quality coffee. A lot of this might have been because of the overthrow of Emporer Haile Selassie, which resulted in much of the land being nationalised and private land ownership being outlawed. This had the effect of coffee farming going back to its roots of harvesting from the wild and might be why there is now such a diverse range of coffee on offer.
Approximately 50% of production is grown at altitudes above 1,500 metres and Ethiopian coffee is now pretty much at the centre of the speciality coffee scene.
Within Ethiopia there are several coffee growing regions, each with their own distinct climate and therefore flavour.
- Harrar is amongst the highest grown of all and one certainly to look out for.
- Djimmah, where coffee grows wild at over 1,200 metres above sea level is sold at Limu and Babeka.
- Other coffees originate from Sidamo, which is commonly marketed as Yirgacheffe, and Lekempti.
Sidamo, Harrar and Yirgacheffe were trademarked by the Ethiopian government in order to bring recognition to the distinctive coffee grown in these regions.
Coffee from Kenya is world renowned for its satisfying aroma, a superb balance of acidity and body and excellent fruit characteristics.
The coffee tree was first introduced to Kenya by French missionaries who imported it in the late 19th century.
Most coffee in Kenya is grown at altitudes between 1,500 and 2,100 metres above sea level and there are often two harvests each year with the bulk of it grown by smallholder farmers who then deliver their crop to co-operative washing stations for processing.
The coffee cherries on a single tree ripen at different times so it is common during harvesting to conduct several passes through the trees to pick only the mature cherries.
A lot of coffee in Kenya is pooled, with the farmer being paid the average price for their particular quality grade. This system generally works well and usually means the farmer gets a fair price for their harvest. There are also now a number of estate grown coffees where full trace-ability is available.
The government in Kenya takes the coffee industry very seriously and it is actually illegal to uproot or destroy coffee trees.
The grading of coffee in Kenya is usually by size, with the assumption being that the larger the coffee bean the higher the quality. This is generally true but it is possible for some lower graded Kenyan coffee to be far superior in flavour than it's higher graded counterparts. So don't assume anything!
The coffee beans are graded as follows: -
- E (for Elephant) - the largest coffee beans
- AA (screen size 18) - the most common speciality coffee that attracts the highest prices
- AB (screen size 15/16) - the most common coffee grade
- PB (for Peaberry) - usually attracts a higher price, The pea-berry occurs when a mutation is present in the coffee cherry resulting in the usually two halves of the seed being fused into one. It's particularly sought after due to its rarity.
- C, which is the lowest grade and should not be present in speciality coffee!
Kenyan coffee has a very distinctive flavour and usually has notes of Blackcurrant and a fragrant aroma.
Prior to the first world war Germany ruled over Rwanda and they were originally responsible for introducing coffee to the country in 1904. After World War 1 Germany was stripped of its colonial ties to Rwanda and the country was handed over to Belgium. The Belgians loved the coffee so much they imported most of the beautiful beans coming out of Rwanda.
Coffee was Rwanda's most valuable export for a long time but the events of the 1990s decimated their coffee industry.
Fortunately they are well on the road to recovery and the coffee coming out of Rwanda, mainly fully washed Arabica, is now some of the best the African continent has to offer.
Most coffee beans are grown by very small farms that have formed into co-operatives. It's therefore common to find coffee traceable to a washing station and/or a co-operative but not to the original farm.
The flavours are usually quite rich with some very pronounced fruitiness, typically berries and red apples, along with a distinctly floral aroma.
The country of Malawi is less well known in coffee circles. It was originally introduced to the country in the late 19th century by a Scottish missionary, John Buchnan, who brought over a single tree from the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens.
Malawi has a small coffee export industry compared with the other African countries but is well known for its crops of the Geisha variety, which are sought after the world over.
The home of Mount Kilimanjaro certainly produces some interesting coffee. It's another country that doesn't have as well established an industry as Kenya, Ethiopia or Rwanda but the industry has grown in recent years albeit a large proportion of the coffee produced is of the Robusta variety.
Originally most of the coffee was grown in single estates but now more than 85% of the beans are sourced from co-operatives made up of smallholder farmers.The largest of these is the Kilimanjaro Cooperative Union (KNCU).
At its best the flavour is generally full and soft with less acidity than Kenyan coffee and is a very fulfilling coffee to drink.
The production of Arabica coffee in Uganda is quite small. The country has in the past produced mainly Robusta beans. However, certain areas of the country now produce some truly wonderful coffee, particularly in the north-east near Kenya and to the west of country in the area of Mount Rwenzori.
Uganda straddles the equator and the resulting climate has made Uganda one of the top producers of Robusta coffee beans.
One of the major problems in the country has been the lack of good quality road infrastructure to get the coffee to the ports of Mombasa in Kenya or Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
The industry was originally under the control of the Coffee Marketing Board, but this ended in 1990 and now most of the coffee is produced by private co-operatives.
Coffee production fell for a time when the government introduced a tax on coffee exports but there are now some great coffees coming out of Uganda and they are well worth a try.
Coffee was brought to Zambia and Kenya from Kenya and Tanzania in the early part of the 20th century.
The best quality Zambian coffees are excellent with a taste similar to, though lighter than, Kenyan coffee. It is grown in two areas to the north around Kasama and in Nakonde and Isoka districts as well as round the capital, Lusaka.
It is particularly good for blending and for darker roasting and is therefore a good coffee to be used in espresso drinks due to its lower acidity.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Since its independence in 1960 and the change of name from Zaire, the DR Congo has had very limited coffee production but is now firmly back on the coffee map with some excellent coffee beans now coming from the Lake Kivu area to the east on the border with Rwanda.
At its best the coffee can be excellent and rival some of that produced by Kenya. The growth of the industry is a slow process, especially since there is still on-going military action in the Kivu region, but investment into coffee processing facilities is picking up and it is to be hoped that this trend continues into the future.