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Coffee Origins 101: Africa
Written by: Garrett Oden
The world’s coffee growing regions are amazingly diverse and complex. For this blog post, we’ll cover the area of the world that coffee originally comes from, as well as the area of the world that launched coffee as a commercial product in coffee houses.
Africa, the world’s second largest (and wildly misunderstood) continent.
Let’s jump right in!
Considered the birthplace of coffee (and, by some, the birthplace of mankind), Ethiopia’s a legendary land for coffee. Coffee growing, harvesting, and drinking is part of daily life for many.
Our oldest stories of coffee go back to around 800 AD, but who knows how long coffee has truly been beloved by Ethiopians?
One of the distinct aspects of Ethiopian coffee is the incredible genetic diversity. There’s 99% more genetic material in Ethiopia’s coffee alone than in the entire rest of the world!
Most plant varieties haven’t been formally identified, so we call these “heirloom” varieties. Most coffee plants grow on land that doesn’t look like a farm at all. It just looks like a forest - and it is... a coffee forest!
Coffee in Ethiopia is enjoyed in ceremonial fashion. You don’t just brew a mug. You roast, grind, and brew in an hour-long sitting to show great respect and hospitality.
Flavor-wise, Ethiopian coffees are all over the board. However, there’s a characteristic “exoticness” that can be found in all Ethiopians, whether it’s the winey acidity, the vibrant berry notes, or the rich sweetness.
Ethiopian Coffee At A Glance
Flavor: Fruity, Bold, Sweet, Crisp
Processing: Natural, Washed
Main Growing Regions: Sidama, Yirgacheffe, Harrar, Gesha
Harvest: November to February
Though Kenya is practically next door to Ethiopia, the very birthplace of coffee, the tea-loving country didn’t start growing coffee commercially till around 1900. Scottish and French missionaries brought the crop to finance their mission work and coffee quickly became a profitable crop.
When Kenya achieved independence from Britain in the 60’s, most farms were split up among local workers. In 2000, 85% of farms in Kenya were owned by natives. Most are quite small, some even having as little as 150 trees.
Most coffee sold in Kenya is sold through Nairobi’s auction market, though some farms sell through various forms of direct trade.
In terms of flavor, Kenyan coffees can be quite diverse. Many of them have a juicy, fruity acidity. Many also have a deep, dark sweetness like that of dark brown sugar or dark fruit.
Kenya Coffee At A Glance
Flavor: Tart acidity, juicy mouthfeel, dark sweetness, floral
Processing: Washed, Natural
Main Growing Regions: Bungoma, Kiambu, Mt. Elgon, Nyeri
Harvest: October to January, March to June
Rwanda had various colonial investors bring coffee to the country before the 1900’s, but German and Belgian missionaries in the first decade of the century are largely responsible for shaping the country’s industry.
These missionaries brought low-grade, low-cost, but high-volume varieties to Rwanda. So, while yields were quite significant up till the 1990’s, the quality was on the low end.
The Rwandan Genocide of 1994 brought tragedy, and along with it, a damaged coffee industry. In the early 2000’s, the government subsidized the farming of quality-focused varieties as a means of encouraging economic recovery in “the land of a thousand hills”.
Specialty-grade Rwandan coffees often have a deep earthy flavor with subtle notes of fruits, flowers, and spices. They can be quite complex and satisfying.
Rwanda Coffee At A Glance
Flavor: Earthy, fruity, floral, spice, crisp acidity
Main Growing Regions: Lake Kivu, Butare, Nyanza, Ngoma District
Harvest: March to July
This small nation’s coffee industry has been a rollercoaster over the last century. Colonized by Belgium, the country saw coffee rise as a cash crop. Sadly, the locals didn’t get to see many of those profits.
After Burundi gained independence in the 1960’s, coffee became privatized, but many farmers didn’t want to continue growing the crop of their oppressors. So coffee fell into decline.
The civil wars of the 1990’s devastated the economy, but coffee emerged as a viable path to recovery. Many farmers picked up coffee again by planting quality-forward varieties. These thousands of small farmers established centrally located collective mills where they process and sell their crops.
Burundian coffees have the characteristic crisp acidity and floral notes of East Africa. Many tasters identify the acidity to be like that of a soda: tangy and bright.
Burundi Coffee At A Glance
Flavor: Complex, sweet, spicy, floral, crisp
Processing: Washed, Natural
Main Growing Regions: Gitega, Karuzi, Kayanza, Kirundo, Muyinga, Ngozi
Harvest: March to July
On the other side of the continent, the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) has a rather large coffee industry.
Coffee was brought by French colonizers in the late 1800’s. In the 1970’s, after World War II, Ivory Coast was briefly the world’s 3rd largest exporter of coffee, falling behind only Colombia and Brazil.
It was still the #1 exporter of Robusta beans till the 80’s, though today it’s been displaced by Vietnam and Brazil by a large margin.
The modern coffee industry in Ivory Coast is on the decline, mostly as a result of political upheaval and civil wars in the early 2000’s. However, the country’s new government wants to see the sector grow 400% by 2020.
Since most coffee grown in the country is from robusta plants, these coffees tend to have dark flavors like chocolate, nuts and spice. And, of course, they also tend to have that characteristic bitterness of robusta.
Ivory Coast Coffee At A Glance
Flavor: Chocolate, nuts, spice, bitter
Harvest: November to January
Robusta plants are native to Uganda, and commercial production began in the 1800’s. Around 1900, arabica plants were brought from Malawi and Ethiopia. In 2015, Uganda passed Mexico as the 8th largest coffee exporter in the world.
Though most coffee plants grown are still of the robusta variety, the country’s not without tasty, specialty-grade arabica. These beans often have a deep earthy flavor with a crisp acidity and full body.
However, in an event that shocked many, Uganda has also grown some specialty-grade robusta. That’s right - robusta beans that taste as good as any arabica beans.
Ugandan Coffee At A Glance
Flavor: Earthy, spicy, crisp acidity, full body
Processing: Washed, Natural
Main Growing Regions: Mbale, Bugisu, Kibale
Harvest: March to April, August to September
There are over a dozen more countries that grow coffee, but each on a very small scale. Here are a few that deserve a quick honorable mention:
Coffee from Zimbabwe is often regarded as equal to Kenyan coffee. These offerings are complex, have that fascinating winey acidity, and medium body.
Most Tanzanian coffees are typically grown on Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru, near the Kenyan border. These fertile slopes give these coffees a crisp acidity and sweet floral tones.
The tiny nation of Malawi grows very little coffee, and the beans tend to have a soft floral flavor and mild acidity. They are often considered on the “gentle” side of East African coffee flavor.
Africa’s history and cultural diversity have contributed to a coffee landscape that cannot be summed up in this blog post. There’s so much to taste, so many ways coffee is grown and processed, and so many cultural groups that rely on coffee for their livelihood.
If you’d like to explore the complex landscape of African coffee, check out our Coffee Club. We source beans from the best farms in the world (including several in Africa), roast those beans with precision, and ship them to you on the same day.
That means you get uber-fresh coffee that still has all its flavor. And that means you get to experience African coffees at their best.Sound good to you? Check it out!