It’s impossible to talk about coffee origins without starting in Africa, where it all began. The continent is known as the birthplace of Coffea arabica – the coffee plant that us specialty coffee drinkers cherish so dearly every morning. A combination of climatic conditions and elevation makes East Africa especially ripe for growing high-quality, specialty coffees. The region is wrapped by the “coffee belt” – a horizontal area between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, which provides the ideal humidity, rainfall and temperatures needed for growing quality coffee. Its mountains and raised plateaux further add to its suitability.
Ethiopia is one of the most fascinating coffee sources within Africa, if not the world. Not only is it the original birthplace of the Coffea arabica plant, it is also the largest producer of coffee on the continent (#5 in the world). Furthermore, its deep coffee culture helps explain its position as the largest domestic consumer of coffee in Africa. What makes Ethiopia so compelling for specialty coffee drinkers is the highly distinctive flavours found in the beans. This is often due to the many non-classified, wild varieties found around the country, often simply identified as “heirloom”.
Buying coffee from Burundi is not only an interesting journey in flavour – its high-quality Bourbon variety with sweet, berry and honey-like notes is among the most notorious – it’s also a way of showing your support for smallholder farmers in a struggling nation that relies heavily on coffee exports. Rather than large coffee estates, Burundi is made up almost entirely of smallholder and family-run farmers, whose recent embrace of specialty coffee means you can understand exactly who grew and processed the specialty beans you are enjoying.
Kenya’s farmers are known for the very high quality of their coffee beans, based on a deep knowledge of coffee growing and processing. Despite bordering on Ethiopia, the coffee beans from Kenya were originally imported from outside Africa, after they’d been grown on the French Réunion Island for several decades. Don’t be fooled by the Kenyan grading system (AA, AB, etc), which is actually a reference to the size of the beans and not the quality – you’ll find high-quality coffees at varying sizes. While it depends greatly on the variety of beans, Kenyan coffees are generally known for their complexity, with pleasant fruit-like acidity and a well-balanced sweetness.
The area around beautiful Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the most prominent for growing coffee in Tanzania. However, excellent arabica is found in other high-altitude, mountainous areas of the country as well. Compared to neighbouring Kenya, Tanzanian coffee is often seen as having a more wine-like acidity. Specialty coffee drinkers often associate the peaberry beans (very small) with Tanzania, though the country in fact offers a wide range of varieties and sizes. Tanzania coffee generally tends to be medium in body and is very soft and clean in the cup.
Despite being the second-largest producer of coffee in Africa, Uganda is often overshadowed by its more famous arabica-growing neighbours. Uganda has rich, fertile and mountainous land that makes it an ideal nation for growing specialty arabica, which it can do at high qualities. As the specialty coffee sector widens its search for alternative origins, Uganda is a nation to watch out for in the future. They have also ventured into higher quality Robusta, which is a plant native to Uganda. While it is often overlooked by consumers due to its perception as a “commodity coffee”, experimentation has led to the production of high-quality, specialty-grade Robusta coffee that is definitely worth trying.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), not to be confused with the smaller Republic of the Congo to the west, is home to very rich soils and high mountains – which are needed for growing excellent coffee. Once a major player in the coffee trade, DRC has been ravaged by civil war, which has seen its exports in the produce fall by up to 80 percent. Its road to recovery has seen it shift to growing higher-grade arabica coffee, which is known for being fruity and sweet. As most coffee is grown by smallholder farmers and cooperatives, tracing the source of the coffee is often very good.
Investing more heavily in coffee was a part of the country's recovery plan after the civil war of the mid 1990s. The vast majority of coffee from Rwanda is a high-quality Bourbon, with others such as Catuai and Caturra also available. Rwanda is particularly affected by Potato Defect, a bacteria that makes the roasted coffee taste like raw potato. Thankfully it is identifiable during the coffee cherry sorting phase which means each one is manually inspected – helping guarantee only the highest grade of coffee makes it through. The coffees are well appreciated for their delicate, sweet taste and pleasant, fruity-like acidity.
Geographically and climatically, Zambia has good potential for growing high-quality coffee. The production levels of coffee are low, and high-quality, specialty coffee is quite rare. When you do find one though, they are well worth tasting, with their clean flavours and a mild, fruity acidity.