Your Guide to the World of African Coffee
As you well know, coffee beans are grown the world over. When it comes to tasting the terroir that each of these regions bring to the cup (the taste of which will have been shifted by qualities like the soil, the altitude at which it was grown, and the variety of the bean grown), some areas are more exciting than others. The world of African coffee - despite having a firm grasp of the fascination of the world’s coffee aficionados - still remains to be something of a mystery.
When it comes to rich aromas, dazzling flavour profiles and complex tasting notes that make even the professional taster giddy (did someone say blueberry?), African coffee has very few competitors.
African beans produce notes that can’t be found anywhere else the world over. Plus, many of the varieties of coffee that African coffee farmers grow are completely wild, so remain uncatalogued. Intriguing, right?
As a result, they come as a highly sought after variety for coffee shops and home brewers alike. These intriguing beans are brewed all across the world, thanks to their noteworthy richness, the rare flavour notes that they offer, and the skill of the farmers who produce them.
So, for those of you wondering ‘What makes African coffee beans so special?’, let’s find out.
A brief history of African coffee
African coffee is loved the world over for both its sensational profile and its rich, intriguing history (we coffee boffins love a good food origin story, after all).
The origin story of coffee is one which, although the exact details cannot be set in stone, is surrounded by myths and legends. According to the most popular origin story of coffee, the world’s roaring coffee trade all started way back in the 9th century, in ancient Ethiopian coffee forests.
A goat herder, named Kaldi, discovered the beans within the coffee fruit. Apparently, his herd wolfed a few down and were filled with energy - so much so that they couldn’t sleep later that night. After tasting the beans himself, Kaldi quickly shared the beans with the local monastery. At first, they were dismissed and tossed into the fire. But, when the (now roasted) beans produced a rather delicious smell, they were reclaimed from the fire and their properties investigated. We even named our dog 'Kaldi'!!!
The monks crushed the beans and added water. From there, the beverage spread across the monastery and then, over time, across the country from monastery to monastery. It’s a rather romantic story, but it certainly has historical ground (the story dates all the way back to 1671 where it was first recorded). Yet, because it was written so many centuries after the supposed discovery took place, we have to cite it with a pinch of scepticism and class it as a legend rather than fact, unfortunately.
Now, over a thousand years later, advancements in genealogy has enabled scientists to confirm that the origins of our coffee beans can indeed be traced back to the African variety of the coffee plant and, most likely, more specifically in Ethiopia.
Today, Africa’s reputation for exquisite coffee is as solid as ever. Africa’s main coffee growing regions can be found in the continent’s coffee belt. Each of these regions brings something special to the table, in the form of astounding and entirely unique flavour notes. Whether it be chocolate and orange notes from Rwanda, or Kenyan coffee’s tropical and blackcurrant notes.
Africa’s most famous coffee-growing regions include Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia (widely revered by coffee pilgrims as the birthplace of coffee).
In addition to this list, African countries that are less well known in the coffee world, but still produce stunning beans include the likes of Cameroon, Malawi and Zambia.
In countries such as Kenya, the country’s coffee industry has been carefully structured - with sophisticated research and advanced processing techniques being invested in - in order to put it in the best position to thrive into the future. Their innovations include a unique open auction export system and a communal local co-operative washing station that small-scale plantations can use to process their coffee.
Kenya Coffee Auction:
We buy some fantastic coffees directly from Kenya through Dormans coffee who help us to source coffee from the Kianderi washing station every year.
Africa’s coffee is typically grown by small-hold farmers. Often, African coffee beans come from family-owned farms where a lot of the work is done by hand. In Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya for example, almost all of the country’s coffee is grown as “garden coffees” on farms that are less than a hectare in size.
Small hold family farm in Rwanda:
Ethiopia - the birthplace of coffee
Thanks to Kaldi’s (literally world-changing) discovery, Ethiopia has been heralded as coffee’s mythical birthplace ever since. And there’s no doubt in any coffee lover’s mind that Ethiopian coffee continues to live up to this mighty reputation - Ethiopia provides the world with an exceptional diversity of magnificent coffee varieties.
Scientists have estimated that there could be as many as thousands of different wild (and so uncatalogued) varieties of coffee beans in Ethiopia alone. If this kind of endeavour excites you, keep your eyes peeled for a coffee that’s been labeled as ‘heirloom’, as this term tells you that the beans’ genetic provenance is unknown.
Ethiopian coffee is also known for its common usage of ‘natural’, dry processing methods, in which the beans are sun-dried. In addition, its famous, trademark flavour profiles include delicate florals, or the rare blueberry note.
Africa’s other coffee-growing regions have had about a century to practice their craft. Ethiopia, meanwhile, has had over a millennium to perfect coffee growing to an art. Ethiopia provides 3% of the world’s coffee supply. While this only earns it the ranking of the globe’s fifth-largest producer of coffee, the impact that coffee has on Ethiopia’s domestic trade and employment is astounding. More than half (60%) of its entire foreign income can be attributed to coffee. What’s more, over a quarter of working-age Ethiopians (15 million people) are employed in its coffee trade.
Typical flavour profiles
The typical flavour profiles that exist in the majority of African coffee are bright, juicy, washed coffees, with floral, fruity and natural notes. Sounds divine.
These rare and unique-to-Africa fruity notes exist in these beans due to a combination of the right soil and climate, as well as the high altitudes at which they are grown. The altitude of African coffee is usually about 1200-2000m (for example, much of Kenya’s coffee is actually grown around Mount Kenya at 1600m plus and coffee from Rwanda tends to be grown at 1600m plus). This high altitude is ideal for growing coffee.
The key varietals of coffee that are typically grown in Africa include the likes Red Bourbon found in Rwanda and Burundi and SL28 and 34 found in Kenya. Ethiopian varietals are complex and very diverse with coffee growing wild as a native tree.
Red Bourbon coffee tree flowers in Rwanda:
At Horsham Coffee Roaster , we roast a wide range of stunning, aromatic beans from Kenya and Rwanda. We trade with the farmers directly in both of these countries and often feature different processing methods. We also love finding interesting coffees from Ethiopia, Congo, Burundi and Uganda and you can find these amazing coffees in our Single Origin Coffee section.