Africa is home to many of the finest African coffee beans in the world, from Ethiopia and Kenya in the East to Rwanda where top quality arabica beans are cultivated to West African countries including Senegal and Cameroon where robusta coffee beans are mostly grown.
We'll look briefly at some of the regions in this article: Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi. Though to be fair, coffee beans from Africa are widely cultivated throughout the continent, and even grows wild in many areas.
Ethiopia has three main regions that produce African coffee beans: Harrar, Ghimbi and Sidamo, or Yirgacheffe. Harrar beans come from small farms and are dry-processed. They are labeled “longberry” for large and “shortberry” for small or Mocha (which is the size of a peaberry).
The Ethiopian coffee has a strong dry edge, wine-like to fruity acidity, a rich aroma and heavy in body. In the best crops you can smell blueberries or blackberries. Ethiopian is often used in espresso blends in order the capture the aromatics in the crema (the thin layer of foam atop an espresso).
Ghimi and Yirgacheffe produce washed coffees. The Ghimbi beans grown in western parts are more balanced, heavier and longer lasting body than the Harrars. The Yirgacheffe coffee bean is the most flavored of all the Ethiopian beans, grown in the southern part of the country. Mild, fruity and aromatic, you may see it labeled Sidamo, which refers to the district where it is grown and harvested.
Uganda produces mostly Robusta beans that are typically used in instant coffees but the Arabica beans it does produce are similar to Kenyan coffee. The best Ugandan coffee comes from the western slopes of Mt. Elgon called Bugishu.
Robusta has been in Uganda for centuries and wild varieties of it still grow in Uganda’s rain forests. Both Robusta and Arabica trees are grown in the shade of banana trees and harvested about twice a year. 300,000 farmers grow coffee, which makes up 95% of the country’s exports.
Ugandan farmers grow mostly Robusta since it is easier for farmers with little money for equipment and none to hire help. The more well-off farmers can afford to farm Arabica, which is more work and more expensive but also pays off better. Ugandan Arabica is of medium intensity, sweet with a hint of the rustic, has a good body that is husky yet clean and makes an interesting espresso.
Kenya coffee has a distinctly bright acidity and is sweet with a dry wine aftertaste. Their best has a black-currant flavor and aroma. Auctions are held in Nairobi each Tuesday during the harvest season, leading to price wars for the best crops.
Most are produced by small cooperatives instead of large estates, wet-processed and graded by size of the bean. Kenyan coffee is acidic (possessing bright notes) and brightens the palate. Depending on which farm it came from it has a berry or citrus flavor alternating sometimes with spice. Some are bright and clean while others have the wine-like flavor.
Kenya has produced a disease resistant hybrid called Ruiru 11 but it lacks some of the best flavor characteristics of the traditional coffee and is considered low grade. They are still developing this bean, hoping to make it as good as the natural crop.
Tanzania is similar to Kenyan but lacks its consistency and quality. Most is grown on Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru, is wet-processed and graded using the same letter system as the rest of African coffee. A good Tanzania batch will be bright and aggressive in flavor. Unfortunately, coffee sent from Tanzania can be inconsistent; the beans "steam" in shipping containers on the way to port. This is called "aging". Depending on the length and conditions of the journey, one batch might be very disappointing or mediocre while another might be excellent.
Malawi is a small country between Mazambique and Zambia in southeastern Africa. Its coffee is smooth and full bodied, a real treat to the palate. Very little of it reaches the Western hemisphere so if you see some you should seize the opportunity to taste it. You'll note that it is softer and more floral in the style of East Africa and is sweet, delicate and bright.
Many other countries produce coffee beans in Africa, but whether due to crop sizes, bean quality, economic conditions, export restrictions, etc. we don't usually see much of it work its way into our cafes.
Still, it's worth keeping an eye out for if you're interested in single bean varieties of African coffee. Otherwise you might find that it's included as multi-varietal or even some of the multi-region blends that you already drink. More's the pity.