A Roaster’s Guide to Ugandan Specialty Coffee
Not so long ago, Ugandan specialty coffee was almost unheard of. This East African country was mainly known for its Robusta crops. Yet times are changing: over the last ten years, Arabica production has boomed and Uganda is starting to make a name for itself among third wave roasters and coffee lovers.
But what coffee profiles will you find? When is the harvest? What are the different producing regions? We spoke to several coffee professionals to find out more about Uganda’s coffee. Here’s what we learned.
Spanish Version: Guía para Tostadores del Café de Especialidad de Uganda
Vincent Mwenda, right, was an assistant field officer and is now asst. manager at the Kapchorwa washing station. Alice Neumbe is one of the producers at this model farm. Credit: Genuine Origin
What’s So Special About Ugandan Coffee?
Uganda is an excellent location for coffee growing. In past decades, armed conflict has hurt the industry – especially in the producing region of the West Nile during the ‘90s. However, the country boasts richly fertile land, with volcanic soil to the east and west, and plenty of rainfall. Certain parts of the country have two harvests: April to June and October to February.
In some places, farms sit up to 2,300 m.a.s.l., with the resulting cooler temperatures leading to more complex coffees. These farms tend to be small, often less than half a hectare in size. Intercropping provides good shade under which the coffee can grow – another element that creates cooler temperatures and generally healthier plants.
Washed processing is common, although you will find some natural processed coffees as well. Natural processed coffees range from low-quality, defective beans to high-quality, specialty-grade ones.
Danny Bee, 2016 UAE Barista Championship Finalist, tells me that Uganda’s varied terroir creates a wide range of flavor profiles, from sun-dried tomatoes to florals. “An abundance of sunshine and rain enables Ugandan Arabica coffees to go through a slow development that leads to full-flavored beans,” he explains.
Rubens Gardelli, Q Grader, four-time Italian Roasting Champion, two-time Italian Brewers Cup Champion, one-time World Brewers Cup Championship 1st Runner-Up, and Owner of Gardelli Specialty Coffees, also appreciates Ugandan coffee. In fact, he chose to use the country’s beans in competition – and is looking to work with more Ugandan coffees in future.
Coffee cherries in the hands of coffee farmers. Credit: Genuine Origin
Improving Farming & Processing Methods
For Rubens, the decision to use Ugandan coffees was based on his ability to work with the smallholder farmers to improve the quality of the production and processing. He tells me that the farmer in question successfully implemented his suggestions and was rewarded with an excellent crop (as well as specialty-grade prices).
Rubens isn’t the only who’s impressed by Uganda’s willingness to adopt specialty farming methods. We spoke to Anneke Fermont, Regional Sustainability Manager at Kyagalanyi Coffee. Kyagalanyi Coffee is a Ugandan coffee company and sister organization of Genuine Origin. In her role, Anneke works with over 60 field staff that provide different services to around 12,000 Arabica-farming households.
Anneke Fermont, Regional Sustainability Manager at Kyagalanyi Coffee, visits a coffee farm. Credit: Genuine Origin
Anneke tells me that Uganda has been receiving increased recognition for the quality of its Arabica coffee, and that this is “the result of 10 years of training smallholder farmers to improve coffee quality and a lot of attention to detail.”
For example, Kyagalanyi Coffee processes every lot of coffee separately. “[We can] provide full traceability of every lot back to the individual farmers that supplied coffee into the lot,” Anneke explains.
Faith Asaji, Kyagalanyi Coffee’s Head of Quality Control, tells me a similar story. She says that quality is improving, thanks to the building of wet mills close to farmers and the provision of bonuses for exemplary crops. These bonuses are offered as “cash or fertilizer, supplied at the right time of the year from reputable suppliers and with advice on what is needed for each area.”
She continues, “Because of the work we’ve been doing, we believe our coffees this season are not only some of the best to ever come out of Uganda, but are serious competitors to better-know origins.”
Anneke working in the field with Vincent Mwenda. Credit: Genuine Origin
Uganda’s 3 Arabica-Growing Regions
Uganda has always been famous for its Robusta coffee, an indigenous species that still grows wild in the country’s rainforests. Yet you’ll also find Arabica growing in three regions: Mount Elgon in the east, the Rwenzori Mountains in the southwest, and West Nile in the northwest. Each origin is unique, with different coffee profiles and production methods.
Mount Elgon lies on the country’s eastern border with Kenya, and is actually East Africa’s oldest volcano. Coffee farms perch on its sides, shaded by forest cover and gaining vital moisture from steep water gullies. At lower altitudes, the harvest season is June to December; at higher altitudes, it doesn’t begin until July and will last until February.
On specialty farms, cherries are typically hand-picked before being washed processed. Transporting the coffee can be difficult because of the steep terrain – in some parts, sure-footed donkeys are the best way to safely get from the farm to the mill.
The Bugisu region on the western slopes of Mount Elgon is particularly well-known for its fruity, wine-like coffees. Yet more commonly you’ll taste sweet, citrusy coffees with notes of raisins and figs, such as those from Gibuzali and Kapchorwa washing stations.
Organic farming is the norm, but the use of fertiliser is also slowly growing. What’s more, Kyagalanyi Coffee has also been working with farmers to encourage stumping, which increases coffee productivity.
Mount Elgon Coffee Nursery. Credit: Genuine Origin
SEE ALSO: Coffee Regions 101: What Sets East Africa Apart?
The West Nile region sits in northwestern Uganda, with farms between 1,300 and 1,600 m.a.s.l. Indigenous trees, such as the banyan tree, are used as shade on multi-generational farms. Coffees from this region are typically washed processed and known for their citrus profiles.
Commonly known as the “mountains of the moon,” this range lies along Uganda’s southwestern border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Coffee is grown on the slopes of the mountains at 1,500 to 2,300 m.a.s.l. Volcanic, nitrogen-rich soil creates a terroir well-suited to coffee. Natural processing is most common here, although you can also find washed processing if you look for it.
Coffee flower blossom. Credit: Genuine Origin
As Ugandan coffee professionals focus on quality, the country’s Arabica is beginning to demand attention for its sweet, citrusy flavors. Faith is confident that this will only continue in the future. “[Uganda] has great unrecognised potential,” she says, “which we are just beginning to really to tap into.”
But don’t just take our word for it. As the harvest season begins, why not try some Ugandan coffees and let their delicious profiles speak for themselves?
Please note: This article has been sponsored by Genuine Origin.
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