African Coffee Guide: Varieties and Brands You Should Know
Experts have long been recognizing Kenya and Ethiopia as specialty coffee powerhouses. Now other African nations are coming into their own.
And we say hail to that!
Emerging players like Burundi and Tanzania offer high-grade African coffee that is good enough to rival the old guard.
Keep reading as we explore the African coffee industry through 6 of its biggest producers. We’ll talk about growing regions and flavor profiles. As a bonus, we’ll recommend some od the best African coffee beans you can try for yourself.
At A Glance:
African Coffees: 6 Countries Growing Quality Coffee
Many African nations grow coffee, particularly in East Africa. But only a few countries export high-quality Arabica coffee beans to the Western market. Here are six African coffee regions you should know. From Ethiopia and Kenya’s well-established coffee regions, to up-and-coming producers like Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Coffee is now grown around the world, but Ethiopia is considered its homeland. Plus, it’s the largest coffee producer in Africa. The environment is so perfectly suited for the crop that Ethiopian coffee grows wild, with more than a thousand different varietals present in the country. Perhaps not coincidentally, Ethiopia is one of few African nations that regularly consume coffee. Only about 50% of the crop is for export.
Coffee grows throughout the country. Yet, the high-elevation southern regions are most renowned internationally. Among these is the province of Sidamo, within which the town of Yirgacheffe produces coffee that is coveted worldwide. Other popular origins are the Guji region and Harrar.
The better natural processed coffees maintain the clean citric and floral notes with a touch of added sweetness and body compared to their washed counterparts.
You’ll rarely find high-end Ethiopian coffee given a dark roast as this can mask the subtle and complex flavors.
Volcanica Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Coffee
To try an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee for yourself, pick up a bag of these Organic and Fairtrade beans from Volcanica Coffee. These light-medium roasted coffee beans are wet-processed to yield an exotic and brightly acidic coffee with lemon, blueberry, and blackberry notes.
Kenya doesn’t grow as much coffee as Ethiopia nor has quite as long a history. However, Kenya AA beans are recognized worldwide for their quality. This didn’t happen by chance; the country has invested heavily in research and coffee production to achieve this reputation.
The Kenyan coffee system’s unique aspect is the Coffee Auction. This is a weekly government-run auction in which roasters and green coffee dealers bid on the beans. The Auction is considered the most transparent selling method, and it helps farmers get higher prices for better beans (1).
The most prized Kenyan coffee beans are SL-28 and SL-34, so named because Scott Labs developed them. The beans are graded by size, with Kenyan AA coffee being the largest and most valued.
Most coffee from Kenya is grown by small-scale producers and cooperatives. Kenya’s biggest coffee regions are the high plateaus around Mount Kenya. The coffee is known for being full-bodied with bright acidity. The flavors are complex and delicate, featuring juicy fruits like blackcurrant and citrus and a spicy winy character.
Peet’s Kenya Auction Lot
Peet’s has had years of experience with the Kenyan auction system, which gives them an advantage in purchasing the best beans. They bid only on the choicest lots, ensuring you’re getting the cream of the crop with this single origin offering. It’s a medium-dark roasted coffee with a bright character, full-body, and flavor notes of citrus, caramel, and cassis.
Burundi is one of the ten most impoverished nations in the world. As an origin, it’s relatively new to the international specialty coffee scene. Yet, it’s quickly making a splash.
The fledgling coffee production industry has huge potential to improve the quality of life for the over 800,000 families involved in the sector.
They export a whopping 100% of their coffee, with washed-processed Bourbon varietals making up the top end.
Burundi’s entire country is relatively high in elevation. Its lowest point is over 2500 feet and the highest soaring over 8700 feet above sea level. As a result, most of the region’s coffees are awarded the coveted Strictly High Grown designation.
Because Burundi shares a border with Rwanda, you can expect similarities in the two nations’ coffee. The flavors are clean and delicate, with notes of bright fruits and florals. The beans that are grown at high altitude taste of citrus, ripe berries, and tropical fruits. In contrast, those from the lower elevations are more chocolatey and nutty with lower acidity.
Joe’s Coffee Burundi Kibingo
To try this up-and-coming coffee region for yourself, check out the Burundi Kibingo coffee from Joe’s Coffee. It’s a light-medium roasted beans grown at high elevation, over 6000 feet above sea level. The flavor profile is sweet, with notes of tropical fruit and dark sugars, but it’s balanced by bright green apple acidity.
4. Democratic Republic of Congo
Decades of war and civil unrest have taken a toll on the coffee industry in the Democratic Republic of Congo. So, establishing and maintaining infrastructures like roads, clean water, and electricity is a continuous challenge. On top of that, high export taxes led to many DRC coffee being smuggled out and sold under a different name (2).
However, despite those hardships, the DRC manages to produce some very fine coffee, mainly the Red Bourbon varietal grown high in the Kivu Mountains. According to Kamabale Kisumba Kamungele, president of the Congolese Chapter of the African Fine Coffee Association:
When the coffee is properly cultivated and processed with really good care, it has been shown that it is of a really good quality.
Recently, assistance from development organizations and the Specialty Coffee Association is helping expand the industry. The best coffee from the DRC has a heavy body and creamy mouthfeel. Expect a deep and intense flavor profile, berries, stone fruits, brown spices, and underlying hints of acidic citrus.
Portrait Kawa Kanzururu
If you want to sample a high-quality DRC coffee, we suggest this tart and sweet brew from Portrait. It’s a refreshing whole bean African coffee with a deep brown sugar sweetness that is nicely balanced by bright notes of raspberry and tropical fruit. You might even detect a touch of rooibos tea. Just as impressive, it’s both Organic and Fair Trade certified.
Rwanda’s coffee bean industry took a big hit in the 1990s when the Rwandan Genocide threw the country into chaos. Still, thanks to the development of a National Coffee Strategy, it has returned to prominence in the past two decades. Rwanda is now one of the top 30 coffee-growing countries globally and 9th in Africa. Still, its future is in question as youth seek more stable employment (3).
As with the rest of the region, production comes primarily from small farms at high elevation. They all produce Arabica coffee of the Bourbon varietal. Most of the beans from Rwanda are wet-processed at communal washing stations. some of which have become world-famous for their quality products.
Rwandan coffee is popular for having a silky texture and a rich body that is often described as buttery.
The flavors are varied, including juicy berries, florals, lemon or orange citrus, white chocolate, nuts, caramel, and spices. The bright acidity of the best Rwandan coffees leads them to be favorably compared with high-end Kenya AA coffee.
Huckleberry Gasharu Natural
Natural processing is common in East Africa. But Huckleberry Gasharu Natural is one of few Home Grounds has encountered from Rwanda. And it is a delicious example of the genre, likely because Huckleberry’s head roaster is a former US Roasting Champion. The Gasharu Natural is a juicy light-medium roast with honey sweetness offset by a tart hibiscus acidity and just a hint of exciting watermelon. Don’t miss it!
Coffee is Tanzania’s largest export crop, and with 70% of it being Arabica beans, it’s increasingly finding prominence in the specialty coffee bean market. Japan is the biggest importer of Tanzanian coffee, with America close behind. Though interestingly, most of the Tanzanian coffee exported to the U.S. is Tanzanian peaberry coffee, which is said to be sweeter and more flavorful.
Coffee production is spread around the country, with nine major growing areas. As compared with other African nations, coffee varies considerably throughout Tanzania due to differences in elevation, climate, production, and processing.
Most of the coffee is grown by small farmers using banana trees for natural shade. Some of the highest-end coffees are found in the foothills around Mt. Kilimanjaro, the best known of which are Moshi, Kilimanjaro, and Arusha. They all earn the designation of Strictly High Grown.
Tanzanian coffee is known for bold flavors and acidity. The high grown African coffee beans from Kilimanjaro resembled some of the best Ethiopian coffees in their fruity and floral character. You can taste notes of kiwi, juicy berries, and sweet chocolate, with darker roasts yielding a spicier character.
African coffee is some of the finest in the world. Though known collectively for their fruity flavors and winy acidity, each country offers unique assets thanks to differences in production, processing, and climate.
While we’ve covered the African coffee powerhouses on this page, there are many other African nations producing high quality beans: Ivory Coast coffee, Madagascar coffee and Cameroon coffee beans are among the many less well-known, but up and coming coffees coming out of Africa.
Use this guide to choose your favorite African coffee growing region, or better yet, treat yourself to a continental feast of coffee and try them all!
Other African countries that export specialty coffee include Malawi, Uganda, and Zambia, but they remain small players. Stay tuned because we’ll be reporting more on these African coffee growing regions as their prestige increases.
A good coffee growing region has the ideal combination of soil, climate, and altitude. In general, Arabica plants thrive at high elevations and in mineral-rich, well-drained soil, a variety often found on the slopes of volcanoes. They also prefer a mild climate, with no extreme temperatures and a little variation between day and night.
Yes, many African countries grow Robusta coffee beans, though they are less often for export. Uganda is the fourth Robusta coffee producing country in the world. The biggest African coffee producers of Robusta beans in 2020, in order, were Uganda, Cote D’Ivoire, Cameroon, Tanzania, and Madagascar.
- Kornman, C. (2018, June 25). Auctioning Coffees at Origin: Kenya’s Coffee Exchange. Retrieved from https://dailycoffeenews.com/2018/06/25/auctioning-coffees-at-origin-kenyas-coffee-exchange/
- Beeston, M. (2019, May 16). Understanding the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Coffee Industry. Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2019/05/understanding-the-democratic-republic-of-congos-coffee-industry/
- Baker-Woodside, M. (2020, February 10). Why Rwandan Youth Are Turning Away From Coffee Production. Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2020/02/why-rwandan-youth-are-turning-away-from-coffee-production/