| Lynsey Harley
We’re back with another segment in our journey through the wonderful world of Speciality Coffee. We've discovered the wonder of Central & South America, in this article we’re heading to the heart of coffee history, the place where it all began - or so legend has it...
Kaldi and the Dancing Goats
The legend goes that high up in the hills of Ethiopia, a goatherd (that’s a shepherd but for goats) named Kaldi was watching over his flock when he noticed them chowing down on small berries from a nearby bush, he then noticed a change in their behaviour as they appeared to be jumping around energetically - strange indeed.
So, he tried a couple of berries himself and was overcome with incredible vitality and energy. He took them to his local Sufi monastery where he met an Islamic monk who through the berries onto the fire in disapproval - coffee was considered to be more dangerous to society than opium in some quarters right up until the 19th century!
However, the heat from the fire released an invigorating aroma from the berries, so it was quickly scooped out and mixed with hot water to make a drink - that probably wasn’t too delicious to begin with! But over time coffee has swept across the world to become one of its oldest and most prized commodities. With the legend in mind, let’s kick off our favourite three African Speciality Coffee regions with Ethiopia.
Ethiopia - 384,000 tonnes of coffee exported in 2015/16
Despite being the root of its origins, Ethiopia has been widely overtaken by other countries in terms of coffee production and exports - it currently sits seventh in the standings. That may not come as a great surprise considering that Africa has some some of the most unique and volatile micro-climates and social economic climates in the world.
Its Yirgachefe district is famous worldwide for producing fascinating lots, the common understanding in coffee is that you know when you’re drinking a Yirgachefe! However, it is fair to say that coffee production in Ethiopia is quite widespread.
Ethiopia is also very hilly with its central plateau situated around 1200-3000masl - Yirgachefe sits around 1900masl. Due to its geographical location and terrain, Ethiopia is peppered with micro-climates that can resemble Alpine conditions on one hand and semi-desert conditions in the other.
Ethiopian Speciality Coffees, especially naturals, really do epitomise the history and the juxtaposition of farming conditions in Eastern Africa. There’s a real rich fruitiness to them, so you might get notes of figs, stoned fruits like peaches and sweet spices in a cup of Ethiopian coffee.
Kenya - 49,980 tonnes of coffee exported in 2015/16
For filter coffee fanatics, most will say that Kenyan coffee was what made them swap the espresso machine for an Aeropress - mine was at a cafe in Leeds near the Harvey Nic’s. It may not break the top 15 in terms of world coffee exports, but Kenya is one of the big players when it comes to Speciality Coffee.
To start with, around 70% of Kenyan coffee comes from small-hold farmers. This is important because in East Africa, lots can be distinctive even between farms that are only separated by a few miles.
Kenya’s central highlands are renowned as a perfect nursery for incubating incredibly delicate and refined coffees, thanks to the climate (of course) and its uniquely acidic soils. The common conception of Kenya is probably one of acrid plains and drought, which to some extent is true, but at higher altitudes the stable air temperature can be up to 12 degrees cooler. Like its neighbour, Ethiopia, Kenyan Speciality Coffees are generally farmed around 1800-2000masl.
If you haven’t tried a Kenyan Speciality Coffee yet I implore to do so! It’s an experience that is so far removed from the coffee that we’re used to in the UK, it’s almost like drinking a mild tea. Kenya coffees can be very delicate in their flavours, with notes of Lavendar, Jasmine or lemons juice, which makes them an incredible filter option - they can be very refreshing too!
Rwanda - 15,000 tonnes of coffee exported in 2015/16
It’s fair to say that Rwanda as a nation has been devastated with civil war and natural afflictions in its recent history and this has had a huge impact on its ability to produce coffee. But around 20 years ago things began to change and the barriers between Rwandan farmers and the global coffee market began to fade.
Still, up until around 7 years ago it was hard to source exceptional quality coffee from Rwanda as its resources and infrastructure needed to be rebuilt from scratch. There is also a common ‘defect’ in Rwandan coffees that can make a brew taste more like potato than anything else - although it is now argued that this is a not so much a defect as it is a characteristic - here's a great article about it from the SCAA.
Despite all that, Rwanda now joins its much larger neighbours in producing some truly excellent coffees with its own very unique characteristics. Even in its high mountain regions at around 4000masl, the average day temperature can reach as high as 23 degrees! This scorching heat can cause cherries to ripen very quickly, which can give you an incredible blend of rich fruitiness with a vibrant zing of citrus acidity.
That’s why flavour notes for a lot of Rwanda coffees will mention things like black currants, raisins and red apples. As more and more Rwandan Speciality Coffees become available, its popularity is rapidly growing and we now always have at least one Rwandan option running at our roastery.
That concludes the roundup of 3 of our favourite African Speciality Coffee growing regions. There are, of course, an array of coffee growers on this captivating continent such as Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and many others. My advice with African coffees is, if you see one you haven’t tried before, then buy it, because incredible lots usually come in short supply and you can’t guarantee that next year’s harvest will be the same. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.
Written By - Alex Rogers
Psst… What did you think of this article? Do you have a favourite Speciality Coffee origin in Africa? Why not let us know in the comments section. You can also email me directly for any coffee related thoughts or queries.