Your buying guide for Uganda Coffee
We all know a bit about Uganda coffee: beans from this region are found in shops and cafes all around the world. Hardly surprising, when you consider the number of coffee exports coming from the country.
Uganda produces 290,000 metric tons of coffee annually, making it the eighth biggest grower in the world, and Africa's second-biggest after Ethiopia. To put it another way, that's almost 5 million 60-kilo bags - no wonder it is the nation's highest-earning export. But what makes it so successful?
How to grow coffee in Uganda
Uganda presents the perfect conditions for coffee production. It is sunny most of the year, with average daily temperatures of 27C (81F); they rarely climb above 30C. Rain also falls regularly throughout the year, apart from in the dry months of June and July, creating an optimal environment for multiple coffee regions.
Covering 93,000 sq miles, most of the country sits on a plateau rising from 2,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level, with mountains and valleys around the perimeter. The peaks in the Rwenzori mountains climb to over 16,000 ft. The terrain provides plenty of rich, volcanic soil on the hillsides where the coffee is grown, much of it on terraced farms, or fincas. Robusta grows in fertile soil at altitudes of 2,500 ft to 4,200 ft above sea level, while 6,000 ft upwards accommodates Arabica varietals.
But the impressive number of export shipments don't tell the full story of the coffee industry here...
Where does Robusta Coffee come from?
Uganda's name is written indelibly in the story of coffee for one special reason: it gave Robusta Coffee to the world. Most of the world's soluble coffee is made from Robusta, and the beans from Uganda are said to be some of the finest.
Uganda is the birthplace of this iconic bean, which makes up 80% of the country's coffee output. The East African nation is the world's fourth-biggest producer of Robusta, after Vietnam, Brazil and Indonesia. Native to its Kibaale Forest region, it grows well in fertile, volcanic soil at lower altitudes, between 2,500 ft and 4,200 ft above sea level. Hardy and easy to grow, it has a dependable quality and flavour. In some areas in the west of the country, the Robusta coffee trees continue to grow wild, although recently marketing has begun to promote one specialty coffee from this location, Kibaale Wild.
The main crops of the Robusta bean come from two varieties - Nganda and Erecta, many of the older and poorer quality trees are gradually being substituted by the Clonal Robusta, whose yield can be up to four times higher than the traditional ones. Thankfully there is little danger that the supply of beans for our favourite blends will dry up any time soon!
The remaining 20% of coffee from Uganda comes from Arabica beans. Arabica coffee was introduced from Ethiopia and Malawi in the 1920s. It thrives at a higher altitude, 5,000 ft and above, and in lower temperatures. It is cultivated on the slopes of Mount Elgon on the border with Kenya and the so-called Mountains of the Moon, alias Mount Rwenzori, which sits on the Democratic Republic of Congo border. In the West Nile region, in the northwest of the country, you will also find small numbers of Arabica coffee farmers.
Strangely perhaps, the Ugandans are great tea drinkers, so most of the coffee producers export their yields overseas; three-quarters goes to Europe, where countries such as Italy, Germany, Spain and the UK have a taste for it.
A taste of history
Ugandan coffee beans haven't always been easy to get hold of: traditionally grown by smallholder farmers, several factors including ineffective state control, civil unrest, disease and crashing prices, limited its potential for commercial production.
European and Asian settlers started coffee farming early last century, and by 1914 there were more than 130 plantations working 60,000 acres across the regions. But coffee prices collapsed in the 1920s and the foreign farmers pulled out. The smallholders carried on with production, albeit on a very small acreage.
It wasn't until the late 1950s when an initiative by the British colonial government, looking for a cash crop, started a planting campaign in central Uganda that spurred an increase in production and the revival of coffee. After initial success, the industry went into reverse. Years of civil unrest, economic turmoil and dwindling foreign investment took their toll. Following a change of government in the 1980s, however, things improved. Coffee survived a price crash spurred by bouts of disease, and now the industry is healthy. That being said, there are still problems with supply: more than a quarter of the coffee crop is smuggled across the border to Kenya, rather than going through the proper export channels.
Coffee growing today
Although smallholdings are still important for coffee growing in Uganda, with about 1.7 million households farming plots of less than one acre, there are also large estates, some extending to 300 acres, and several substantial plantations. Many of the farmers have organised themselves into co-operatives, which helps guarantee a supply chain to the buyers, although the coffee price in Uganda today is not very favourable for farmers.
Uganda is fortunate in having two harvesting periods: the main harvest falling mostly between November and March, and the second harvest season, or "fly crop" from May to July. In the Western lands, the harvests are the other way round. The coffees are processed using either the natural (dry) method or wet-processing, in which the beans are soaked at a washing station, and the casings are washed away. This enhances the flavour.
Fans of Ugandan coffee characteristics will be cheered by the news that the Kampala government has embarked upon an ambitious growth programme. The Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) intends to quadruple the annual output, from 5 million to 20 million 60-kilo bags, by 2030. Younger generations are being incentivised to take up coffee growing and better farming practices, improved fertilisation, disease control and export quality control are at the core of the plans, as is a focus on the higher-quality, specialist Arabica crop.
What is the taste profile of Ugandan coffee?
The flavour of coffee from Uganda varies according to whether its source is the Robusta or Arabica bean, and within those two categories, there are subtle differences. Robusta coffee may be considered inferior to its Arabica counterpart yet it is a good, honest drink, with a fullbody, earthy flavour and a nutty touch. Robustas from the Lake Victoria basin have higher acidity and make a more satisfying drink than the beans grown at the lower altitudes.
Robusta coffees contain almost twice the caffeine of Arabica coffees, so are great when you need an extra burst of energy.
In terms of Arabica production, one of the most highly regarded beans is Bugisu or Bugishu, grown in highland areas from the varietal Coffea arabica var. Bugisu. This fully washed bean comes from the Sipi Falls region on the Western slopes around Mount Elgon. Bugishu is noted for sweet, chocolatey aromas and subtle tastes.
Keep your eyes out also for some newer spins on the specialist Arabica beans, such as honey-washed, whose flavour speaks for itself.
Uganda coffee beans
Our Uganda Light Continental Roast is made from 100% Robusta beans and its deep smokiness gives you a strong and flavourful brew. With a high caffeine content and noticeable acidity, we’ve given this single origin brew a strength level of 9 as it comes with real flavour intensity. You will get good results with any brewing technique, but we recommend these beans for espresso-based methods.
If you prefer a softer, medium body coffee, the Uganda Medium Continental Roast has a delicious toasted grain flavour, with a hint of caramel, and a woody, earthy finish.
With less acidity and strength compared to the Light Continental, it is a great coffee to get you going in the morning, and can be enjoyed on its own or as a base for your preferred blend. We recommend cafetiere or filter brewing methods to create the perfect cup of Uganda Medium Roast.
For a delightfully mellow Arabica coffee, our Bugishu is not to be missed; a mild brew that is still packed with flavours and aromas. Our Bugishu has a clean taste with a distinctive orangey aroma and a chocolatey kick, and is best enjoyed as a filter coffee.
Is Uganda Coffee good?
Uganda produces a wide range of coffee varietals. While it has always produced perfectly reasonable coffee, its Robusta and Arabica beans did not always receive outstanding reviews in comparison to other African coffees. This has changed in the last ten years. As the country is now focusing on quality rather than quantity, their profile is becoming much more favourable. Coffee from the Bugishu region is especially desirable and Robusta beans from Uganda are considered to be some of the best.
Does Uganda grow coffee?
Uganda is the eighth biggest coffee grower in the world, producing nearly 5 million 60kg bags each year. Most soluble coffee in the world comes from the Robusta bean, which, although now grown around the world, originated in Uganda.
Where is Coffee grown in Uganda?
Arabica coffee in Uganda grows in three regions: the West Nile, the Rwenzori Mountains and Mount Elgon. Robusta coffee is native to the Kibaale Forest region, and grows well in the Central Lowlands.