Uganda is East Africa’s largest coffee exporting county by volume with an annual average of more than 6 million bags, and a hugely ambitious government with plans to more than triple this number in the coming years. Uganda’s fertile lowlands, as part of a larger region in central Africa, were the evolutionary source of the caffea canephora, a.k.a. “robusta” species of coffee, making it one of only a few modern countries on earth where coffee is indigenous. Today, robusta remains almost 80% of Uganda’s trade, but arabicas of a wide quality spectrum, produced mostly in the mountainous zones on Uganda’s eastern and western borders, are, frankly, some of the sweetest and creamiest coffees in East Africa, and make snappy naturals on par with the best we see from Burundi or Ethiopia. Which is a huge accomplishment from historically under-served smallholders producing a minority species. With more traceability now than ever, and coming from incredibly gifted and water-rich land, often with certifications, it’s a little bit insane to us that there has yet to be a Uganda coffee with a Good Food Awards sticker on its label.

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Uganda Coffee Beans

The modern coffee trade in Uganda began during its years as a British protectorate, which, not being a colony like neighboring Kenya to the east, allowed Uganda to operate its own domestic government in exchange for British protection, taxation, and trade rights along the Nile, one of the most important waterways of the 19th and early 20th centuries. One result being that after independence in 1962 domestic coffee production was already established and in the hands of native Ugandans, so the country was quick to capitalize on their new trade freedoms. This continued through the dictatorship of Idi Amin from 1971-1979: coffee exports not only increased, but also increased their significance for the country, due to high global prices and Amin’s almost exclusive reliance on coffee sales to fund his regime. With the fall of the International Coffee Agreement in 1987, export prices plummeted, and Uganda was forced to re-sort its production according to free market rules. Specialty Coffee’s development increased the search for arabicas from higher elevations, and supply chains in the Rwenzori mountains in Uganda’s west, as well as Mt. Elgon, a massive stratovolcano shared with Kenya in Uganda’s east, are by now achieving their true quality potential, surpassing expectations over and over again for quality-focused roasters new to the origin.

Commercial grades of arabica coffee in Uganda are primarily divided into process types, with WUGAR (washed Uganda arabica) and natural-processed DRUGAR (dried Uganda arabica) being the most widely available. Washed profiles at this level are often earthy and fudgy with little fruit or acid articulation and bought mainly for their mouthfeel and bittersweet simplicity. Naturals can have more heft and sweetness but are often bought for similar reasons: low differentials, mostly neutral cup profiles, and ready availability (DRUGAR grades are annually 50% of arabica exports in Uganda).

Higher quality blended arabicas are far sweeter and tend to be deeply layered with caramel, raisin and nougat, with creamy bodies and the type of clean and pointed acidities we associate with the East Africa region. As qualities climb, the best washed lots show increasingly refined nuance with tart stone fruit or kumquat, wildflower honey, sweet pea, and clean syrupy textures. Naturals and honeys are available too in increasing quantities thanks to specialty producer groups’ investment in central processing, where experimental profiles can be realized at scale.

Arabica is produced primarily in higher elevations on Mt. Elgon to the east, and across the southwest, including the Rwenzori mountains. Robustas are grown throughout the south of Uganda up to 1200 meters.

FAQ

Because Uganda is equatorial, coffee is harvested primarily in one of two seasons, both with a smaller fly crop: coffees north of the equator, primarily arabicas on Mt. Elgon, are harvested October to February, with a potential fly crop in the summer, and coffees south of the equator in the southwest will harvest primarily from April to July, with a winter fly crop. Robustas most often follow the same calendar.

The best Ugandas can easily stand against the best coffees from anywhere else in East Africa: they are bright, layered with enzymatic and fresh fruit juice complexity, with uniquely caramel-like sugars and soft textures. We buy a small variety of centrally-processed smallholder coffees from Mt. Elgon each year that are stunning examples of arabica’s potential in Uganda, which is still relatively unknown to many.

Most definitely. Robusta is Uganda’s primary coffee species by a longshot and the export industry built around robusta is significant, as is the value of the crop to Uganda’s GDP.

Ugandas highest coffee-producing elevations are Mt. Elgon in the east, and the Rwenzori mountains in Uganda’s southwest. Arabica coffee in both locations can exceed 2000 meters in elevation.