UGANDAN COFFEE REGIONS
Most coffee grown in Uganda (80%) is of the varietal Robusta (Coffeacanephora var. robusta), with the other 20% comprising Arabica varietals Typica, SL 14, SL 28 and Kent. Also grown in Uganda is the Arabica cultivar Bugishu / Bugisu (Coffeaarabica var. bugishu), which is grown near Sipi Falls on the western slopes of Mt. Elgon, one of Uganda's largest mountains.
Region: Uganda (Bugisu)
Growing Altitude: 1,300 - 2,200 meters
Variety: Arabica (Typica, SL 14, SL 28, Kent)
Harvest Period: October - February
Milling Process: Fully Washed
Aroma: Woodsy, Orange Zest
Flavour: Orange, Fruity, Pekoe Tea
Generally, the coffee growing regions are divided into:
- West Nile (Okoro - bordering on Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan in the North West)
- Northern Region (Lira, Gulu)
- Eastern (Mbale, Bugisu - bordering on Kenya)
- Central & Southwest (Jinja, Mukono, Kampala, Masaka - by Lake Victoria)
- Western Region (Kasese, Mbarara - also bordering Democratic Republic of Congo)
The western regions produce much of the coffees Arabicas, which grow well in the higher elevations including Mount Rwenzori (which actually gets snow at its peaks). These are naturally processed ("drugars").
A good brewed cup of Bugisu (or "Bugishu") coffee exhibits cupping notes similar to the desirably winey acidity of a fine East African coffee, with sweet chocolate flavor and rich texture. Generally speaking, the lower complexity and lighter lighter body of Ugandan coffees makes them generally less distinguished than the finer coffees of neighboring Zimbabwe, Tanzania, or Kenya.
The Robustas from the Lake Victoria basin are well suited to the clay-rich soils, and benefit from some high elevations in the region. They're able to develop higher acidity than lower-altitude grown Robustas, making them a decent cup.
The harvest season for Arabica green coffees is October through February, and all year for the Robusta crop (peaking in November through February). After harvesting, the coffees are either natural washed (known locally as "wugars") or naturally processed (known locally as "drugars").
Interestingly, wild Robusta coffee trees can be found in Uganda due to their suitability to the climate. Theoretically indigenous to Uganda, Robusta is the largest exported coffee varietal in Uganda, which boasts the second largest export volume of the varietal in the world.
Ugandan coffees are graded either "A" (15/16 screen - equal to Colombian "Exelso" size) or "AA" (17/18 screen - equal to Colombian "Supremo" size).
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.
Uganda is an excellent location for coffee growing. The country boasts richly fertile land, with volcanic soil to the east and west, and plenty of rainfall.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As Ugandan coffee professionals focus on quality, the country’s Arabica is beginning to demand attention for its sweet, citrusy flavors.
Make no mistake, specialty coffee in the country is on the rise. Uganda has been an innovator in the concept of Fine Robusta, but the country has also put effort and resources towards developing Arabica production. Currently, Arabica counts for just over 20% of the country’s exports and this percentage is growing (it’s nearly doubled since the early naughts). Following liberalisation of the coffee industry in the early 1990s, the industry has left behind the days of state control and is currently 100% in private hands. All coffee exports remain regulated by a state body, however: the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) grades, cups and classifies all export shipments, providing a standardised system for export quality control, which helps greatly for those questing for higher quality.
Currently, the UCDA reports an average yield of around 10 bags per hectare. This means a great deal of improvement can be made! The newly created National Coffee Research Institute (NACRI) – an independent research board - speaks to the growing awareness of coffee’s importance within the country. And exporting companies are also lending a hand to turn the industry around.
One great example of this is Kawacom - the driving force behind several of the country’s quality-driven projects and Mercanta’s exporting partner in Uganda. They began their first project with an impressive 5,000 small holder coffee farmers with an average of 0.5 ha each under coffee. These farmers, all keen to participate in higher value speciality markets, were trained in criteria for socially and environmentally responsible coffee growing practices and efficient farm management with the aim of certifying and marketing their coffee on the international scene. Today they have two wet mills and quality improvement projects – one in the Sipi Falls area and one in Northern Uganda’s West Nile area. The Sipi Falls project received its very first Organic certificate – an accomplishment that has, over the years, attracted UTZ, JAS and Rainforest Alliance certification schemes. Today, both projects have expanded significantly, thanks to successes such as these, and together reach over 18,000 small holder farmers, many of whom not only receive higher prices for their higher quality coffee but also participate in other social and environmental programs and cash management project.
Processing Coffee Beans:
The vast majority of coffee in Uganda is home processed by small holder farmers using hand-powered pulpers. Many lack good drying infrastructure. This means that attention to processing and resulting quality can vary greatly and is difficult to control under this more rustic processing system. Kawacom has been proactive in addressing this. During the harvest season, Kawacom encourages farmers to deliver cherry to their new, state-of-the-art wet mills instead of hand pulping on their farm. This has given their projects increased control over processing activities, which can be challenging in the region as rains during the harvest season are common.