African coffees typically cost a little extra money, are highly dependent on weather for quality from year to year, and can be difficult to find “fair” sources, although fair-trade co-ops are becoming more and more common.The Kenya coffee has the reputation of being the best and is thus the most expensive, and the Ethiopian market has a long history and some great coffees.Both washed and natural processed coffees are often available, but the natural processed coffees are the special ones, offering complexity and undertones not found anywhere else in the world.
Burundi:There is a lot of bad Burundi coffee on the market.It is a washed process coffee, and when you get a bad one, all you can do is take it almost to a French roast and enjoy how sweet and smooth it tastes despite the darkness of it.When you find a good one, the medium roasts (try just to the 2nd cracks) will surprise you with tastes of figs, caramel, or sour cherry.There’s no other coffee quite like it, but neighboring Rwanda would be its closest match.Burundi is resurrecting its coffee industry after several decades of civil war.The quality has improved greatly in just the past few years, and will continue to grow by leaps and bounds in the next few years.
Congo:One of the most violent and dangerous countries in the world, besides being landlocked, which provides its own set of problems for getting the coffee out of the country.There are some safer parts of the country, and these are lower-altitude areas, and the coffee being exported is hard to drink.The mountainous areas are quite capable of producing great coffee, if someone could figure out a way to grow it and get it out without being killed.Equal Exchange has moved in to the Kivu region (one of the highest) and has started exporting, roasting, and putting the profits back into the Congo. Now an FTO co-op has formed, and in its second year, the quality is improving. At this time, Congo is still a "dark roast coffee only" because the quality just isn't there yet, and you have to burn the beans to hide the defects, but I have a vision for Congo and believe it will find its way onto the coffee map, but it is a few years behind its neighbors.
Ethiopia: A lot of small regions and they’re all unique in their own ways and quite good, but the most accessible green coffees on the market you’re most likely to run into include Yirgacheffe, Sidamo, and Harrar.The best thing to do with an Ethiopia is to take it into the 1st cracks, slow it down, keep the temperature rising oh-so-slowly and spit it out about 3 minutes after the 1st cracks began…and about 30 degrees higher than it started cracking at.If that gives you too much sour, then give it another 15 seconds, a couple more degrees, and see what you get.The perfect roast will give you a coffee bursting with sweetness and fruit, a remarkably intriguing aroma, and unmatched complexity.Sadly, the thin body and acidity can be a turn-off for some, but that just leaves more for the rest of us to drink.Although Grade 4 is really only the 4th best grade of Ethiopia, it is quite often the only grade exported, for tax reasons, and many Grade 4’s are, in reality Grade 1 or 2.The only way to really test quality is to sample them.When you roast Ethiopia, the roast color will appear uneven.This is particularly true of Sidamo, and is probably because of the various bean sizes mixed together, but it does not mean the quality is inferior.
Yirgacheffe: Washed and natural processing both available. The washed processed Yirgacheffe is high on floral tones with a lemon citrus acidity that almost reminds you of a mix of tea with coffee. Jasmine, lemongrass, sometimes raspberry, peach, and black tea are all common cupping notes for a washed Yirgacheffe. The most famous favored micro-region is Kochere. A natural Yirgacheffe is not as common, and if it is natural it will be clearly marketed as being such. The natural Yirgacheffes are much sweeter and fruitier but with the same overall flavor characteristics - a special coffee that is extremely pleasant and easy to drink.
Sidamo:Sidamo is actually a micro-region within Yirgacheffe, but it has enough distinctness to warrant differentiation. A washed Sidamo tastes a lot like a Yirgacheffe and offers you floral and lemon characteristics.A natural Sidamo will have berry aroma and undertones, quite often strawberry, in addition to the lemon citrus acidity, offering you an incredible sweet strawberry-lemonade flower escape.Occasionally find one with milk chocolate notes besides, and that is quite a treat. The best Sidamos have a clean aftertaste, but often you find them with an earthy or black-tea sharpness in the aftertaste that just about ruins the experience.
Harrar: Natural processed Harrar is the norm, and it is not necessarily going to have blueberry undertones, but often it will, at varying levels from “in-your face” all the way down to “use your imagination” A Harrar that is full of blueberry is truly a treat, and those who have experienced it come back over and over for more. Other nicknames include "Harrar Horse" and "Harrar Longberry" but they are all referring to the same thing. In recent years, the price of Harrar coffee has reached such heights that the US isn't importing the good lots, and the Harrar on the US market is weak and disappointing.
Kenya: Most famous for its grapefruit undertone and bright acidity, although not all Kenya shares these traits, and some of my favorites do not.Kenya does sort its beans by size, and the AA is the largest with AB being the next step down and sometimes better tasting – size isn’t everything.The Kenya Peaberry has reasonable harvest numbers and often offers the greatest complexity with a reduced acidity level.Organic certification is rare, but starting to catch on.Most Kenya coffee is sold generically by bean size, with no certification or traceability.In recent years, the availability of coffees sold straight from estates is increasing and an important thing to look for when you are making a selection.Although grapefruit is the most common undertone in a Kenya, other citrus fruits such as lime, tangerine, and orange are fairly common as well.Although it is rarely advertised, the key to Kenya’s complexity is the varietal of coffee bean is grows, namely the SL-28, and the almost as esteemed SL-34.These two beans are essentially exclusive to Kenya, and when you taste a currant undertone, dried cherry, peach, and other pitted fruit flavors, you have an example crop of what made the SL-28 famous.Unfortunately, most growers have discovered that other varietals offer larger harvests, and blend in at least a small percentage of Bourbon or another varietal.This is generally fine, except where do you draw the line?The next year they stretch out their crop even a little further.And the next year, further yet.There are now some Kenya Estates with no SL- varietals whatsoever, and you rarely get to find this out up-front. Anything with the name Kenya on it sells for at least a 50 cents a pound premium over the other Africans, regardless of quality, and in many cases, it sells for quite a bit more than that.So Kenya is a frustrating origin because there is some REALLY good coffee, but you have do a lot of sorting out to track down the good ones, and buying the less-than-spectacular ones is an expensive mistake that starts to make one cynical of Kenya coffee.
Roasting a Kenya like an Ethiopia is a good benchmark to start from.A lot of times, the sweet spot is very specific and if you have too much sour or too much acidity – take it up just a notch.If you are finding bitter traits – take it just a notch lighter.Slight adjustments of end time can make a major difference.
Malawi: An up-and-coming name in African coffee -- the best estate is Mapanga, and it is best only because England owns it and oversees it and insists on doing what it takes to produce high-quality coffee. Other estates -- including those at higher altitudes and longitudes, are studying Mapanga's model for quality and taking steps to better themselves. At this time the coffee coming out of Malawi is all washed-process. A good Malawi is most similar in taste to neighboring Rwanda.
Rwanda: When you have a good cup of Rwandan coffee, you remember it for years.The quality is highly variable from year to year even from the same co-ops and regions – in fact, even different lots of the same co-op in the same harvest can be starkly different from each other.Rwanda is seemingly always processed as a washed process coffee, and for that reason, can be taken just about into French roast territory with fantastic results.But a good Rwanda will also shine just shy of the 2nd cracks, where it may showcase undertones such as figs, molasses, cocoa, and a juiciness, while being fairly toned down on acidity and no earthiness to speak of in the aftertaste.Rwanda has only been largely available for about the past 5 years now, and they have a long way to go on consistency and quality, but it is a fun coffee, a good coffee, and has a very bright future.
Tanzania: Tanzania coffee is not one of the most-sought after African origins. It is one of the least consistent origins in the world as far as how it tastes from one harvest to the next. It tends to be tart, but not fruity, no undertones that stand out, no unique characteristics that make it famous. But you'll find some with grapefruit, some with green apple, some with peach, etc. Some Tanzania is sweet instead of tart, and those are my favorite. The peaberry mutation is extremely common, to the point that it is often easier to find peaberry than flatbean for sale on the market. Although the flat bean tends to roast better in most home-roasting appliances, the peaberry does tend to be sweeter and have slightly more complexity.Tanzania is best before it hits 2nd cracks, and depending on personal taste, you may find you like it roasted quite light, where the good ones will be complex enough and with brightness that you could call it a poor man’s Kenya.The average Tanzania lends itself to blending, and will especially add a nice dimension to an otherwise rough Sumatra.
Uganda: Uganda is the odd-man out of the African coffees.Their washed-processed bean ends up tasting much more like a premium Sumatra as opposed to tasting like an African coffee.The Bugisu region has the best reputation and has one of the few organic-certified co-ops in the country and is by far the easiest to find on the American specialty coffee market.It is a versatile coffee that is best anywhere from 10 seconds into the 2nd cracks all the way up to a rip-roaring 60 seconds.When Indonesia has a poor harvest, a lot of roasters substitute partial blends of Uganda to stretch out their supply of Indonesian coffee. The other regions grow quite a bit of robusta, but even the ones growing arabica do not yet reach "specialty coffee" quality, and the arabica offerings are sold as "a robusta substitute"
Zimbabwe: This country seems like it is too far South to really be growing coffee, but it makes it work. In the early 1990's some great coffee came from here, but at this time only a handful of estates are left that still export their harvests. While the early 1990's saw hundreds of farms in Zimbabwe, now only 4 farms growing organic coffee still exist in Zimbabwe, and not all of them make their way to the USA, so selecting one doesn't take much work -- either you like it, or else you don't carry Zimbabwe that year.
Zimbabwe is a washed-process coffee -- a good Zimbabwe stands as a solid single origin -- it is a cousin to a Kenya. There is a lot of SL-28 varietal coffee grown in Zimbabwe (that's the varietal that Kenya is famous for), which gives it an expected nice brightness, some wine tones, currant, and medium body. Taking the bean right to the 2nd cracks seems to be the best roast level, although the really nice crops can go lighter and showcase their acidity and undertones. On the other hand, the ones I have sampled some years have been woodsy, with aroma and taste of pine pitch and oak. Others have had a dirty aftertaste. So as with most countries, quality and consistency is spotty.