Uganda has the potential to produce some of the highest quality coffee beans in Africa – if not the world.
The country shares its borders with coffee-producing countries such as Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Rwanda. Notably, Uganda is among the top coffee-producing nations, with its robusta beans finding their way into the hands of consumers worldwide.
It is predicted that Uganda’s coffee production will reach a record high of 6.65 million bags between 2022 and 2023. This is due to favourable weather and recently established plantations coming into full production.
While its neighbours have solidified their reputations in the specialty coffee industry, Uganda coffee has only recently begun gaining recognition for its high-scoring crops.
Roasting Uganda coffee beans takes skill and unlocks a wide range of flavour profiles due to the country’s varying conditions.
To learn more about the art of roasting Ugandan coffee beans, I spoke with Sean and Jamie Rockhill, the owners of Rockhill Brothers Coffee in Dorking, UK.
A brief history of Uganda coffee
Coffee has been an important crop for Uganda’s economy for many decades.
It is one of the few countries in the world where coffee is indigenous, and the robusta species can often be found growing wild around Lake Victoria.
As a result, some farmers diversified their crops by planting cocoa trees. However, cocoa production declined between 1970 and 1980, when the Ugandan government began pushing for higher levels of commercial coffee production.
Between 1999 and 2002, great effort was made to commercialise robusta coffee as a premium consumer brand.
The Ugandan government developed a quality-focused infrastructure by adopting the successful shade-growing techniques used in Central America. Revenue from the coffee production was intended to finance conservation management activities.
However, it was soon discovered there was less demand for robusta, as it was often perceived as inferior to arabica coffee, which was typically demanded by the premium market.
Therefore, arabica beans were introduced and naturalised in the region. Today, the majority of Uganda’s arabica production can be found on the slopes of Mount Elgon.
The crops usually share farmland with other commodities, such as beans, peanuts, and bananas, which help enrich the soil.
Uganda has faced several socio-economic factors that have prevented the country from reaching its full potential for exporting high-quality specialty coffee.
These include the smuggling of various commodities, including coffee beans, which were referred to as “black gold.”
Additionally, the region suffered a large-scale coffee wilt disease (CWD) epidemic in 1993. The 14-year long epidemic nearly brought the Uganda coffee industry to its knees, wiping out 45% of the region’s robusta plants.
Uganda coffee cultivation
Uganda’s harvest season for arabica crops runs from October through to February, while robusta crops are harvested all year round.
Mount Elgon may be the most reputable growing location in Uganda. Situated on the eastern border that is shared with Kenya, the coffee farms found on the side of east Africa’s oldest volcano are shaded by the surrounding forest.
Handpicked and washed coffees are more common on the specialty farms found in the area.
One area that has gained a lot of attention within the last few years is the northeastern slopes of the mountain. The Siri Falls are some of the most picturesque parts of the country, and it is where Bugisu arabica coffee is grown.
Traditionally, Bugisu is the name of the tribe that has historically inhabited the area. That said, the term has since become synonymous with some of the highest-quality coffee available in the country.
Another sought-after region is the Ruwenzori Mountains, which share a border with the DRC to the southwest. The area boasts growing altitudes of between 1500 and 2300 m.a.s.l.
The land’s nitrogen-rich volcanic soil makes for an ideal growing location, and many farmers prefer to process their coffee using the natural method. That said, there are also washed lots available.
“The Ugandan coffee we roast comes from the Rwenzori Mountains in the southwest,” Sean explains. “It is a natural processed coffee with an altitude of 1400 – 1840 miles above sea level.”
He adds they prefer to do a light roast with this particular coffee, aiming for a 12 minute roast time and dropping the coffee just after the first crack finishes.
While 80% of Uganda’s coffee production is made up of robusta crops, the remaining 20% allocated to arabica crops comprises typica, SL14, SL28, and Kent varieties.
When sourcing quality Uganda coffee, Sean and Jamie explain they work closely with Omwani Coffee, an African green coffee importer based in the UK.
“Omwani started with work in the washing stations of Uganda, with friendships and a work ethic that they wanted to bring back to the UK,” Sean says. “Omwani saw a gap in the market for a sourcing partner that would specialise solely in East African coffees and happily took it upon themselves to fill that space.”
Roasting Uganda coffee
Uganda fits in well with its coffee-growing neighbours in that it is commonly associated with African arabica coffees.
The flavour profiles of these coffees tend to be complex, wine-like, and may boast a fruit-forward acidity.
Therefore, finding an effective way to highlight each of these naturally occurring qualities is key when roasting Uganda coffee.
Sean and Jamie explain they prefer a light roast for their Rwenzori Mountains beans, as it accentuates the delicate fruit notes the coffee provides without being too acidic.
“We achieve this by giving the beans just enough development time to take the edge off the acidity,” Sean says.
“The development time is key to this, as when you strike the right balance, you can create some really special flavour profiles,” he adds.
Jamie and Sean explain the profile they look for is a dominant blackcurrant or cherry acidity with hints of sweet cherry, bakewell, and cream with milk chocolate.
The overall balance between fruit, sweetness, and body makes Ugandan arabica beans a good all-around coffee, which can make them well-suited to any extraction method.
“It’s been amazing to see the improvement year after year in the quality and taste of the Ugandan coffee,” the brothers agree. “It is no wonder that it is quickly becoming a firm favourite.”
At MTPak Coffee, we understand how much time and effort it takes to source and roast high-quality Uganda coffee.
That is why we offer roasters and coffee shops a range of 100% recyclable coffee packaging options that can be custom-printed to highlight the unique characteristics of Uganda coffee.
Choose from renewable materials such as kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging with an environmentally friendly PLA lining, all of which minimise waste and contribute to a circular economy.
More so, we give you complete control over the design process by allowing you to build your own coffee bags. Our design team is available to help you create the ideal coffee packaging.
Plus, we are able to custom-print coffee bags using innovative digital printing technology, with a quick turnaround time of 40-hours and 24-hour shipping time.