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Most gourmet coffee lovers will tell you that the best coffees are all Arabica beans, that Arabica coffee is smoother and richer, has more flavor and is of higher quality. Robusta beans, grown at lower altitudes and in much higher volume than most Arabica plants, tend to be lower in quality and are most often used for commercial coffees. Vietnam, one of the world’s largest producers of coffee, trades almost exclusively in the Robusta variety. Uganda, one of the largest African coffee producers, sells mostly Robusta as well—and the country may be about to put Robusta coffee on the gourmet coffee map.
Created in 1991, the Uganda Coffee Development Authority’s mission is to promote high quality standards for all coffees grown in Uganda. The country’s best coffees are grown in the eastern Bugisu region of the country, a mountainous area that supports the growing of Arabica coffee beans. Over the past few years, Bugisu coffee has started to attract the notice of some well-known coffee roasters. In 2009, for instance, Josh at Sweet Maria’s noted in a blog post that the lot of Uganda Organic Bugisu he had just cupped had a nice lemony character, and predicted that in the next few years he expects to see micro-lots of coffee coming out of Uganda, much as they do from Rwanda and Burundi, two other African countries that focus on improving the quality and reputation of their coffees.
But that’s the Arabica, a far cry from the typical Robusta strains. Uganda’s mainstay, Robusta, accounts for nearly 85% of its annual coffee production, and has a reputation for delivering exceptionally high quality coffee beans for Robusta. The UCDA has been enforcing strict production and quality standards, as well as grading and screening the coffee beans from the various regions it covers, and the effort appears to be paying off as the price for Uganda’s highest grade of Robusta coffee commands better prices than some low quality Arabica beans from other areas.
This should be no real surprise to anyone familiar with coffee history. While Ethiopia, also in Eastern Africa, is thought to be the birthplace of coffee, Uganda is regarded as the home of the Robusta bean. A large percentage of the Robusta sourced from Uganda is still harvested from wild strains of coffee that are believed to be among the rarest in the world.
Currently, the market is suffering after a long drought that affected the development of the coffee cherries last year. The UDCA projects a reduced amount of Robusta coffee available in the 2010 season, but is attempting to increase harvest in the next few years by buying coffee seedlings from farmers and distributing them free to farmers who have lost plants to the drought.