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I started paying attention to Ugandan coffee about a year ago when the Uganda Coffee Development Authority announced its intention to make Uganda coffee one of the world’s quality coffees. Uganda’s share of the export market is fairly small though it is Africa’s second largest coffee producer. There are two reasons for the disparity – first, most of the Ugandan crop is destined for local sale. Second, only 20% of the coffee grown in Uganda is Arabica, the most sought specialty coffee variety. The country’s major coffee crop is robusta, which is generally used in supermarket blends and instant coffees rather than sold as a single origin coffee to specialty coffee roasters. This was something that the UCDA intends to change – not the proportion of Arabica sold but the fact that robusta is seen as generally inferior and therefore sells for less than Arabica.
According to the UCDA, there are major differences between the robusta coffee grown in Uganda and the robusta coffee grown elsewhere. Among them:
– Uganda’s robusta crop is grown at a higher altitude than robusta coffee in other regions. Altitude is a determining factor in some of the world’s most renowned coffees, including Hawaiian Kona and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.
– Uganda coffee is grown without any genetic manipulation, but propagated strictly through rooted cuttings and “elite seed”, maintaining a purity of the species.
– Uganda is the home of the robusta species, thus the environmental standards are perfect for growing the robusta bean for its best qualities.
– Coffee in Uganda is nearly always grown with no external pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and has been for generations, making it organic by default.
In addition, the robusta beans grown in Uganda have some unique qualities that make them highly desirable. The beans are hard, which yields a nice, even roast. The flavor is smooth and neutral, almost sweet. The beans have a high frothing property, which makes them ideal for preparing espresso, and finally, Uganda robusta coffee is harvested and available year round.
With all this as ammunition, the UCDA set out to improve the quality and the reputation of Uganda coffee around the world. The Authority embarked on a campaign to educate coffee farmers about best growing, harvesting and processing practices. For a while last Spring, there was hardly a day that went by without reports of coffee millers being shut down for ground-drying coffee or mishandling coffee. The UCDA instituted new coffee quality standards meant to help farmers and exporters grade their coffee and sell the highest grades of coffee separately at a premium price. Finally, the Authority embarked on an advertising and public relations blitz to make consumers and importers more aware of the unique qualities of Uganda robusto beans.
And the effort is paying off. Many of the Internet’s biggest roasting houses started carrying Ugandan Robusta, advertising it as the only robusta they sell and praising its flavor. Many coffee roasters have started using Ugandan robusta coffee in their blends, particularly their high octane blends. On December 22, the UCDA announced that the value of their coffee exports had increased by a full 34% over last year, largely in response to their aggressive and strategic campaign to make Uganda robusta coffee one of the world’s recognized quality brands.
But what about the flavor? The romance of the story captured me last year, so when Ugandan robusta beans became available at Marlton Coffee, I ordered a pound of green beans for roasting. The results were far better than passable when the beans were roasted on their own, but the Uganda robusta really shines when combined with almost any other bean that favors medium to medium-dark roasting. The flavor is mellow, low in acid, and vaguely sweet. If you’ve deliberately avoided robusta beans on the advice of all the coffee gurus, this is one to try. It will surprise you with its full, smooth flavor.