Origin Deep Dive: Uganda
For most of the country’s coffee-growing history, Uganda has largely been an exporter of Robusta coffee, the slightly more caffeinated but much more bitter cousin of the Arabica coffee plant, which is by far the most common plant grown for specialty coffee beans. Though Arabica coffee has finally begun to take hold in the region and even thrive in recent years, Robusta plants still dominate farms, outnumbering the more delicate plants four to one across the whole country.
Originally introduced in the early 20th century, Arabica coffee struggled to take hold as disease ravaged the crops early on. The native and undomesticated Robusta, heartier and more resistant to disease, slowly began to dominate the country as smallholder farmers realized its potential through the 1910s and into the 1920s. Uganda saw its biggest economic coffee boom in the mid-1970s. When a massive frost destroyed a huge Brazillian crop, buyers had a much higher demand for coffee from the rest of the world—and Uganda farmers realized its potential through the 1910s and into the 1920s.
Uganda saw its biggest economic coffee boom in the mid-1970s. When a massive frost destroyed a huge Brazillian crop, buyers had a much higher demand for coffee from the rest of the world—and Uganda had the supply to meet it. Coffee became the most valuable export and kept the country’s economy flowing for years after, only faltering when global coffee prices crashed in 1987.
The Rise of Arabica
In the years just before the crash, Arabica plants were beginning to be re-introduced to the country on a larger scale, as modern agricultural techniques were able to better protect the delicate plant from harsher environments and stave off diseases. This was also the time when farmers began to realize the ideal climates on the east and west borders of the country, where Arabica could thrive at higher altitudes amongst other crops and under shady trees. Though still not grown nearly on the same scale as Robusta, Arabica production in Uganda has grown steadily for the past 40 years. As its production has improved, so too has its reputation, quality and appeal.
In Uganda, the processing method most commonly used in Arabica coffee production is split fairly evenly in an east/west divide. Near the Mount Elgon volcano in the east, coffee largely undergoes a washed process, while coffee grown near the Rwenzori Mountains in the west is processed naturally. The distinction means that coffees grown in the east will usually be smoother, cleaner and have a more prominent acidity, while coffees grown in the west lean towards heavy fruit notes, bigger bodies and chocolate flavours.