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What sets East African coffee apart?

Here at DR Wakefield, we source coffee from several East African regions – including Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi and Rwanda – due to its popularity among blenders and roasters and its excellent taste.

In fact, Ethiopia is widely considered as the birthplace of the beverage.

But what makes beans sourced from the region so coveted? How does East African coffee differ from that sourced from other locations?

Here, we're going to answer some of the questions you might have about coffee from this area, exploring how the way it is grown affects how it tastes.

How acidic is East African coffee?

Beans sourced from certain East African regions tend to be significantly higher in acidity than coffee from elsewhere in the world, making it a highly coveted substance among blenders.

This is particularly the case for coffee grown in Ethiopia and Kenya and is in stark contrast to the levels found in beans grown in countries such as Brazil and India. 

Acidity is determined by how much moisture is present in a bean, something that can also be altered during the roasting process. 

However, consuming such high levels of acidity is an acquired taste, so East African coffee is often blended with beans from other regions to create an arguably more palatable flavour.

How is coffee from the region usually blended?

Blending coffee from different areas together can create a unique and exciting flavour, with East Africa's acidic beans providing a certain intensity to the mix. 

In addition, coffee from this region is associated with floral and berry-like aromas, which can complement the spicy or citrus flavours of other beans, once again creating an unusual but thrilling taste.

How do the conditions it is grown in affect the coffee's taste?

In Ethiopia for instance, coffee plants are grown in high altitudes, where – thanks to the country's close proximity to the Equator – the soil is rich and full of nutrients to aid the process.

Effective coffee-growing soil needs to be able to drain water away quickly and not be too heavy in texture either, making East Africa's ground ideal for producing beans.

How do washing processes affect its taste? 

Depending on the individual East African country the coffee is sourced from, its taste can alter dramatically, leading to significant flavour variations within the region. 

For instance, Kenyan coffee has usually been thoroughly washed, which creates a very different taste compared to beans which have only been semi-washed or even unwashed. The latter process is particularly common in Ethiopia, meaning the country's coffee usually has more of a fruity flavour due to the presence of a greater amount of sugar that has not been washed away.

However, in Tanzania, it is common for farmers of small lots to wash the beans themselves. As this isn't the most professional of processes, it creates a completely different flavour to when machinery and experienced washers are handling the coffee.

How might the taste of East African coffee develop in the future? 

As discussed, East African coffee is attributed with certain characteristics, but could climate change and other factors potentially change the taste of the region's beans in the future?

A report published in the Guardian in early 2014 explained that the cool climate of the East African highlands where coffee production began has affected the plant's ability to grow well in higher temperatures.

The newspaper's head of environment Damian Carrington wrote: "At 23 degrees Celsius and above, the plant's metabolism starts to race, leading to lower yields and crucially, a failure to accumulate the right mix of aromatic volatile compounds that deliver coffee's distinctive taste."

While no one can predict the future, it will certainly be interesting to keep an eye on the development of East African coffee in light of climate change – only time will tell whether or not the region's coffee-producing future will be as fruitful as its past.