Choosing the best African coffee is a bit like choosing your favorite American state. There is such a huge variety to choose from and each area has its own character, its own flavor, and its own history.
Africa is the second largest continent on Earth both in the size of its land and the number of its people. It’s divided into 54 sovereign states (or countries), 8 territories, and 2 independent states. It’s considered the birthplace of mankind and also the birthplace of coffee.
Twenty-five of Africa’s sovereign states produce coffee, so where should the hunt for the best African coffee begin? How do we distill centuries of coffee cultivation and acres of diversity into a single cup? The simple answer is: we don’t.
Even if you found the absolute most perfect cup of coffee in the world, you may get sick of drinking it after a while. So, although we won’t attempt to tell you which African coffee type you should be drinking right now, what we will do is give you a solid foundation from which you can start your journey into the best African coffee.
We’ll provide five great recommendations to get you started out on the right foot and answer some common questions about the best African coffee beans.
First, let’s take a look at Africa’s most important coffee-growing regions.
Ethiopia – Where it all began
Often, the best place to start is…well, at the beginning. This East African country sits nestled against its neighbor, Somalia. If you’re not familiar with Africa’s geography, Somalia is on the eastern coast of the country midway down the continent.
You can easily recognize it by the land’s sharp point, jutting out into the Arabian Sea just south of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Most of Africa’s highest mountains are in Ethiopia. The country’s biggest export? You guessed it – coffee!
Legend tells us that Ethiopia is where the effects of coffee were first discovered. Coffee grows wild in this part of the world and has for a very long time. This is where the Arabica coffee bean originally comes from.
The oft-told story of coffee’s origin takes place over a thousand years ago when a local goatherd found that his goats had a bit more pep in their step after eating the cherries on this strange new plant.
Although it’s essentially impossible to verify, the story is a compelling one. The mental image of frolicking goats is fun to imagine as you sip a cup of Arabica.
Ethiopian coffee often has a label of the region that produced it, the top three being Sidamo, Harrar, and Kaffa. Because so many varieties of both cultivated and wild (or “heirloom”) beans can find their way into a single pound of Ethiopian coffee, these beans make for a complex cup.
If you are a fan of tea or wine, Ethiopian beans might be right up your alley. Smooth, mild, and low in acidity, this coffee is heavy on the citrus and floral notes, finishing with an herbal aftertaste. Drinkers of Earl Grey tea will find this East African coffee very palatable.
Just over Ethiopia’s southern border is another famous coffee-growing region. Kenya produces about 50,000 tons of coffee every year, which comes from both large plantations and small-scale farms.
Ever hear the expression, “not for all the tea in China?” Well, China has nothing on Kenya when it comes to tea. No other country in the world exports more tea than this East African nation.
That’s partly due to its climate and partly due to coffee’s rocky history in the region. The coffee industry in Kenya has been marred by bloodshed and slavery. Even today, the coffee farmers in Kenya are some of the poorest in the world.
There are four commercial varieties of coffee grown in Kenya. They are all either Robusta or Arabica beans, but the plants have different resistance to fungal disease depending on which cultivar they are. Unless you plan to geek out on your beans, you likely won’t know if they’re K7, SL 28, SL 34, or Ruiru 11.
Luckily, you don’t need to be a scientist to appreciate the finer points of this East African coffee. Like their Ethiopian neighbors, Kenyan coffees are known for being mild when it comes to acidity. However, you won’t encounter the floral and herbal notes in Kenyan coffees. Instead, look for an earthy, chocolate taste with a heavy body.
Southwest of Kenya lies the substantially smaller country of Rwanda. It’s smack in the middle of East Africa and the African Great Lakes region. Covered in volcanic mountains and rainforest, it’s popular with tourists who come to see the gorillas and the scenic vistas.
It’s in these beautiful mountains that the majority of the country’s coffee is grown, at elevations of 4,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level. Virunga, Muhazi, Kivu, Akagera, and the Rizi Rift are the main Rwandan coffee-growing regions.
When it comes to coffee production, Rwanda is almost like two different worlds. For many years, the specialty coffee industry in Rwanda was essentially nonexistent. That’s because most of the country’s beans were Robusta and not known for being high-quality.
In 1994, the horrible genocide that swept the country destroyed people, agriculture, and the economy. As part of Rwanda’s rebirth, the coffee industry came back with Arabica beans, most of which are now very good quality Bourbon beans.
When you sip a cup of Rwandan coffee, you’ll find it’s medium-bodied and laden with fruity and floral notes. As the coffee’s flavor lingers after that first swallow, the sweet flavors of caramel and white chocolate shine through.
If we head back toward the east coast from Rwanda, we’ll find Tanzania sitting right below Kenya on the map. This is where the famous volcanic mountain Kilimanjaro and the vast plains of the Serengeti are.
The next time you’re having a cup of peaberry with friends, you can wow them with a bit of Tanzania trivia. The name of the country is a blend of two names – Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Those are the two countries that combined to form Tanzania in 1964.
In total area, Tanzania is about twice the size of California. Most of that land is taken up with forests and agriculture. The Tanzanian government owns all the land. The highest point in Tanzania (and in most of Africa) is Kilimanjaro, one of the only places that have ice all year.
The high slopes of this great mountain are where most of the coffee in the country is grown, between 3,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level. Perhaps it’s the volcanic soil or maybe it’s the elevation, but something about Kilimanjaro produces a special bean.
Tanzanian coffee is famous for having a slight pipe tobacco aroma. It’s higher in acidity than its Kenyan counterparts, with bright citrus tones. The first sip will bring you a pleasing combination of chocolate, lemon, and black tea.
Now that we’ve been on a quick tour of Africa’s coffee-producing regions, it’s time to follow up with a selection of the best African coffee around. Below are our recommendations for the best brews.
The beans grown in the Yirgacheffe region, in Sidamo, are typically mild. Even when lightly roasted, they don’t produce strong coffee. So, if you’re looking for a brew with subtle florals and fruits, look no further.
Great as a cold brew or a hot cup, Volcanica’s Ethiopian offering is dry processed and slightly on the bitter side. Think dark chocolate with a hint of lavender. Since these beans are wild-harvested, each batch will have a unique profile.
Volcanica is a roaster out of Atlanta, Georgia that consistently puts out great quality beans. They buy their Ethiopian beans under Fair Trade pricing which helps local farmers earn a decent wage.
These particular beans were grown in the shade and roasted by Out of the Grey in Fairview, PA. They pay their farmers three times the Fair Trade value for their beans. Buttery smooth, with peach and nougat flavors, this coffee finishes with the dryness of black tea.
There’s just something about peaberry coffee that makes it shine. Since these beans develop all by themselves inside the coffee cherry, instead of with a twin, like most coffee beans do, they get all of the flavor of two beans.
Peaberries are also special because they’re rarer than twin beans. Only about 5% of the cherries harvested contain that one lone bean. Since it’s impossible to tell which cherries contain peaberries, the beans have to be hand-sorted after harvesting.
A roaster out of Rhode Island, these folks know their coffee. This Bourbon varietal, single-origin, micro-lot coffee has been small-batch roasted to perfection. It wouldn’t be surprising if they knew the exact plant it sprang from.
When you think of this coffee, think of a decadent dessert with a little kick. Brown sugar, caramel, and gingersnap are all present in the cup and on the nose, making it an excellent after-dinner sipper.
- KENYAN AA (GROUND): 16 oz (1 LB) Bag of Kenyan AA 100% Arabica ground coffee. AA graded beans are...
- ROAST PROFILE: Medium/Dark Roasted. This special bean is known for its consistently rich fruit/berry...
- SCREEN 18 CRAFTED COFFEE: Screen 18 refers to the sorting screen used to differentiate size/quality of...
Colonial Coffee Roasters out of Miami, Florida are into big beans. Their Screen 18 brand of Arabica beans use only the biggest beans, the beans caught by a size 18 sorting screen.
These big beans, also called AA beans, grown at 6,600 feet and are said to be denser than their lower altitude counterparts. This allows for a more deeply-flavored, medium-dark roast, which is rich in fruit flavors finished with a wine-like acidity.
Most Kenyan coffees are sourced from small farms, which results in flavors unique to each grower’s soil, humidity, and terrain. Because of the single-origin nature of the beans, Colonial can pick and choose for a specific profile.
- ARTISAN COFFEE Single Origin 100% Arabica coffee beans grown in Sidamo Highlands
- CLASSIC ROAST Small Batch Roasted to ensure quality & best flavor, degassed 24-48 hours before bagged
- TASTING NOTES Coffee rich in flavors of Wild Blueberry, Mocha & Lemon Zest
Out of the highlands of Sidamo, Ethiopia comes this lovely Arabica whole bean coffee. The roasters bring these beans from their single-origin all the way to Jacksonville, Florida, where they coax forward the citrus notes we’ve come to expect from Ethiopian sources.
A sip of this roast will greet you with lemon zest accents and flavors of wild blueberry blended with smooth mocha. Its low acidity makes it a good candidate for pour-over or French press, depending on how much body you like in your cup.
Civilized trades directly with individual farmers and co-ops in East Africa so they know who they’re helping support and how important coffee is to the people who grow it. At high altitude, these beans grow slowly, but they’re well worth the wait.
Now that you have five great new coffees to try on your tasting tour of Africa, you’re likely itching to get your hands on some to try. Or, you could have some things on your mind you want to know first. If you do, keep reading to get answers to some common questions about coffee from this part of the world.
African Coffee FAQ
How much African coffee should I buy?
The answer to that depends a lot on the size of your coffee-drinking family, your drinking habits, and how much you like it. For most people, a standard one-pound bag will do the trick. But, if you want to try a variety, three bags is a good starter number.
What is the shelf life of African coffee?
This answer depends on the grind of the coffee and the location it comes from. In general, green unroasted beans last around a year. Roasted coffee lasts for a shorter time. Ground coffee has the shortest shelf life.
The one-year timeline begins when the coffee is first packaged. So, if it comes from further away, or makes many stops on its way to your door, that will cut into the freshness time.
How should I store my African coffee?
A. I’m sure you’ve noticed that coffee bags are a little bit special. Most of the time, they come equipped with a little one-way valve that allows gas to escape as the beans mature. While it’s certainly acceptable to keep your beans in their original bag, by the time they get to you, the value isn’t really necessary anymore.
When you’re deciding where to store your beans, sunlight and air are your enemies. Either keep it in a closed cabinet or a container that doesn’t let much light in. Freezing or refrigerating your beans will make them susceptible to moisture, which can make them moldy and flavorless.
What’s the best way to grind my African coffee?
If you intend to purchase whole bean coffee, you’ll need to grind it before you brew it. The size of your grind depends on the technique you’re planning for the brew. For a drip coffee machine, your grind will be about the size of Grape Nuts cereal or uncooked corn grits.
If you want to use a French Press or a pour-over, I’d go with a slightly smaller grind, more like coarse sand. In an espresso maker, your grind should be a fine powder, almost as small as cocoa powder.
Most simple electric grinders are set to grind only one size – drip size. It’s a little bit more effort, but I find an adjustable hand grinder works well to help you get just the right size. This way, no matter which brew method I use, I can adjust my grind to match.
What’s the best brewing method for African coffee?
If you have several brewing methods available to you, it’s a good idea to follow the roaster’s recommendations. Depending on how they roast their beans, they may be optimized for a pour-over, a French press, or even a refillable Keurig basket.
If you tend to do things with an eye on sustainability or low energy choices, pour-overs and AeroPresses can both be great. The only energy they require is what you use to heat your water and your coffee won’t cook all day on a hot plate.
Which African coffee is the strongest?
Again, the answer to that question depends a lot on the roaster. The darker the roast is, the less caffeine it contains. So, a light roast is going to have more of a kick than the same coffee roasted dark.
The grind also makes some difference. One shot of espresso has about the same amount of caffeine as an 8 oz. cup of drip or French press coffee made from the same beans.
Many East African coffees are smooth and mild. So, if you want something that’s going to kick you in the mouth, you’ll probably want to seek another growing region. Some South African coffees do pack a wallop.
Can I get green coffee from Africa?
Yes, green coffee beans – the beans that haven’t been roasted yet – are available from most coffee-producing regions in Africa. However, unless you’re roasting them at home or have a roaster nearby, you probably don’t want to buy green coffee.
A beverage can be made from green coffee beans that resembles tea more than what we think of as coffee. It’s been touted by many companies as a healthy alternative or a weight-loss product. There isn’t substantial evidence to confirm this yet though.
That being said, no harm is likely to come from drinking tea made with the green beans. Roasting removes some of the caffeine, kills bacteria, and removes moisture from the bean. It also gives it the dark color and caramel notes that we get with most coffee.
Is the caffeine in African coffee dangerous?
Coffee “beans” as we call them are actually a seed from the coffee plant. In nature, when a plant produces red or brightly colored fruit, it attracts animals. The plant spreads its seeds when animals eat the fruit the seeds are in. This is how it reproduces.
However, we don’t usually eat the whole coffee cherry. The way we process them changes how much caffeine they have. In moderate amounts, caffeine isn’t usually a problem. But, your body may react differently than someone else’s.
Does African coffee use GMOs (is coffee non-GMO)?
It’s hard to give one answer that covers all of the coffee in Africa, but coffee around the globe is usually non-GMO. There hasn’t been a large movement toward GMOs in the coffee industry the way that soy and corn industries have.
Any coffee labeled and organic or Fair Trade is reliably free of GMOs. You may, however, run into a GMO product if the coffee has been flavored or sweetened with additives.
How can you tell if coffee has gone bad?
Most of the time, the problem with keeping coffee past its freshness date isn’t that it spoils. It’s just become stale. Of course, if you notice that your coffee has gotten moldy, it’s best to throw the whole bag in the trash. Mold releases enzymes we can’t see. So, even if you scrape it off, you could be eating toxins.
You can tell if coffee is stale by looking for color changes and using your nose. If your coffee has changed color, it might be suspect. Stale coffee often gets lighter in color and loses its aroma. If you open your coffee bag and can’t smell much, it’s probably stale coffee.
That’s all for our dive into the world’s biggest coffee continent. There are far more coffee-producing regions in Africa to explore. Each has its own aromas and flavors ready to be experienced. But, hopefully, this article has put you on the right path to exploring this ancient and ever-changing industry.