A Comprehensive Guide to Ugandan Specialty Coffee Production

This website contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Though not quite as highly renowned as neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, Uganda has been gaining rapid momentum in the specialty coffee business. What’s so fascinating about this rapid growth is that just a few years ago Ugandan specialty coffee still sounded like an oxymoron to most specialty coffee distributors. 

Coffee might have long been one of the major export products of Uganda (it routinely amounts to over 20% of the country’s annual foreign exchange earnings), but it had barely registered on the radar of coffee connoisseurs.

On one hand, it can be argued that there was a legitimate reason for it. The quality of the coffee produced was not always (most often, arguably) up to par with what specialty coffee roasters have come to expect. And playing catch up has been hard considering how rapidly the field has developed over the last couple of decades.

On the other, it can also be argued that the rigid demands of the field have also kept Uganda back. But with rapid development came the willingness to experiment with new tastes, which has done a lot to propel Ugandan coffee forward.

Uganda's coffee farmers strike green gold

Coffee Varieties Grown in Uganda

Uganda (along with the Republic of Congo) is considered to be one of the originators of the Robusta coffee variety. It amounts to over 80% of coffee production in Uganda. 

Robusta has never held a strong place in the specialty coffee market, with Arabicas ruling the sector. In part this has to do with it being less exclusive, so to speak – it grows in lower altitudes, yields more crop per area, and is cheaper to harvest.

Recently, though, with rising production quality, it has started to grow certain momentum. While it isn’t going to take Arabica’s crown anytime soon, high-quality robusta blends have slowly started to carve out their niche in the market.

Arabica comprises only 20% of the coffee produced in Uganda but has had an almost meteoric rise on the market, due to tight quality control of both harvesting and processing. SL 14, SL 28, Kent, and Typica are the Arabica varietals most commonly grown in Uganda.

Ugandan Bugisu or Bugishu coffee has also been gaining fame in recent years, but contrary to what might be common belief, it’s not a separate variety. It’s an Arabica cultivar that gains its characteristic flavor component due to a specific growing environment

How the Coffee is Grown in Uganda

The vast majority of coffee in Uganda is grown not by large establishments, but by small farmers. It’s stimated that there are approximately 3.5 million families involved in coffee production.

These farms – called fincas – are located on mountainsides at 1,300 to 2,600 meters in height. On average, each farmland spans approximately 1 to 2.5 hectares.

For a long time, due to limited land, quantity ruled over quality, and strip picking was the preferred harvesting method. This, along with high defect rates, resulted in the low-grade commercial product that is referred to as dried Uganda Arabica (DRUGAR).

Where are Ugandan Coffee Varieties Grown?

Uganda has several large advantages when it comes to coffee production, which has helped tremendously with the rapid increase of coffee quality.

There are multiple places in the country where soil, climate, and genetic stock produce a quality product when utilized properly. 

Accordingly, there are multiple sites in Uganda that see a lot of coffee production, among them:

  • Mount Elgon is probably the most famous coffee-growing site in the country. This is where Bugisu/Bugishu coffee is produced. Its mineral-rich soil and ample irrigation make support rampant coffee production, and the majority of the product is organic (though fertilizer use is on the rise).
  • Western Regions are where most of Arabica is produced. Rwenzori Mountain, from Kasese to Mbarara is the premiere production site here due to fertile volcanic soil. Mbale, Sironko, Bududa are some of the largest production sites.
  • Lake Victoria basin (Jinja, Kampala, Masaka) and Kibale forest are native growth sites of Robusta coffee. The soil here is rich in clay, acidic, and high in phosphorus, suitable for resilient robusta plants.
  • Northern Region of Uganda is also a large producer of Robusta coffee, with Lira and Gulu being the noteworthy production sites.

Ugandan Processing Methods

Ugandan coffee is processed in two ways:

1. Dry Processing

When the freshly picked coffee cherries are placed in the sun until coffee beans are separated from the pulp easily and almost fully, well, dried and the moisture content should be a little above 10%). This is usually the preferred processing method for quality Arabica beans but is less common in Uganda.

2. Wet Processing

When coffee cherries are soaked and fermented to make divesting beans from pulp easy. Once beans are separated, they’re washed again and left to dry. This is how the majority of coffee in Uganda is produced, including Bugisu/Bugishu. 

Taste Profile of Ugandan Coffee

Ugandan Arabica has a smooth and clean taste and has been described as somewhat similar in acidity to Ethiopian coffees. It typically has a sweeter undertone, chocolate, figs, and raisins being common. The varieties grown in the West Nile area are characterized by citrusy undertones as well.

Bugishu, though an Arabica cultivar grown in the West Nile area, is very distinct in taste. While somewhat sweet, it’s been more often described as having spice and citrus undertones, with its winey acidity being much more pronounced than the rest of Arabica varieties grown in Uganda.

Most Robusta varieties are of lower acidity and higher bitterness. This has to do with the lower elevation of their production area – though the higher the altitude the coffee is grown at, the higher the acidity and complexity of the taste. 

Varieties grown at Lake Victoria slopes are considered to be higher in quality, though they’re still not very acidic and quite bitter. That said, their taste profile can be quite complicated if we’re talking quality beans, with well-pronounced bold fruit and chocolate notes, and a very rich, almost syrupy body.

Is Ugandan Coffee Worth Giving a Try?

Ugandan coffee may not be your regular coffee aficionado’s regular choice but that makes it all the more exciting, especially now when quality coffee production is on the rise.

Ugandan Bugishu and Robusta varieties are especially worth a try if you’re looking to expand your horizons and are looking for new flavors.

Bugisu, particularly, has an AA rating and is particularly well-suited for dark roasts due to its low acidity, and is definitely worth giving a try, if only to be able to say you have.

Like this article? You might to read: Discovering the Unique Secrets Of Costa Rican Coffee