Around the Caffeinated World: Return to Africa


Kenyan coffee cherry. [Photograph: rogiro on Flickr]

It's true that sometimes you have to go back to where you came from before you can start moving forward, and coffee's developmental journey is no exception: Though the plant is native to Ethiopia, it almost literally had to circumnavigate the globe before winding up in one of its more recent (and most valued) origins: Kenya.

So, why did it take so long for the beans to wind up essentially at their neighbor's house? Today we'll take a look at Kenya and other "new" African origins, Rwanda and Burundi.

Ethiopia has historically guarded its coffee somewhat jealously: removal of plants, clippings, or even just a handful of beans was punishable by death in many cases. So while Kenya's northern border is dominated by some of the most fertile and famous coffee-producing land in the world, it took a group of French missionaries in 1893 to actually bring the bushes through Nairobi and to the lush plateaus around Mount Kenya.

The evangelists, part of a Roman Catholic group called the Holy Ghost Fathers, had long worked with coffee-growing former slaves on the island of Bourbon (now known as Reunion, which had been colonially introduced to coffee in the early 18th century). In the 1860s, the Fathers moved their mission westward through the African mainland, establishing coffee farms near Nairobi to help fund their slave-freeing activities. From there, coffee spread throughout the country's mountainous southwestern regions.

Interestingly, the variety of coffee that the Holy Ghost Fathers brought was—while ancestrally linked to those original Ethiopian strains and likely from the lineage split off from the Noble Tree—a particular mutation of the bean that occurred when it first appeared on Reunion. Called Bourbon after its island home, the variety of bean is known for pronounced sweetness and peppy fruitlike acidity.

A few years later, in the early 20th century, coffee made its way to another relatively nearby African nation: Rwanda—this time thanks to German, not French missionaries. Throughout the 1930s and '40s, Rwanda produced quantities of low-quality commodity-grade coffee, feeding into an increasingly commercial coffee industry that was busily responding to a spike in demand for joe during and after the World Wars.

As one of the few cash crops available to Rwandan farmers, coffee had played a significant role in the health of the overall economy. Indeed, after the genocide that wracked the nation for much of the 1990s, coffee was one of the agricultural products that helped rebuilding efforts in the midst of incredible depression. Many coffee roasters began focusing on transforming the tiny country into a coveted source of single-origin coffees through educational support; cup-tasting competitions like the Cup of Excellence; and aid programs like Bikes to Rwanda, all which aim to make coffee farming there easier and more lucrative.

Similarly, tiny Burundi has, in the last several years, followed its northern neighbor Rwanda's lead, developing a specialty-coffee tradition of its own in hopes of climbing to prosperity after more than a decade-long civil war. Though farms in the two small countries tend to be minuscule (a grower's crop might not amount to more than a few handfuls), there remains the possibility of using coffee to improve the economic health of hundreds of thousands of sustenance farmers throughout the region.

And you thought you were just grabbing a quick cup to go.

Drinking around the world: Kenyan coffees are often professional tasters' favorites. (Many of us are suckers for their crisp, lemon-like tartness and black-currant punch.) Check out this selection from Barismo: Othaya, from the Nyeri region. Metropolis Coffee Roasters, out of Chicago, are also offering a Kenyan, the peaberry lot of Ruthagati.

Rwandan and Burundian coffees aren't currently really in season, but watch your favorite roaster's winter offerings for selections from the world's newest little coffee-growing regions.

More Coffee Around the World

Around the Caffeinated World: Ethiopia »
The Ottoman Empire »
Brewed Coffee Takes Over Europe »
The First Colonies »
Latin America »