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Origin Week: East Africa

Posted by Lori Bailey on

Over the next few months, we'll be taking some time here and there to highlight coffee themes we find intriguing, informative, and inspiring—and, y'know, just straight-up fun. So, to start off: welcome to Origin Week, where we're focusing in on some of the countries and regions of origin that produce the coffees we love so much. Beginning, appropriately, with where coffee started: East Africa.

Nestled among the picturesque landscapes and fertile soils of countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Burundi, the coffee of East Africa has earned a distinguished reputation for distinctive flavors and unparalleled quality. The region's centuries-old coffee industry is as broad as it is diverse: showcasing a blend of traditional methods, meticulous craftsmanship, forward-thinking innovation, and deep-rooted pride in the making of coffee. From vibrant fruity and floral notes to captivating aromas in every cup, East Africa invites coffee lovers on a journey of taste and discovery that is—well—exhilarating.

Here at Olympia Coffee, we consistently rank East African coffees among our very favorites, relishing their elegant and dynamic flavors. So without further ado, let's dive into the distinctive qualities that set these coffees and their countries of origin apart.

Gatta Farm in Ethiopia


One of the wealthiest nations in Africa, Kenya’s coffee-cultivating history isn't particularly long (dating back only to the late 19th century). Yet this region has quickly gained a reputation for world-class yields, employing a fairly transparent auction system that rewards higher-quality coffees with higher prices. As is common practice across much of East Africa, coffee farming tends to occur on the family scale, with groups of smallholder farms banding together to form cooperatives. These cooperatives can consist of anywhere from 100 to 12,000 members, all pooling together their harvests for processing and export.

When buying Kenyan coffee, two varietals tend to rise to the top: SL-28 and SL-34 (SL standing for Scott Laboratories, a research organization commissioned with cultivating coffee varietals in Kenya from 1934-1963.) These coffees are meticulously sorted and graded by size, from the largest (AA) to the smallest (peaberry). This rigorous sorting process has played a large part in earning Kenya its reputation for surpassing quality.

If you've been around Olympia Coffee long, you know how much we emphasize the importance of processing in the coffee flavor journey. In Kenya, coffee is most commonly treated to the washed process: a method by which coffee cherries are pulped, washed, and then dried on raised beds. This brings out a dimension of flavor that’s often described as “clean,” highlighting the flavors of the bean itself.

While specific flavors can vary widely depending on sub-region, processing technique, bean size, and roasting profile, Kenyan coffees tend to yield notes of deep berry such as blackcurrant and blackberry, tongue-tantalizing citrus, and warm, smooth sweetness evocative of dates or caramel.

At a washing station in Kenya


When talking about origins, it doesn't get more original than Ethiopia. Recognized as the birthplace of coffee, the ages-long tradition of coffee is embedded in the country’s culture. For one thing, Ethiopians have been in the business of exporting coffee for over a millennium. Yet nowhere is their passion for coffee better exemplified than in the Ethiopian coffee ceremony—a social ritual in which coffee is roasted, ground, brewed, and enjoyed in a single hours-long sitting.

Ethiopian coffee often consists of the "varietal" known as Ethiopian Heirloom–a tricky type to identify, as it actually refers to thousands of genetically-distinct wild coffee shrubs growing on Ethiopian soil. And while some are brought from the wild and cultivated on farms, others (known as regional landraces) remain totally and completely wild. Ethiopian Heirloom coffees are widely sought-after, earning even a remote, high-altitude region like Yirgacheffe worldwide fame for its prized crop. Yet a specific heirloom varietal has recently risen to idol status among coffee aficionados: Gesha. Found clustering on trees in the Gori Gesha forest of southwest Ethiopia, this coveted varietal has since graced competition tables at the most prestigious level.

Like much of East Africa, Ethiopia often employs the washed method for processing. Yet fans will wait in eager anticipation for Ethiopian natural-process coffee, made with the oldest-known processing technique in which the coffee cherries are dried, whole, in the sun (not unlike raisins). This yields beans that are imbued with the juiciness of the cherry, lending a more pronounced fruitiness of flavor. Ethiopian coffee produced by this method can evoke notes of blueberry and citrus. On the other hand, washed-process lots can draw out sophisticated notes of floral tea such as bergamot and jasmine.

Ethiopian coffee cherries


If Kenya is one of Africa's richest nations, Burundi is one of its poorest. A tiny nation about the size of Maryland, its growth and flourishing has been oppressed by years of economic and political upheaval. Still, even in these trying conditions, potential grows. And not just potential, but excellence.

For the smallholder farmers of Burundi—often made up of family units—coffee farming is not just an occupation, but an earnest way of life. Coffee production supports each homestead, making the importance of fair and sustainable wages clearer than ever. Our friends at Long Miles Coffee saw the potential in Burundi more than a decade ago, and through their dedicated efforts to support and educate Burundian farmers, they've witnessed incredible growth and improvement year after year.

Again, like many East African countries, the washed process is most widespread in Burundi: smallholder family farms contribute their harvests to a central washing station, where the coffees are processed and prepared for export. Recently, though, the cultivation of education and resources has made experimentation and advancement possible. Recently, we've sourced natural, anaerobic, and honey-processed coffees from Long Miles's washing stations in the Kayanza province—processes that are expanding the flavor horizons of Burundian coffee.

And, in the flavor department, high-quality Burundian coffee has much to offer. Look for warm fruit notes such as peach and pear, as well as juicy berry flavors that can dazzle with an almost candy-like sweetness.

Farmers sorting coffee in Burundi

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