The Great Rift Valley in East Africa is called the Cradle of Life for a reason; countless plants and animals have sprung from this lush volcanic valley. One thing you might not have thought of as originating from here? Coffee!
The Coffea genus of plants are native to the Ethiopian plateaus, where they still grow wild today. But Arabica coffee was first purposefully cultivated in Ethiopia over 1200 years ago; it’s local legend that’s wholly supported by archaeological evidence.
It’s been well over a millennia since the first person brewed themselves a pot of Yirgacheffe coffee, but this region of Ethiopia is still known as the best source of Arabica coffee beans to this day. And so, of course, its neighbors who all comprise the Rift Valley region of East Africa: Kenya and Tanzania.
Personally, our East African coffees are some of our favorites at Silver Bridge Coffee Company; the Great Rift Valley makes an appearance 4 times in our exclusive selection of single origin coffees:
- Tanzanian Peaberry – medium roast
- Kenya AA – usually light roast, but we love the smokiness of Kenyan coffee in a dark roast
- Burundi – dark roast
- Ethiopian Yirgacheffe – light roast
So, what’s so great about these 3 countries? Well – 4 countries – Burundi deserves its own shout out as the Northern border of the Great Rift.
Anyway – let’s take a look at how geology and ecology have made East Africa the low-key Cradle of Coffee:
Ethiopia: The Hills of the Yirgacheffe Region
According to legend, people started cultivating coffee in the 9th century after an Ethiopian goat herder noticed his goats getting a buzz off a wild bean fruit. The assumption is the next step was to see what it did to people in tea form. It obviously went well, because then they started to grow it on purpose. And so, the modern concept of coffee was born.
Why in Yirgacheffe? The southernmost region of Ethiopia, Yirgacheffe (also spelled Yirga Chefe) is a high-altitude plateau comprised of lush, stable soils.
- Geological advantage: The southern Ethiopian hills are part of a volcanic system that has created landforms of super-arable, fertile soils, meaning Yirgacheffe coffee can easily be grown without help from fertilizers or chemicals.
- Ecological advantage: Tropical climates complement high altitudes when farming coffee. Tropical climates encourage growing seasons, and the high altitudes lengthen them. This creates a sweeter coffee bean with more depth because it took longer to mature.
Centuries old natural washing and drying techniques add a distinct flavor to Yirgacheffe coffee, and those same centuries of constant coffee cultivation has made for well-established, fair-trade farms with sustainable, consistent harvests of Arabica coffee beans hard-to-beat in quality and taste.
Our Silver Bridge Coffee Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is a light roast brew with a well-rounded sweetness, and distinct notes of fruit and chocolate. And don’t let the words “light roast” let you think this single source coffee doesn’t have a kick – it’s still a perfect choice for that morning wake-up coffee, or as a component of a breakfast blend.
Kenya: The Lush Volcanic Soils of The Great Rift
Kenyan coffee isn’t just some of the best in the world, it’s also some of the hardest to find; Kenyan coffee beans represent less than 1% of world coffee production each year. And while coffee bean product from Kenya is so high-quality due to similar factors to the region where Yirgacheffe coffee is grown, Kenyan farmers have their own heritage techniques that give Kenyan coffee a flavor unique to that of its Ethiopian neighbors.
- Geological advantage: Nearer to the center of The Great Rift Valley, Kenya’s extensive, huge and widespread mountain ranges are all part of an active volcanic system, producing soils rich in nutrients.
- Ecological advantage: The altitude and climate of the Kenyan mountains is the perfect environment for many types of fruit trees, C. Arabica (read: coffee) being one of those fruit trees.
Kenyan farmers hand-pick their coffee beans, which means only the ripest ones are used. This is a huge part of how quality control has kept Kenyan coffee on the world stage for centuries, because of its distinct, dynamic, sweet, and fruity flavors. Coffee farmers in Kenya also use a processing technique that naturally ferments the beans twice before they’re washed and dried. Kenyan coffee beans are graded (highest to lowest) in AA, A or B quality.
Our Silver Bridge Coffee Kenya AA single source coffee plays on these distinct features of top-quality Kenyan coffee while bringing a bit of our own taste to the mix. By dark roasting these fruity, almost winey beans, we bring out all the subtle flavors while reducing some of the acidity. This makes for a bold cup of dark, smoky coffee that may surprise even the most prolific coffee drinkers… in a good way, of course.
Tanzania: Washed and Sun-Dried Coffee Bean Fruit Flavor
Tanzania produces coffee equally as high-quality and great-tasting as Kenya and Ethiopia because of its commonalities, but also because the properties of Tanzanian coffee sort of marry the best parts of Ethiopian and Kenyan coffees.
Proof-positive of how great Tanzanian coffee is? It accounts for 1/5th of all Tanzanian exports each year, and almost half a million Tanzanian families farm, wash and sun-dry domestic coffee fruit.
- Geological advantage: The high altitudes of mountains like Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru have created massive, unending slopes and foothills of volcanic soil at altitudes attune to well-developed coffee beans.
- Ecological advantage: Millennia-old arable soils rich in nutrients, and 600+ years of careful, sustainable and natural cultivation make for an Arabica variation with its own… something. Like we said – similar to Kenyan and Yirgacheffe coffees, but stands on its own. Also – peaberries. More on that in a minute.
An interesting fact about Tanzanian coffee is that European trade brought it there, but the continuance of trade well over 5 centuries later is probably the only reason it’s such a big part of the Tanzanian economy. The Haya, a highland family of tribes who began cultivating coffee beans all those years ago, didn’t particularly care about coffee but kept growing it because of the demand for Tanzanian coffee in European markets.
We source a very particular type of coffee from the hills of Mt. Kilimanjaro: Tanzanian peaberry coffee. World-renowned for its light flavor and sweeter floral tones, Tanzanian peaberry coffee is also less acidic than Kenyan and Ethiopian coffee. Peaberries are a natural mutation of coffee fruit berries that make for a bean that’s more subtle in flavor but also higher in caffeine content.
Because peaberries make up less than 10% of the harvest, peaberry coffee isn’t super easy to come by, so trying a bag of rich, bright, full-bodied Silver Bridge Coffee Tanzanian Peaberry medium roast coffee is a fun idea. What is a peaberry? A peaberry occurs inside the coffee cherry or coffee fruit when one of the twin seeds inside the coffee cherry fails to develop, leaving extra room for the remaining coffee seed to grow.
Bringing the Best East African Coffees Home to Ohio
Part of our drive at Silver Bridge Coffee Company, besides curating the best collections of exotic Arabica coffees from all over the world, is being a part of local small businesses supporting each other on international levels. Coffee that’s locally-grown in the Great Rift and locally-roasted here in Ohio.
Our Yirgacheffe, Kenya and Tanzania Peaberry coffees are Fair Trade certified, as are all our coffees. And we make it a point to seek out women-owned coffee farms in places where women could use a leg up – especially when they’re producing coffee this good. And while no other places can step to East Africa as being the birthplace of humanity and – more importantly – coffee; any one of our single source coffees give you a taste of what it’s like to live in some of the most beautiful places in the world.