Rwanda and Burundi Coffee Quality is Still Undervalued
Coffees from Burundi and Rwanda, two neighboring East African nations, are real treasures. By now everyone should know a bit about the merits of these coffees: bright, balanced, sweet, and complex at the same time. They offer a fresh option as a new arrival, especially because Not just they come to port in Oakland at a time of year opposite the Central America harvest, when the Costa Rica and Panamas and Mexico coffees are getting a little long in the tooth.
Rwanda and Burundi, with neighboring countries. 1999 Map
But the fact is, no matter how excited I am about the Burundi and Rwanda offerings we have, that these are the coffees I love to take home for the weekend, they still don’t receive the attention they should. Each harvest, we are always working so hard to sell what we buy. I am not sure why, but I have some ideas.
The first is that people often get “locked on” to a certain perception of coffee from their experience, and sometimes don’t get a chance to revise it. Some people lump all African coffees together into a certain “family of taste.”
Perhaps you tasted a Natural Ethiopia Harar, or a winey Kenya, and believe that other growing regions on the continent would share some of those characteristics. I would dare to say there couldn’t be a bigger mistake to make, nor one that denies your palate a chance to experience the diversity of African coffee origins.
The second issue that explains why some origins sell well and others do not is history – not the history of politics or such, but marketing. When the first roasters started naming the origins where their coffees came from, when they started putting coffee origins on bags (we are talking pre-Starbucks here), some nations were in states of turmoil. The ‘70s were a chaotic time of transition, and a chaotic time for the global economy. Under those conditions, and at a time when “Specialty Coffee” was coming into the consciousness of American consumers, some coffee exporting nations were ready to take advantage, ready to be marketed by US Roasters, while others were in the middle of chaos and upheaval.
Why is Costa Rica coffee so known, so popular? Why is Kenya and Tanzania so established among African coffees? Colombia, etc? It’s because these origins were stable enough to deliver, to market their coffees to roasters, to supply coffee each season. At the same time, why is El Salvador so poorly known, and always trying to play catch up to Costa Rica? And what about Rwanda and Burundi compared to Tanzania and Kenya? Part of the reason seems to be political stability that allowed economic stability.
I have also found people bond with places they have visited, or to an origin where family and friends have gone and brought back coffee… some personal connection. It’s more likely that an American might have visited Costa Rica in the 80s than, say Burundi! The only people I have known from the US in Burundi before the 2000s are missionaries, NGO workers and other politicos.
It would be just an asterisk in coffee if the effects weren’t so real and so harsh. Average specialty coffees from an origin like Kenya sell for far more than Burundi for example, though the quality (while they have completely different cup characteristics) is on par in scoring … great lots are easily 89, 90, 91 points + .
So these old biases, often without intention, but sometimes touching on fears of different cultures and peoples and fears of unknown places, seem to linger a long time, I believe.
Rwanda coffee, as well as Burundi, tends to be old Bourbon type varieties
Each year I make trips to Rwanda and Burundi, each year I find these coffees on the cupping tables I just love, and each year I overbuy! And I do it because love makes you make stupid mistakes … well, stupid business decisions. And I will keep being stupid this way until everyone else finds out that these coffees are delicious and deserve to be loved and celebrated!
This year I set up a special blind cupping of Rwanda and Burundi stock lots from our warehouse, versus Costa Rica, Guatemalas and Colombias. On a table where every sample was anonymous and ungrouped, I could pick out the complexity of the Rwandas, the sweetness of the Burundis, and sadly the more basic tastes of some of the coffees from the Americas.
One Guatemala, Evelio Villatoro, was super! One Colombia was very nice, complex. But the others languished at the bottom of my scoring range as most of the Rwanda and Burundi towered above them.
I made a short, rough edit video about a blind cupping I did to try to locate the quality and flavor profile of Rwanda and Burundi coffees amongst other wet-processed (aka washed) coffees. These aren't nearby origins, but specifically I wanted to see how the Rwanda and Burundi line up against Latin American coffees in a blind cupping. Below you can see the resulting video from the cupping, and some images of Rwanda and Burundi travels over the last couple years that speak to the experience of travel there...
Nkora is a historic station, said to be the first washing station in country. Before that coffee was home processed, which was usually just pulped and dried, not fermented. Here the laborers use their fet to work the already-fermented mucilage loose from the coffee parchment layer. The dance is a greeting for a visitor. I find it a little embarrassing honestly, but they don't ... so I try to respect that.
We stopped to visit one of the elders on the island in Lake Kivum Bugarura. like others she dries beans from the house eaves. There are 2000 people and 400 farmers on this island producing 300 tons coffee cherry
Some years ago I started taking photos that essentially forced my camera to fail. In doing so I felt something liberating about the idea of capturing a subject, especially one who didn't choose to be captured. It represented the speed in transience of traveling through an area that you don't really know.
Largely empty containers I am sure, but in a place where owning a bike is being in the transportation industry, big loads are common. I see people hauling easily 100 kgs of Fanta, Beer, Bananas (probably for making banana beer!)
Headed to Ngozi via Kayanza. The hand painted sign styles show such skill, and I dread the day they are replaced with computer inkjet printed banners. Bike culture is everywhere, old and not-so-old Indian-made Phoenix bikes highly stylized.
We stopped to see some trees of Phillipe and Miriam his wife. He has about 500 trees, making him a sizable farmer. But the amount of cherry on the trees this year is shockingly low, despite a huge effort he makes to fertilize and care for his plants.