You may have seen all the stories in the news recently about the environmental concerns of takeaway cups. Whilst Union doesn’t own coffee shops, we do supply our coffee to many different independent coffee shops across the UK. As part of that relationship we often provide takeaway cups for their business. So we felt it really important to ensure we weren’t contributing to the problem.

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Last year Macmillan raised almost £15m with their coffee event, which raises funds to support people affected by cancer. The event has been running since 1990 when a group of volunteers decided to donate the money they normally spent on a coffee at their weekly meeting to the charity.

This year’s coffee morning is on Friday the 27th of September, and there’s lots of help on how to run your own event here. If you’re quick, you can use discount code SUMMER13, valid until 19th September, and get 20% off your basket. If you don’t have time to organise a coffee morning, then maybe you could donate the 20% you save on your next order when you use the code?

There’s lots of inspiration on the Macmillan website, so throw together some scones or some cookies and brew up a pot of Equinox. Get some friends over, and help make the 2013 World’s Biggest Coffee Morning the best ever.






Our first exceptional lot from this up-coming origin finally arrived.  It’s been a labour of love to actually get our hands on this small parcel of great bourbon coffee, with our
journey starting back in August 2010. For those of you who follow our exploits, you may recall my first exploration of Burundi’s coffee production scene was on
Burundi-road-trip-june-2010 and with progress being made during the 2010 – 11 harvest season, the decision was made to apply to the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (A.C.E.) for
Burundi to be considered to host a Cup of Excellence Competition.

Wonderful Burundi print on curtains


Before any country can host the Cup of Excellence programme, countless operational challenges have to be overcome – from establishing the producer and chain of custody for all samples, through to ensuring adequate roasting and cupping facilities are professionally managed.  The most important aspect however, and one of the prime legacy effects of the competition, is the development of a team of national experts from the local industry that are capable of screening samples to the high standards expected by the international quality coffee market.   This National jury is responsible for screening all lots entered by farmers, repeatedly tasting until just around 40 – 50 samples remain for the invited international team and representing the best coffee that the country has to offer.

In common with Rwanda’s own debut into the competition, and before final approval could be given by A.C.E. that Burundi possessed the organisational strength and resources required, a test event entitled the ‘Burundi Prestige Cup’ was held in August 2011 that would replicate and examine all procedure and protocols for competition. Having been so closely associated for around 10 years with the development of quality coffee in neighbouring Rwanda, I was delighted to be invited to participate in this inaugural panel and to
have the opportunity catch up with some of the people I had met a year earlier.

Jeremy cupping action with Steinar Paulsrud (Kaffebrenneriet, Norway) and Head Judge, Paul Songer (Songer Associates, USA)

The National Jury working under A.C.E. Head Judge, Paul Songer, who has also been heavily involved in Rwanda’s successful rise as a quality coffee producer, worked their way through 96  samples eventually passing 46 as being representative of the highest grade of coffee.  Along with 10 other experienced cuppers from the USA, Norway, Australia and Japan we then spent the following week tasting and re-tasting again to eventually pass 22 lots as being representative of a cup of excellence finalist selection.  Significantly, one lot achieved a score of over 90 points, qualifying for what would in a formal competition be a Presidential Award –a great achievement considering that the washing stations and cooperatives here had only had one season experience in producing for the quality market.

Burundi smallholder awards

Looking back over my notes from the previous year’s tour, it was quickly apparent as we got into the real business of cupping that there had in the past year been some real improvements in many areas of Burundi coffee production.  Many of the samples that we cupped showed good characteristics overlaying clean and sweet coffees, and with
consistency over the week as samples passed through each round. (we only know the identity of lot numbers at end of the week and through tracing these back
through the rounds scoresheets).  At the most basic level, the incidence of potato taste, a defect that is prevalent in this region of East Africa was far lower than expected, and lower than I experienced on the previous year’s tour.  Given the scale of many of the washing stations so far constructed in Burundi, I had expected this issue to be more obvious, and it is testament to the process management improvements that this has not been seen to be so.  More exciting however was that for the first time, I started to get some real East Africa/Great Lakes regionality with the Bourbon character coming clearly and cleanly through, and a range of cup styles from light floral sweet citric, through to rich raisin sweet bodied cups.  Diversity arises from soil and microclimate differences but without careful growing and clean processing, these vibrant characters just won’t be found.  Through the week there were interesting comments from different Jury members and clearly there were coffee styles here to suit all the Judges (we are all buyers) personal and national style needs.

Usually when attending Cup of Excellence as a jury member, the results are declared at the end of the week with a big ceremony and awards before the coffees are sold on the internet auction some three months later. One of the perks of being invited to such a test competition however is that the winning lots which have been held back from conventional sale are auctioned between the invited international jury members on the final morning of the week.  With only 10 bidders in the room and without the luxury of hiding behind a screen in another country, we raised arms to bid under the eye of the Burundi Coffee Sector directors and government representatives.  As ever, our Japanese
and Nordic representatives were not shy of high prices and with a few keenly contested lots I kept having a go to see what I could get for our friends back
home.  After a few technical problems with the auctioneers bid recording, and having just been edged out of a lot that I thought I had bought – until the hammer came down – I finally and very happily secured a lot from the Kinyovu Washing station in the northern Kayanza District that had got everyone talking about in round 1, had shone in round 2
before dropping down the rankings due to just one cup on one of the very final tables that didn’t present as well. Very happily, this was one of the stations and areas I had visited the year before and which I knew had good altitude in the surrounding hillsides (around 1880M)and good regional support for the coffee sector. My final score for the coffee was 87, just shy of our own 88 point Microlot selections but a really good effort given we are in year -1 of the competition!

Twa (Pygmy) tribe women at Busekera Village, a crafts village where the women make traditional clay pots and earthenware.


Burundi clay pots

It’s an understatement to say it’s taken a number of months to get the coffee ready to ship due to the fact that it’s a very small parcel and in the height of the season, the mills preparing coffee for export really don’t want to have to look out for just a few bags.  We waited until after the main export season therefore so that we would be able to control the milling quality and ship the coffee along with some additional coffees from the region.

Having seen this coffee from the beginning of the competition through to roasting here in East London we are delighted that the quality has held up so well. I hope that you will enjoy drinking it as much as we are– the cup shows many of the aspects I love about this region; silky body and mouthfeel, great delicate milk chocolate praline undercurrent and a wonderful sweet delicate acidity, less aggressive than other East African coffees.

This parcel only represents a tiny amount – about 3 sacks of coffee that will not last long. Seek it on our online shop. If the quality improvements seen this last year continue, then Burundi may become as important an origin for us in the next ten years as the wonderful Rwanda had been over the last.

This weekend I returned back from 3 weeks in Africa, which included visiting coffee producers in Rwanda. Over the years, Steven and I have come to understand how essential these face-to-face meetings are. They give us an accurate picture of the complexities small-scale farmers are faced with, and ensure we continue to select and secure the best quality coffee for Union.

Two issues that are always important are; the local impact on small scale farmers of the volatile coffee market and secondly, how we select the specific lots of coffee that we want to buy from the new season harvest.

Coffee Markets and Small Scale Farmers

Over the last nine years we’ve been worked initially with one Co-operative, Abahuzamugami  ba Kawa, (Maraba), who  we proudly launched onto the speciality coffee market  in 2003. In more recent years our relationships expanded to a second group, COCAGI (Gashonga) and this year, now we are also excited to introduce Karaba Co-operative.

Offices at Abahuzamugabi ba Kawa Maraba

The nature of our relationship with these coffee producers involved many aspects aside from just being a commercial partner (buyer). Our participation has helped transform aspirations into a sustainable reality and we have increasingly and fascinatingly immersed ourselves in issues of community development, health and welfare, capacity building (business and management skills) and Co-operative development, as well as helping to train the first professional speciality coffee cuppers, all in the pursuit of bringing our Rwandan coffee up to the very best international standards of production and cup quality.

This year, due to the volatile coffee market and a number of weather and seasonal problems that coffee farmers faced, I decided to spend a period out here in Kigali at Rwashoscco, the Co-operative owned export organisation. I went to “cup the harvest” to select exactly which parcels and lots we’d be buying, and also to have our regular review meeting with the General Managers of Abahuzamugambi and COCAGI Cooperatives to find out how they have fared in this difficult season. Steven met with the Co-operatives before the season, in February-11, to plan the strategy, and now we meet to review how the season played out, and to plan for the next year.

Preparation of fully washed parchment Maraba

Preparation of fully washed parchment Maraba

Many people will no doubt wonder why this year (climate aside) could be seen as challenging, surely the high market prices must be a goldmine for the farmers, and the coffee must be great, right?  Well, from what I’ve seen and experienced here and our work in Guatemala plus my recent visit to Costa Rica in May, high markets can bring as many problems as benefits to many coffee communities around the globe.

Many of the communities that we source from are not single farm businesses but Co-operatives: They function by buying coffee cherries from their members who are small-scale farmer families (Maraba have around 1300 families) as the ripe coffee cherries are picked, usually over a harvest period of around twelve weeks.  At the beginning of the harvest, the Co-operative must have enough funds to pay all the farmers for their picking.  At the end of the season, when the coffee is finally sold, the Co-operative receives their money from the buyers and a second ‘top up’ payment is made to the farmers; the community decide how to portion out any remaining profits.  They may vote to retain some capital for next year, possibly to invest in washing station equipment or for community projects such as a school or hardship fund for older members.

The key difference about how co-operatives operate and compete for the benefit of their community members against potentially better funded private businesses is in this first and second payment system. Private companies buy cherries by making a one-off payment to farmers, but in co-operatives where farmers initially accept a lower price, the co-operative can reduce the level of loans required from local banks to fund the coffee cherry harvest, and therefore reduce their interest costs which can be a significant part of annual expenditure.  The ‘difference’ is made up to the farmers at the end of the season. In well managed co-operatives, with good buyer relations such as we enjoy, they can provide the farmer with a higher income as the profits are shared in the community as opposed to being retained for the owners of private companies.

The challenge I mention is that this year, the market price of coffee has nearly doubled in the period since last harvest and the amount of cash the cooperatives need to fund cherry purchase has therefore similarly increased.  Such rapid increases in cost really puts these communities under stress as the amount of retained profit may not be enough to cover the increase and thus higher loans and interest payments are experienced.  Additionally, although cooperatives operate for the benefit of their members, they still experience competition locally as other coffee cherry buyers working as agents for the private exporters compete to buy this coffee.  There is no obligation for co-operative members to give their co-operative first refusal on their crop. But if the Co-operative is not offering the highest price, other benefits are available to members throughout the year.

With such young cooperatives where the full understanding of their concept is under-developed, the farmer, understandably wants money now, rather than a promise of (more) money later. This issue often will take a long time to become fully recognised and supported by farmers but it is important as spreading out of payments helps families who haven’t been educated about budgeting to manage their cash over a full year cycle.

Hand sorting washed parchment Maraba

Hand sorting washed parchment Maraba

Over recent years, Union Hand Roasted Coffee assisted communities like Maraba and Gashonga by paying a percentage of our purchases in advance of the season; a mechanism known as pre-financing.  This year again we provided pre-financing but due to the high prices that we agreed for the finished exportable coffee, we also faced similar cash constraints and could not assist pre-financing to the same degree as we would have liked.  To continue providing the best upkeep, we support the co-operatives in working with additional NGO’s and pre-finance trade organisations that provide credit to developing communities at a preferential interest rate.  As market conditions stabilise we hope to return to the level of pre-financing the co-operatives desire and help them to develop their community.

In my next post I’ll discuss how quality control influences small scale farmers.


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