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.

In my last post about visiting farmers in Rwanda during the current season, I discussed how high market prices can bring difficulties to the farmers. In this post we’ll look at how prices can affect quality.

Quality is not an Accident

The second negative effect of high coffee market prices shows its hand in the overall quality of coffee reaching consumers.  In years of low market price, farmers  producing high quality specialty coffee know they have to maximise that quality to attract best prices. They achieve this by careful and selective picking which is more labour intensive, and careful post-harvest processing of the cherries.  This year, not only in Rwanda but as we have seen in many countries, farmers understandably take the view that they will be receiving more than last year without the extra effort – so why bother!  Again we have taken a great deal of time – including Steven visiting them earlier this year – to encourage them to work carefully and reinforcing to farmers that our agreement to buy, at a premium to market value, is linked to producing high scoring speciality grades.

If all of this market turbulence was not enough to cope with, the weather also added its own challenge.  Usually, the cherries ripen and are harvested over a period of around twelve weeks.  This year however, due to lots of rain and warm sunshine, the full crop came in over just six weeks and the Coffee Washing Stations, where the cherries are processed, were inundated by huge volumes of coffee cherries which need to be pulped really quickly. The beans must be separated from the pulp in a timely manner. If this is not done, fermentation in the bean can occur, or insects are attracted and damage the cherries, both of which can cause unpleasant taste effects in the finished coffee.  As we are in regular contact with producers that UNION buy from, we were aware of the problem and knew that there would be issues in the harvest quality so careful selection was needed more than ever.

Each individual lot has to be sampled

It’s this last matter that really drove me to spend a chunk of July in the cupping Lab in Kigali, working with Leatitia, a cupper I had helped to train some five years ago and who helped select our lots last year.  Together we cupped and scored hundreds of individual production lots from three Cooperatives and to get the coffee Union requires this year, we discounted just over 50% of the lots as not being up to our standard, and that was after Leatitia had pre-screened the lots to offer me a choice of those she considered the best.

To make the selections, a sample of green coffee is taken from each lot passing through the stations on any given day and labelled with the district and control reference number and is sent to the cupping lab in Kigali.

First the lots are sample roasted

300g of the coffee is prepared and roasted the day before we cup the lot; first we assess the roasted fragrance of the dry grounds and then pour the water, steep before evaluating the wet aroma, and then tasting the coffee brewed simply in a glass. We evaluate for a range of characteristics to produce a final score and description for that coffee that enables me to make a selection and construct the overall quantity, quality and flavour profile when the lots are put together.

Water is poured into the grounds

In each cooperative there are districts that each have their own terroir and hence character.  My job was to select the best lots and bring them together (blend them) to achieve an overall standard for the cooperative that reflects the style of the district.  Maraba for example produces a rich full bodied and smooth coffee with an
elegant orange/citrus acidity to balance the cup; we offer this as our Single Estate coffee, Rwanda Maraba Bourbon.  COCAGI cooperative in Gashonga yields a coffee that is sweet, fuller bodied and has more red fruit flavour notes which we’ve also selected as a core component for our Revelation espresso.  Karaba Co-operative was new to us this year and being out in the cupping lab to taste tens of lots from the district was fascinating and wholly informative.  I’m looking forward to UNION being able to offer this coffee, which is distinct from the others having a lighter body with clean fresh apricot and white fruit, almost floral notes and a silky milk chocolate mouthfeel.

Occasionally during the cupping process, a lot comes up on the table that has a really outstanding flavour, with clarity and balance coupled with unique flavour notes and which also receives a high score.  In these cases, I have requested that these small lots are segregated all the way through and are delivered to us as our micro-lot selections.  We will release information on these as and when we get closer to them arriving in London and have checked and approved the arrival samples ensuring nothing untoward has happened during shipping.

Samples cooling before cupped

It’s only by getting out to the farms that we can know what has occurred during the harvest each year and I have no doubt that there may, sadly be a lot of very variable quality Rwanda coffee reaching the international market.  But it’s through our Union Direct Trade relationships and putting the miles
and work in, also personally a very enjoyable process that UNION Hand-Roasted Coffee will again be able to represent the very best of Rwanda’s speciality coffee
harvest for 2011-2012.

Working out the final scores


Burundi Road Trip June 2010

Since we first got involved in Rwanda coffee in 2003, we’ve often been asked about sourcing from its southern neighbour Burundi. After the 1994 regional crisis and civil wars, Burundi remained in a state of turmoil with agreements only signed between the last of the rebel groups and the transitional coalition government as late as 2009. Since 2005 however, with increasing political stability, and the support of the international community, fundamental changes have been made to the coffee sector to enable outside investment and remove state ownership and control of the processing and export facilities. It was against this backdrop of liberalisation (thus allowing Union to develop direct contact with growers), our increasing interest in the unique coffees of the Great Lakes region, and their retained heritage Bourbon varietal (same as Rwanda) that I went to find out the breadth and diversity that Burundi coffee has to offer.

On this trip I was travelling with 6 other curious roasters from the USA and Canada and had been invited to tour a number of the producer cooperatives and meet the principal figures in the Burundi coffee scene from the various sectors; government, private enterprise and cooperatives. Whilst Steven and I don’t often go along on group tours, such an organised week of visits and intensive cupping promised to make the most of my time as I was also due to travel on the following week to spend days cupping lots for our 2010 Rwanda Harvest shipments. When you are getting to know a country’s coffee it’s important to cup as many lots as possible from a variety of areas and producers. This way you build up a picture of who is producing good coffee, who might be able to produce VERY good coffee with a bit of partnership and support, and who is talking the talk but not walking!

Our tour began crossing over the border from Rwanda at Kanyaru Haut crossing, accompanied by plus Ben Lentz (director of the US AID funded BAP Burundi Agricultural Project), Anne Ottaway, representing Michigan State University’s programme and various heads of coffee sector taking a ride in a convoy of 4×4’s. My travelling companion during the following days was mostly Adrien Sibomana, CEO of InterCafé , Burundi’s representative organisation for growers and exporters. Adrien is a tall quiet and thoughtful man, keenly aware of the most pressing issues facing Burundi coffee growers and is moving to get a national dialogue going about how to resolve increasing production of quality, value added coffee with the highly compartmentalised approach to family land ownership which inevitably prevents farmers from benefitting from even minor economies of scale. Over this and many other topics that affect coffee production and community development, Adrien told me more about his background and how he came into public office. What he (or anyone else) didn’t tell me, and what I found out two days into the trip, was that I was riding around with a former prime minister, (1988 – 1993).

Over the four following days of cooperative (washing station) visits and cuppings, it was clear that Burundi’s coffee industry is very much in a state of transition, with a well organised government established infrastructure of washing stations and dry mills that were developed with the single rationale of producing quantity, but not necessarily the quality that might be capable of generating added value for the country’s growers or the breakthrough quality that Union look for. In 2009 however the first stages of liberalisation took place with 13 of the country’s 160 washing stations being taken into either public (cooperative) or private enterprises, and we now have the opportunity to work direct with producers and source coffee traceable coffees.

On the first day, we spent the day touring Kayanza Province, a district to the east of the High mountainous forest area and arrived first at Ruhororo washing station. After being welcomed by enthusiastic Burundi ritual drummers we had opportunity to look at the process for receiving cherries and the washing station operation. One immediately apparent difference between Rwanda and Burundi station practices is that when smallholders bring cherry in, before they put the coffee on the sorting tables to screen out any under ripe (partly green) cherries, they have to put their pick into a basket or net which is then dropped into a water tank and the cherries that float (indicating malformed beans inside, insect damaged beans or over-ripe cherries) are skimmed off. The individual farmers then sort for only remaining perfect red (under-ripes sink as well as ripes) on the dry tables before weighing in and taking a chit or getting paid for the amount of coffee delivered. Ruhororo was one of the first of the stations handed back from the state after a group of 20 farmers decided to group together to take on the station and work as a cooperative taking cherries from local growers. BAP has partnered with this group contributing joint venture funding to add waste water processing capabilities to the station and prevent downstream negative impact while also contributing agricultural and organisational capacity building initiatives. This type of collaborative support is vitally important to us at Union Hand Roasted as we recognise that we are not a development agency but depend very closely on these aspects also being supported as well as our commercial support. Local partners can be highly effective and critical in maintaining what often seem like baby-step advances over the years of involvement.

Our second station visit seemed to be more like a visit to Mumbai train station with hundreds of people if not a thousand or so milling around the cooperative offices and warehouse. Even by African standards of hospitality and greeting this seemed to be an inordinate number of people so it was with relief that we found out that the farmers had turned up for the annual fertiliser handout. At Butegana, also in Kayanza, the station had been taken over in the first wave of liberalisation by a commercial operation known as Webcor Group, a private company active in commodity production in a number of countries around the world. With big resources, the company has made a significant commitment to Burundi coffee taking 13 stations in the first government privatisations and putting in human and financial resources to develop quality initiatives at both station and smallholder level. The principal difference here is that the processing facility is privately owned and as such profits remain within the corporation as opposed to being shared out amongst the community. In reality, coffee producing countries need both public and private producers as the latter can often employ capital to develop resources in an organised manner and if the goal remains that of creating added value coffee that the farmers can really see an improvement in earnings per kilo grown or labour hour employed then it should be seen as a benefit and not just the corporate arm of big business. As this is the first year of this relationship we’ll continue to watch and see how things progress. From the visit it was immediately apparent however that the station’s capacity was huge (500-1500MT) and that even with a central elevation of 1650MASL much work will need to be undertaken to really understand the areas from which their coffee comes, the daily lot sizes that comprise the stations operational capacity and how these can remain segregated to protect and retain the no doubt small parcel sizes where real quality coffee can be found and retained.

After a short lunch we made the final visit of the day to a station at Buziraguhindwa (CPC), a much smaller station (capacity 300-500MT) also private but this time owned and operated by a local private organisation. With an exciting altitude location of 1996MASL this station is well located in the higher reaches of Kyanza’s Muruta district and should be capable of producing some good coffee lots although sadly we didn’t see any samples from here on the cupping tables.

Looking at Burundi coffee there are unsurprisingly many similarities in the methods of operation when compared to Rwanda – after all both countries share so many aspects of terrain, population dispersal and density and of course the presence of old Bourbon coffee varietals. Just because of this however, one should not assume that the coffee itself will be the same as Rwanda’s. Now that the quality of Rwanda coffee has been allowed to shine through better agronomy and processing, real regional differences are becoming apparent characterising coffees that may be full bodied with deep brown sugar sweetness to those fleeting cups with floral, citrus and soft honeyed tones. I fully expect that with such a diversity of microclimates and a soil character that is similar but with enough differences to mark it out from other regions, Burundi coffee could provide us with yet more nuances of the region.

On day 2 of the trip, our cupping was due to take place at a regional cupping lab in Ngozi and here for the first time the roaster anoraks came out! When preparing cupping lots, we routinely use very small batch roasting machines known unsurprisingly as sample roasters. These bits of kit are, like any specialist equipment inordinately expensive and are manufactured in different sizes (number of barrels that can simultaneously roast). At Union we have a two barrel machine that covers the majority of our needs, but out here in Ngozi, the full evidence of government commitment (spending) became apparent. It seemed as though whichever door or hallway we looked in, there was yet another SIX Barrel roaster – in brand new pristine condition. In one lab we noted 5, six barrel machines – and by the end of the week our count had climbed up to a total of fifty something barrels!!!! I hope that these machines find their way out into the regions and are well used, its just that when one sees things like this – I hope that the machines do get implemented and don’t just disappear into the system!

Over the following two days we visited another four stations, both private and cooperatively owned and witnessed similar operations trying to tease out the differences between people and their approach to the coffee, subtle things that give you a feel for the people’s relationship to what they produce and how the community is established – their aspirations and willingness to partner with external organisations to improve quality and of course their return. No matter how much people get under your skin, its important as a buyer to remain focussed on the coffee. I’ve thought back over the years about how many people we’ve met each with great stories and how we’ve come away with a desire or a hope that their coffee meets our own requirements but the acid test is of course the cupping room and blind tasting. This trip promised to be a crash course in Burundi coffee and after day 4 we had hit over 240 sample lots and to keep the schedule on track had to resort to some pretty nifty speed cupping – yeah it’s the same as dating just that your partner doesn’t slap you in the face when you say something inappropriate!

On the final day of the trip, we had a long morning cupping session at Arfic – the Burundi National Coffee Regulation Authority with the US Ambassador in attendance and who also participated in the cupping under tutelage of Wendy DeJong, current chair of the US Roasters Guild. The Ambassador had only recently taken up the posting but it was encouraging to see how much time she gave us and the Burundian teams in seeking to understand the opportunity for both sides in this partnering for quality. I know our own government does do some good work in supporting developing countries –mainly in areas of governance and society, but as a coffee guy its frustrating not to be able to hook up with our own nationals in developing these sources of great coffee…..come on DFID?

Overall I have to say that this has been a great trip and I do feel much more aware of the range of possibilities in Burundi coffee. From my cupping notes I have already got my eye on some lots we’d like to try out and get to know Burundi a little better this year. Over the coming months we are going to look at some of the communities where we can, as with Rwanda, form a close relationship and work together to develop sustainable direct trading that yields more exciting coffee from the Great Lakes of Africa.

Last month we completed a short internship here in London, with Zacharie from Café de Maraba, Rwanda.

Our relationship with the Rwanda farmers at Maraba & Gashonga, is through Direct Trade in its truest sense and we’re assisted by Rwashoscco (Rwanda Small Holder Specialty Coffee Company) which exports and markets the superb specialty Rwanda coffee grown by the 11 Co-operatives on behalf of the farmers.

Rwashoscco is owned by the Co-operatives and is a for-profit business. It also operates “Cafe de Maraba”, a small coffee roasting company, now in Kigali but previously in Butare, nearby Maraba.

Cafe de Maraba sells to the local restaurants, hotels and grocery in Rwanda. It is the best known coffee in Rwanda, and when I’m in Rwanda and ask a waiter in a restaurant “what coffee am I drinking?” they always tell me “Café de Maraba”. But ask to see the package, and it can be another story. Sometimes its one of the competitors, and you can tell because they don’t taste as good.  So Zacharie, the Manager of Café de Maraba, was with us in London to pick up some ideas on how he can grow and develop Café de Maraba and market it successfully.

The coffee which Café de Maraba roasts and sells creates additional revenue stream for the co-operatives.  So, the strategy is for the farmers to participate in a business which provides value added “roasted coffee” as well as earn income from their crops through selling to the co-operative.

The team at Café de Maraba is very small; they are very good and committed to what they do, but the barriers which they face – high taxes, low internal coffee consumption, constant power failures and delivery issues make managing a business incredibly difficult.  Despite the challenges, they are selling roasted coffee in a market which is leading the continent in business growth. With the interest in tourism, there are many new hotels, and restaurants are busy and new openings too.

Zacharie had the opportunity to observe how we navigate Union on a daily basis. We visited clients (thank you to Giraffe, Canteen, Taylor Street Baristas and Royal Festival Hall).  He has to wear many hats; managing the Roasting Facility, Sales & Marketing, Administration, Distribution. We know exactly how that feels when you only have a couple or three people in the team so hopefully he picked up a few tips.  I think the more people Rwashoscco is able to have with the passion and enthusiasm that Zacharie expressed, the greater the chances are for them to be successful as a company and of course that will bring success for the individuals too.
So if you are fortunate enough to visit Rwanda, perhaps drinking coffee in a restaurant, check that it’s Café de Maraba, & pick up a pack at Kigali Airport before you leave.

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