Burundi is a small landlocked country at the crossroads of East and Central Africa, straddling the crest of the Nile-Congo watershed. Sandwiched between Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania, Burundi has beautiful Lake Tanganyika for much of its western border.
The capital of Bujumbura borders the lake, and is the port of export for some coffee. The coffee can be exported from Mombasa, Kenya or Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, but both are long overland routes that can experience delays on the road or at port. This can affect the condition of the coffee greatly, and is a huge challenge in preserving the original quality of Burundi coffee.
Burundi has an ideal terrain for coffee, with growing regions dispersed in the central and northern areas. Burundi is dominated by hills and mountains, with considerable altitude variation, from the lowest point being the lake at 772 meters above sea level to the top of Mount Heha at 2670 meters. The hills of Burundi, called “collines”, offer a perfect pallet for the coffee to thrive, with most plants here being old Bourbon coffee variety.
The surprise is that a good wet-processed Burundi cups a bit like a great Guatemala, and since the harvest season runs counter to Central America, it offers a perfect alternative to fresh green coffee year round. I would add that it not only has the bright, clean, balanced taste of a great Central American, it often scores higher in the cup!
When Sweet Maria’s first offered Burundi coffee, it was from Kayanza, Ngozi and Kirimiro areas. But this was in the old government operated “Sogestal” system. The government operated all the washing stations and controlled coffee at all levels of the supply chain. The system worked for producing larger volumes of washed (wet-processed) coffees for sale to coffee traders, but not as a model to gain increased prices in the marketplace or higher payments to farmers.
Burundi “liberalized” coffee over time and sold off former sogestal stations. Some still continued to operate though, and some new coops were formed as well, along with private washing stations developed by locals or investors from Bujumbura.
These days we source coffee from relationships formed over the years, and from a variety of sources. We have Kayanza coffee coming largely from farmer cooperatives, and others by private stations, but ones that operate a bit like coops, offering farmer benefits like a shared second payment.
Coffee farming does not have an extraordinarily long history here, as with the other Lake region coffees of East Africa. The first Arabica coffee tree in Burundi was introduced by the Belgians in the early 1930s and has been growing in the country ever since. Coffee cultivation is an entirely smallholder-farmer activity with over 700,000 families directly involved in coffee farming.
Their combined total acreage is roughly 60,000 hectares in the whole country and planted with about 25 million coffee trees. In fact the rural population was legally obligated at one time to plant coffee; 50 trees per farmer. Burundi has struggled through the upheavals of decolonization and horrific civil war / genocide (reporting on this was sparse compared to neighboring Rwanda). And Burundi still has one of the lowest per capita incomes in Africa.
This belies the stunning beauty of the place and the warmth of the people. The reorganizing of the coffee industry, with a revitalized cooperative system as well as private farms and mills, has echoed the development across the land. With so many lives linked to coffee production, gaining a better price for a better quality of coffee seems like an obvious improvement, and few places have the potential for great quality as Burundi.
Burundi is traditionally a wet-processed coffee, with stations often employing a two-stage fermentation method as you might find in Kenya. Their practices in coffee wet-milling are definitely good, provided they are followed.
If the coffee that is selected includes unripe cherry, a good washing station will ask the farmer to sort these particular cherries out. The under-ripe coffee can still be submitted separately at some stations and often are purchased for the same price in order to avoid penalizing the farmer. (This needs to be considered in terms of quality – stations that pay on different scales based on quality of cherry selection motivates the farmer to pick better).
Many washing stations have large concrete basins where the farmers immerse the coffee cherry, skimming off “floaters” – seeds (aka green beans) that have failed to mature. Floating the coffee cherry is a great step towards a better quality cup. In my experience the first 12-36 hour fermentation is done without water (aerobic fermentation) and the second fermentation is done under water (anaerobic), but this can vary from station to station.
The washing station is perched on a slope and the coffee is washed from the first, higher tier of fermentation tanks, and on down a channel where mucilage is agitated off the coffee. It then lands in a second strata of concrete tanks, where it is left submerged in water. Then there is one final wash as the coffee passes down a concrete channel, and is taken to either “skin drying” beds or full sun beds, where the eventual hand-picking removal of defects will take place.
In Rwanda, much coffee is still “home processed” and bulked for sale as “Ordinaire” or “Ordinary Coffee”. In contrast, Burundi created the Sogestal infrastructure and did not permit home processing of coffee by the farmers.
Burundi is primarily planted with Bourbon variety, which is grown at high altitudes ranging from 1250 to 2000 meters. Also similar to Rwanda, smallholder farmers of Burundi tend to about 50 to 250 trees. Historically, coffee from the area was sold as bulked “Ngoma Mild” coffee (Ngoma is a traditional drum).
The farmers would bring their coffee to local washing stations, which along with 20-30 other wet mills, made up the Sogestal. All of the coffee collected from the Sogestal members would be blended, and separating qualities was not possible.
Several years ago the coffee market was “liberalized”. This meant that individual washing stations could now keep coffees separate, and then market the individual lots to buyers by station, “day lots”, or processing batches. With this comes the new possibility to find gems that were formerly mixed in with the not-so-good lots. So new possibilities are emerging in Burundi, and it is a coffee to watch.
Like Rwanda, the specter of “potato defect” haunts this coffee. It is so named for the flavor of uncooked potato found in the affected cup. It is caused primarily by a coffee-boring insect that makes a hole into the fruit on the tree and damages the green bean.
The pyrazine-based compound that causes the potato taste enters the coffee fruit and binds to the green seed as a result of this damage, and it appears that other physical damage to the fruit on the tree can cause this taste as well. But farmers that manage their trees well, harvest all the ripe cherry, and do not allow cherry to fall to the ground, will have much lower incidence of potato defect.
I’ve made many trips to Burundi over the past few years to visit farms and cup, to participate in the national coffee competitions as a judge, to visit cooperatives and private mills. Even still, I feel I am a relative late-comer to Burundi coffee. I see a mix of potential and great challenges here.
When the coffee is good, it can easily be 88+ point coffee and pique our interest. But when it’s bad…well, the coffee is no longer considered except maybe in terms of what went wrong along the way (typically bad processing, bad logistics and transport, or by politics of the coffee trade that support unsustainable practices).
Frankly, I am surprised that Burundi coffee isn’t more highly prized in the “good coffee” scene. When I started in coffee, all the “other” East Africans were considered to pale in the presence of top Kenya lots. If coffee is only about acidity, that might hold some truth. But Burundi coffees are a completely different flavor profile.
A good Burundi is guilty of being balanced in acidity, flavors and mouthfeel. It’s not a “showy” flavor profile, but it’s the kind of coffee I want to take home on the weekends to drink. It arrives fresh into our warehouse at a time when the options for Central America are flagging, and placed on a cupping table with the best Guatemala coffees it shows it’s grace and subtle complexity.
Some roasters won’t take chances on Burundi (and Rwanda) coffees because of the occasional defect cup. These are fairly rare in well-processed lots, and I feel it represents a gross overreaction to a small problem: It’s throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. The loser is the coffee consumer who misses out on the beauty of these endlessly pleasurable coffees. – t.o.
Check out our Podcast Episodes on Burundi too!