East African Underdogs: Why Rwanda and Burundi Coffee is So Good!

Coffees from Burundi and Rwanda, two neighboring East African coffee producing nations, are real treasures. Why are they so often overlooked?

By now everyone should know a bit about the merits of coffees from East Africa: bright, balanced, sweet, and complex at the same time. They offer a fresh option as a new arrival, because they come to port of 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”.

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.

I just returned from two weeks in Rwanda and Burundi. Before continuing, here’s a short photo collection from last week:

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.

Comparing Central America Coffee to East African Coffee … is that Fair?

Why is Costa Rica coffee so well-known and 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.

Rwanda and Burundi, with neighboring countries. An old 1999 Map

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
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…


Rwanda and Burundi Coffee Cupping at Sweet Maria’s

This is a slightly older, but VERY relevant video, of a blind cupping to compare the quality of Rwanda and Burundi to other wet-process coffee (washed coffee):

Rwanda Podcast Episode: Getting Back to Coffee Lands

Also see the older travelog: Burundi Coffee in Permanent Crisis and Video: Visiting Dusangirijambo, a Burundi Coffee Cooperative

Burundi Coffee Photos 2024

Take a little tour of Kayanza, Ngozi and Bujumbura coffee areas with me. Click on the image to open the larger lightbox view:

2 Responses

  1. I’ve loved the dry processed coffees from these regions lately. They have a nice balance between fruit and chocolate tones in darker roasts. Thanks for keeping those in the listings. Guatemalan and Colombian coffees will probably always be my go to, but I do enjoy a good dry processed, fruit forward, coffee in the daily rotation.

    1. Ypu make a good point – that these areas that formerly only produced wet-process coffee are making some super dry-processed lots. I think the key is that they have such good QC work in sorting coffee on the drying beds, and when it comes to naturals and drying whole coffee cherry, that QC has a huge impact on the cup. The only downsides I see in cupping is that a lot of naturals take too long to dry, and get overripe and alcohol flavors. Those arent the ones we buy tho … and some buyers like that. I know its very popular flavor in UAE

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