Coffees from Burundi and Rwanda, two neighboring East African coffee producing nations, are real treasures.
By now everyone should know a bit about the merits of these coffees: bright, balanced, sweet, and complexThe co-presence of many aroma and flavor attributes, with multiple layers. A general impression of a coffee, similar to judgments such as "balanced" or "structured" ...more 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 RicaCosta Rican coffee is typically very clean, sweet, with lots of floral accents. hey are prized for their high notes: bright citrus or berry-like flavors in the acidity,... ...more and Panamas and MexicoMexican coffee originates from South-central to Southern regions of the country. For that reason, coffees from Coatepec and Veracruz are much different from Oaxacan Plumas, which are in... ...more 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.
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 EthiopiaEthiopia, formerly known as Abyssinia, or a coffee cultivar: Ethiopia, or more specifically the Empire under Haile Selassie, was known as Abyssinia. The name is Latin, derived from... ...more Harar, or a wineyA taste term to describe a wine-like flavor with a similar perceived acidity and fruit, and some level of acetic acid. It is found most commonly in East... ...more KenyaKenya is the East African powerhouse of the coffee world. Both in the cup, and the way they run their trade, everything is topnotch.: Kenya is the East... ...more, 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 CoffeeSpecialty coffee was a term devised to mean higher levels of green coffee quality than average "industrial coffee" or "commercial coffee". At this point, the term is of... ...more” 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 known, so popular? Why is Kenya and TanzaniaIn terms of the Tanzania coffee character, it belongs to the Central/East African family of washed (wet-processed) coffees, bright (acidy), and mostly aggressively flavorful of which Kenya is... ...more so established among African coffees? ColombiaColombian coffee is highly marketed and widely available in the US. They have been largely successful at equating the name Colombian Coffee with "Good" Coffee. This is half-true.... ...more, 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 SalvadorEl Salvador coffee had an undeservingly poor reputation for years, marred mostly by the inability to deliver coffee of high quality in an unstable political climate. Unfortunately, agriculture... ...more 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 originIn coffee talk, it refers to a coffee-producing region or country; such as, "I was just at origin." Of course "Origin" for most product we use is not... ...more 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.
Each year I make trips to Rwanda and Burundi, each year I find these coffees on the cuppingCupping is a method of tasting coffee by steeping grounds in separate cups for discrete amounts of ground coffee, to reveal good flavors and defects to their fullest.... ...more 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 sweetnessSweetness is an important positive quality in fine coffees, and is one of five basic tastes: Sour, Sweet, Salty, Bitter, Savory (Umami). In coffee, sweetness is a highly... ...more of the Burundis, and sadly the more basic tastes of some of the coffees from the Americas.
One GuatemalaGuatemalan coffee is considered a top quality coffee producer in Central America. Due to our proximity to Guatemala, some of the nicest coffees from this origin come to... ...more, 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 profileFlavor Profile implies a graphical impression of a particular coffee, whether it be an artistic portrait or data graph of the perception of flavor compounds. In the case... ...more 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
A blind cupping to compare the quality of Rwanda and Burundi to other wet-process coffee (washed coffee):
Also see our travelog from 2018: Burundi Coffee in Permanent Crisis and Video: Visiting Dusangirijambo, a Burundi Coffee Cooperative