Green Coffee Offerings : Africa : Rwanda
Upcoming Crop Comments
New crop Rwandas are packaged and ready as of January.
About Rwandan Coffee
Rwandan coffee was, at one time, rarely seen in the United States as either a Specialty grade or low-end commercial coffee. There simply was not that much coffee produced in Rwanda that went anywhere besides one particular importer in Belgium, the former colonizer of the country. It is believed that coffee was introduced in Rwanda in 1904 by German missionaries. Around 1930, a considerable interest in coffee developed as it was the sole revenues generating commodity for rural families. The government encouraged (actually, they mandated) low quality, high-volume production. Even with this low grade coffee production, coffee played a considerable role in the economic development of the country because it was one of the few cash crops. But with the collapse of world coffee prices at the international market level, the push to export low grade arabica made less and less sense.
Then there was the genocide in the 90s, one of the most horrendous occurrences in modern history. It makes me dizzy just imagining how a country recovers, how people go back to a "normal" life after the tragedy of monumental scale. But the recovery in Rwanda has occurred with an unflinching openness to the genocide. (A personal thought: I think much of the world stood by because awareness of Rwanda was low, and self-interest in Rwanda was low. What did Rwanda produce and export that the world cared about? Clinton said so much at the time, and in retrospect regretted it as did other world leaders on whose watch the massacre happened. I feel that interest in Rwanda, awareness of their products and the people, would make another tragedy difficult to ignore, and coffee is a "gateway to the world" in that sense.)
Transportation is a probem with Rwanda coffee too. The coffee has historically been transported across Uganda to Mombasa, Kenya for shipment to Europe, a trip that can damage the coffee, and one that relies on economic and political stability in the region. The result is that the coffee cannot reach market, so the price and the incentive to produce top-grade coffee had diminished greatly for the village coffee farmer. That's why it comes as a very pleasant surprise to receive excellent Rwandan coffee from small-holder village coffee farms and small mills (called washing stations). The fact that rural people can tend their crops and get export prices for them is a good sign for Rwanda, and for us ... because this is an origin with great potential. Historically, Rwanda has been the 9th largest producer of arabica in Africa, with 500,000 small farms averaging less than 1 hectare each. Coffee is grown in the western part of the country and in the central area near the capital of Kigali. The eastern part of Rwanda, over 1/7th of the country, is set aside as a national park and there is no coffee production permitted.
Rwanda has a lot going for it: traditional cultivar, good altitude, and lots of willing advisors from USAID! It's a delicate coffee in some respects, cupped beside many Kenyas, but these subtle citric qualitites, interesting aromatics, and consistent high quality make it a much more interesting origin than Zambia and Zimbabwe at this point.
For many pictures and more information about Rwanda coffee, see my travelog when I was on the jury for the first-ever Rwanda Cup of Excellence competition in late August 2008, and again in 2010, as well as my other trips there to cup and meet the cooperatives we work with. Some general statistics:
Our Unroasted Rwanda Coffee Offerings:Please refer to our Reference Page for definitions of terms and cupping numbers used below. Check out the Sweet Maria's Coffee Home Roasting Forum for more conversation about home roasting this and other coffees.
Coffee Villages is perhaps the oddest name I have ever encountered for a coffee mill ... odd in its blandness I suppose. I visited in the harvest for this current crop, and speaking with the owner I found that there was another mill with the name of the nearest town, so he felt he had to think up something else. Oh well. It is a private station located in the Eastern province, subdistrict of Karenge, with coffee farmers producing from 1600 to 1900 meters. The mill is owned by Tom Bagaza, who saw potential for quality coffee buying the cherry direct from small farmers in this zone. The varietal is all Bourbon, and mostly the BM-139 type that does well in the Eastern soils. I found this coffee while cupping in Kigali and, despite the odd name, it was really nice. It's quite a bright coffee, and can stand up well to darker roasts, as well as the light ones where the brightness is most vivid. The Karenge station is traditional: a small 1 disc pulper as they use in Kenya, traditional fermentation, a long concrete washing channel to clean the coffee, and raised bed drying.
The dry fragrance is sweet with butter caramel candy, a hint of banana, molasses, fresh-baked brown bread. In the wet aromatics there is intense dark malt sugar notes, plum, pungent spice and in the lighter roast a sage blossom honey. The cup has a structured brightness in the cup, also with an 'orange and spice' character, with black tea-like bittering in the finish. As it cools the cup opens up to a new set of flavors; black cherry and baked apple, cola, caramel, cranberry. This coffee turns noticeably sweeter with a little more roast. I felt that City roast was rather austere, minimal, spare, and the brightness quite tart. City+ roast, with more development after 1st crack highlights more of the honey-vanilla character and the brightness seems more integrated. Full City was wonderful of course too! The cup is really dynamic, clean, pointedly bright, and seems to improve even more with several days rest after roasting.
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Gitesi is one of my favorite sites in Rwanda. Not only is it located in a beautiful valley, but the washing station looked clean, well-organized, and the leaders seemed motivated and competent. I had already cupped quite a few day lots (wet-process batches from coffee cherry received in a single day), and I knew the coffee was really good. The Gitesi site is at 1740 meters, actually one of the lower areas surrounded by high ridges ranging up to 2000 meters, where coffee is grown. 1,830 coffee farmers in the area supply Gitesi with cherries each year. The station fosters a relationship with the farmers by paying an additional dividend at the end of each season based on performance. Gitesi was started in 2005 and has been building capacity each year. Like much of Rwanda, the coffee is Bourbon variety. We "built" this lot by looking at all their day lot batches and combining the best ones. Early lots from Gitesi were not cupping consistently good, so we excluded those. But we found some excellent process batches from the middle harvest. We were not alone in finding great coffee at Gitesi; the Cup of Excellence jury did as well, since the coffee was awarding the 1st Place this year.
This coffee has a really nice caramel-vanilla and ginger cookie notes from the ground coffee. There's mild citric and floral hints as well, and these come into full view when you add the hot water. Hints of rose and mandarin emerge in the wet aroma, in addition to a well-saturated sweetness, honeyed in the lighter roast and more dark caramel at Full City roast level. The cup is sweet and amazingly "complete" in the lighter roasts for such a delicately bright coffee, with a brilliant acidity. The mandarin orange notes are quite distinct in the cup, especially at City roast. There's a refined sweetness, like pure cane syrup. There are apricot hints and the floral note of acacia blooms. As the cup cools the sweetness has a clean clover honey character, with a long aftertaste floral and sweet citrus. I believe it really shines at City roast, where the coffee looks a bit variegated and patchy in surface color and texture, before it "smooths out" toward Full City level. The first sip can seem a bit plain, but it really opens up as the cup cools. Of many roasts and many cups, I did have 1 potato defect cup from Gitesi. If it is present at all, it seems to be a rare occurrence. But if you wonder what this defect smells like, I guarantee you will know when you get a cup with it.
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Cocatu is a cooperative in the area of Tumba town, in the very mountainous Rulindo district, Northern Rwanda. Located at 1820 meters, the coop actually draws coffee from the surrounding hills up to 2100 meters. Cocatu receives support from a Kigali-based group who not only provides advice on technical agronomy, but also offers business support to the coop. The later has been absent from many well-intentioned efforts to support cooperative coffee farmers, and can lead to unbearable debt when a coop leaders do not have good business and accounting training. It's not as interesting as discussing cultivars, altitudes and micro-climates, but most coops fail for lack of management, not lack of coffee quality. With this lot, the farmer received 65% of the price we paid, which, when you consider all the expenses to the cooperative to process the coffee, the dry-milling, transport, and export costs, is a higher stake than we have seen in many places. To me, that's sustainable agriculture in a broader sense of the term.
The dry fragrance has apple and plum sweetness, with brown sugar and milk-chocolate caramel as well. The wet aroma has confectionairy notes of chocolate custard, sweet cream and cooked peach. On the break there's the scent of spiced tea; cinnamon and a touch of clove. Overall Cocatu is a hefty, yet balanced cup when we compare it to other Rwandas, with thick body and good bittersweet intensity. The brightness has a red berry character, while underneath lies a more latent dark fruited character that comes out as the coffee cools: spiced blackberry and stewed plums. There is a pleasant tannic tea note in the finish of the cup, and spiced accents that lend dimension to the bittersweets of the roast taste. Lighter roasts are especially juicy, with the blend of red and dark berry making a distinct impression, and the acidity is more grape-like (tartaric) in the lighter levels. As it was last year, the new crop of Cocatu is a real stunner.
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Kanzu comes to us from the Southwestern portion of Lake Kivu, one of the most amazing growing regions in Rwanda. This is one exampe where the beauty of the area seems to correlate to the beauty of the coffee itself. Kanzu is tucked away in a valley surrounded by majestic mountain peaks in the Nyamasheke region. The washing station has recently changed ownership recently, but the physical processing of Kanzu remains fairly consistent. Coffee cherry is brought down to this station from hundreds of small farmers situated above the valley floor. Depulping of the coffee cherry is achieved using disc depulpers. The beans are then fermented for nearly 24 hours and washed in long channels. After soaking, the coffee is laid out to dry on raised beds, which facilitate airflow and ultimately allows for moisture to dissipate efficiently. Much of this coffee is grown at 2000 masl-plus, which works well for the near-sole planting of Bourbon.
From dry grounds to cup, Kanzu produces a "complete" profile in terms of aromatics, sweetness, acidity, and mouthfeel. The dry aromatics are spiced with cinnamon and all-spice, as well as a prevalence of sweet cacao. Pouring hot water brings up citrus zest and raw almond in the crust, as well as toasted sugar and chocolate brownie. Bursts of dried plum and raisin are released on the break, and we get a sense of how the cup profile is structured. From light to dark, this coffee is extremely versatile at most stages of roast. Light roasts have apple and grape-like acidity, as well as flavor. There is also a note of Asian pear that lends a crispness to the cup. City+ to Full City roasts produce a deeper, pectin-like sweetness - think Thompson raisin and black currant. The finish is sweet like brown sugar, and has a density that is like red honey. Kanzu's body is pleasantly creamy thus adding to it's candidacy as a great single origin espresso.
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To view reviews for out of stock coffees, visit our Rwanda Coffee Archives.
2005-2006 | 2004 -2003 | 2001-2002 | Pre-2000
Tom's Sample Cupping Log | Moisture Content Readings
This page is authored by Thompson Owen and Sweet Maria's Coffee, Inc. and is not to be copied or reproduced without permission