Rwanda has one of the most interesting East African coffee histories. It is a place where the production of high-quality coffee is inextricably linked to the rising spirit of a population after the tragic genocidal civil war of the 1990s. Known as the "Land of a Thousand Hills," many of them are cultivated in high-grown coffee between 1700 and 2000 meters above sea level (MASL). Rwanda coffee can be world class. They often have clean bright flavors rivaling the best Central America coffees, more balance than Kenyas, attractive fruited sweetness, floral characteristics, and with a tea-like finish.
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.
This lot from Cocatu is competition level coffee and definitely one of the best we tasted this year. The dry fragrance has the smell of caramel apple candy and toffee malt. It's very sweet, I'll say 'saturated' sweet, and with a floral note underneath it all that is delicate. This floral aspect becomes more vivid when adding hot water, taking on characteristics of honeysuckle. Like the fresh ground coffee, the wet grounds are super sweet with notes of hot apple cider, pie spices, and fresh whipping cream, and the break is loaded with the smell of caramel. The aromatics are closely tied to the cup profile, which as it turns out, is nothing short of spectacular! The body is thick, which conveys flavors of raw cane juice and pulpy citrus very well. Cocatu has a bit of 'heft', yet is a balanced cup when we compare it to other Rwandas. Citrus flavors like Naval orange and pink grapefruit juice come out in the cooling cup. Light roasts are especially juicy, with a blend of dark berries making a distinct impression. The acidity has definition and is grape-like (tartaric) but with a pomegranate tartness to it. Full City roasts remain oh so sweet and juicy, with a bit of chocolate roast tones in the background. With all this, it's safe to say that new crop Cocatu is a real 'highlight' coffee all the way, and we highly recommend trying Full City-and-beyond roasts as single-origin espresso.
New crop Rwanda coffees are in. If you've been a customer with us for a while, you probably notice we carry coffees from a few of the same washing stations regularly. Coffee Villages is one of them, providing us with solid Bourbon coffee year after year. "Coffee Villages" is perhaps the oddest name I have ever encountered for a coffee mill ... odd in its blandness I suppose. 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.
Coffee Villages is an approachable coffee - one that will satisfy those on the hunt for simple, yet refined cup characteristics. The dry fragrance is sweet with dry raspberry, powdered ginger, and a scent of fresh-baked brown bread with molasses. Darker roasts have more spice notes like clove and all-spice. In the wet aromatics there is intense dark malt sugar notes, and a pungent spice element that smells like root beer. There's a structured brightness in the cup, with rindy citrus and lemon zest, and a bit of black tea-like bittering in the finish. This is a straight forward Rwanda with a grain-like sweetness in light roasts that is like toasted rice or puffed honey wheat. A little more development brings about a flavor of maple cookie and toasted sugar. Fruit flavors are more apparent as the cup cools and are representative of dark dried fruits like date and raisin. The cup is really dynamic, clean, pointedly bright, and seems to improve even more with several days rest after roasting.
New Crop Rwandas are finally in, and we're starting it off (or rather, ending 2013) with this lot from Gitesi, which happens to be 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. And we're not the only ones noticing: Gitesi won COE a couple years back and continues to produce competition level coffees.
Gitesi continues to produce some of the best coffee we see from the region, and this year's lots are of significant quality. Right from the get-go, Gitesi has such an attractive set of aromatics - cardamom, caramel butter, turbinado sugar, and a floral-like Darjeeling tea note, are all representative in the dry grounds. Aspects of complex sugar browning come into full view when you add the hot water. The wet grounds have a rich sweetness at light roast levels. Brown sugar and butter hang heavy in the air and with a slight floral note underneath. There's a tartness to the cup that in light roasts especially takes on flavors of rose hips and mandarin orange. There's a refined sweetness as well, like raw cane sugar. Buttery flavors shift toward lactic/cream as the cup cools and with hints of vanilla, tastes of cream soda. Dark roasts are very sweet too and have cinnamon bark punch too with a pleasant woodiness. Gitesi changes quite a bit from light to dark roasts, and the sweetness is potent all the way to the outer edge of Full City (but for the most complex cup, don't stray far from City+/Full City). The finish is honeyed, and holds on long into the aftertaste. Gitesi brews so well, and will also make for a great SO espresso showing depth in sweetness.