Burundi

Burundi coffee bears a striking resemblance to that of neighboring Rwanda, in both cup character, and in the culture surrounding coffee. Bourbon-type varietals flourish in both countries and Rwanda has imitated Burundi's traditional practice of wet-processing coffee cherry. Their cup profiles can be dynamic and bright, with red fruits, berry or citrus, and with a great sweetness lingering through the finish. It's no secret that Burundi has the potential to produce great coffee, but unlike Rwanda, sourcing can pose an ever greater challenge.

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. This is a country dominated by hills and mountains, with considerable altitude variation, from the lowest point being the lake at 772 meters above sea level (MASL) to the top of Mount Heha at 2670 MASL.

We have offered a selection of large and small lots from sogestals Kirimiro, Ngozi and Kayanza in the past. "Sogestal" is a regional grouping of cooperative washing stations (wet mills). I made two trips to Burundi last year, and we plan to devote even more efforts there before the current harvest.

Coffee has a similar history here as neighboring Rwanda. These are wet-processed coffees, but often employ 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.

Coffee farming does not have an extraordinarily long history here. 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 small holder based activity with over 800.000 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.

Like Rwanda, Burundi is primarily planted in Bourbon, which is grown at high altitudes ranging from 1250 to 2000 MASL. 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 several trips to Burundi over the past few years, whether for the national Prestige Cup competition, to visit cooperatives, or to cup during harvest season. Even still, I'm a relatively late-comer to Burundi coffee, and yet I see a mix of potential and great challenges here. When the coffee is good, it can easily be 90 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).

I have very mixed feelings about the efforts to "help" the Burundi coffee farmer by some foreign NGO organizations in the past. A curious event in 2012: we offered more money to a fledgling coop for their coffee, but that coffee went to a buyer who pays less because of internal politics - does that serve the best interest of the coffee farmer? And these things occur under the guise of social assistance ... which is sad. Still, we have hopes that more technically proficient and honorable organizations can offer true improvements to the million Burundi small-holder farmers, and that respectable commercial players with a firm commitment to social conscience and coffee quality will improve this market, where others have failed them.

We currently offer these unroasted coffees:

Burundi Mwaro Rusamana
$6.75
$12.83
$29.36
Knee-deep in the Sogestal's washing channel
Arrival dateMarch 2014 Arrival
Appearance.0 d/300gr, 15-18 Screen
GradeA1
ProcessingWet Process (Washed)
RegionMwaro Province, Sogestal Kirimiro
Varietal(s)Bourbon
Intensity/Prime attributeMedium Intensity/Complex fruit and tea flavors, molasses sugars, refreshing acidity, juicy bodied
RoastGo as light as City and probably not much darker than Full City, unless roasting for espresso. Even then, try drawing out a Full City roast to balance acidity and sweetness, without bringing on too much roast flavor.

The Rusamana washing station is located within the Mwaro Province in central Burundi. Mwaro Province is home to Sogestal Kirimiro, part of the greater Sogestal system in Burundi set up to help local farmers with financing, materials, and ultimately connecting them with the global coffee trade. Kirimiro is ranked as on of the best in terms of management and coffee quality - the 6 small lot separations we picked up are a testament to this. Rusamana is situated at about 1650 meters - which isn't an exception, the Mwaro Province in general has really great altitude - and these tiny family farms are planted entirely in Bourbon. The coffee is transported with help from the Sogestal down to the local washing station where it is fully washed, fermented, and sun-dried on pyrimidal beds. A lot of work has gone into separation, especially at the level of washing station, affording an opportunity to not only select much smaller quantities of coffee, but also select high quality lots before they are graded and eventually all bulked together. This lot from Rusamana represents a total of 12 bags.

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This lot from Rusamana is potent from beginning to end, with full body, aromatic sugars, and an array of herbal tea notes. The dry grounds are rich with a scent of raw honey and maple syrup. There's a slight golden raisin note too, and dried fruits are most present in slightly deeper, Full City roast levels. The wet crust has a fruited smell of plum jam along with a candy sweet scent of caramel flavored salt water taffee. The break lets off a note of Earl Grey tea and caramelizing sugars in the steam. Cupping this coffee hot, you get a sense of the dark, muscovado-like sugar flavor that only grows as the cup cools. Once the liquor is closer to room than boiling (right around 125 degrees is where you really perceive the full spectrum), there's a plump red raisin flavor, malty sugar, and the tart flavor of tamarind candy. It's a complex cup, and flavors of herbal and fruited teas shift throughout the roast spectrum. There's a pleasant tannic aspect too, like grape skins, that lingers long into the finish. Full City roasts have plum fruit, and even a slight grapefruit flavor, with sorghum syrupy sweetness. This is one of the more bodied Burundi coffees and weight is definitely tied to roast level (darker = more body). Acidity is high, but not citric or overbearing. Think cool and refreshing, like a juicy apple ('cool' is sort of a strange descriptor for hot coffee, but it correlates to a sensation of refreshing for me!). This will make a killer SO espresso, but taken to at least Full City to balance sweetness and acidity.
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Burundi Muyinga Murago
$6.10
$11.59
$26.54
After double fermentation, coffee drying on raised beds, Burundi
Arrival dateJanuary 2014 Arrival
Appearance.2 d/300g; 15+ screen
GradeAA
ProcessingWet Process (Washed)
RegionMuyinga, Burundi
Varietal(s)Bourbon
Intensity/Prime attributeMild Intensity/Dark sugar sweetness, baking spices, gentle acidity
RoastCity+ to Full City is recommended for brewed coffee; espresso will do well between Full City and Full City+

"Murago" is the name of the washing station where this coffee comes from. This used to be a state owned and run station, but back in 2012 this washing station was purchased by the Kalico Cooperative, a female owned coop operating in the province of Muyinga. The land runs the range of 1600 - 1800 meters, and is planted primarily in Bourbon. The washing station is replete with ten small floatation tanks allowing the coffee to be sorted prior to fermentation. With separate fermentation tanks, the folks at Kalico are able to keep coffees separated throughout the processing stage, allowing them to identify and isolate various qualities.

Murago is a fairly straight forward cup, with the dry fragrance consisting of brown sugar and honey wheat scent, along with an almost cinnamon toast smell to it. The wet aroma is very sweet with a bit of butter and caramel. Light roasts also have a distinguishable note of loose-leaf black tea. This coffee cups best in the City+ - Full City roast range, capturing a more developed sweetness that is lost in super light roast levels. Full City roasts have a fairly 'classic' profile for Burundi coffees. To me, the core of this coffee's flavor profile is built around notes of caramel and a raw sugar sweetness, with slight maltiness you find in minimally processed sugars. Spices like cinnamon and clove come in and out of focus as the cup cools along with a faint flavor of cider. At Full City, the mouthfeel is weighty, like apple juice (similar acidity too), and makes for an all around pleasing cup of coffee. While this may not have the complexity of some of Burundis we've had in the past, it makes up for it in the refined nature of it's flavor profile.

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