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.