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.

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 revenue-generating commodity for rural families. Not long ago, Rwandan coffee was rarely seen in the United States at all. The strong relationship with Belgium (the former colonizer of the country) made it a near exclusive buyer for the low-grade commercial coffee produced in Rwanda, as well as a lone trader from London.

Coffee is grown in many sectors, but most coffee comes from the South and Western districts. Many farms are perched at altitudes ranging from 1700 - 2000 MASL. Coffee is grown all along Lake Kivu, from the northern area of Gisenyi to the central areas of Kibuye and Nyamasheke, down to Cyangugu. In the South there is a lot of production in the vicinity of Butare. The North has more limited coffee growing, with much in Rulindo district north of the capital Kigali. And the East produces a decent amount of volume too, but much of it is grown at lower altitudes of around 1300 meters.

The government encouraged (actually, they mandated) high-volume, crudely-processed coffee 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. Historically, Rwanda had been the 9th largest producer of arabica in Africa, with 500,000 small farms averaging less than 1 hectare each. Farms have usually not been measured in land area: being so small, they were measured in number of trees. The average is 165 trees per farmer, miniscule compared to other nations! The season in Rwanda harvest is roughly March - July, with arrivals in the US between June - September.

Rwanda coffee was traditionally processed by each small producer, and there was only one true wet-process coffee mill (called a washing station here) in the country. This home-processed coffee still accounts for the majority of production, and is called "ordinary" or "semi-washed" since most of it doesn't have complete fermentation to remove all the fruit mucilage from the parchment layer of coffee. It is estimated that 60 to 70% of current production goes into semi-washed blends. This type of processing isn't inherently bad, but when you mix it all together, well-processed batches with poorly-picked and processed ones result in the lowest common denominator for cup quality. As I ask producers - "what happens when you mix a glass of clean spring water with a glass of muddy river water? Two bad glasses of water"!

This type of low-grade production never returned much to the farmers, but there was so little export production of any kind from Rwanda, it had an outsized significance to the country and to the individual coffee producer.

Then the genocide occurred, and how any society returns to a "normal" life after the tragedy of monumental scale is difficult to imagine. 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.)

After the genocide, as the floodgates opened for assistance to the Rwandan population, revitalizing coffee production was made an important goal. To do this, organizations like the PEARL project and SPREAD standardized and trained farmers and new cooperative washing stations in traditional techniques of coffee production based on other East African countries. Burundi in particular offered a good model for production.

From the farm through to the washing station, coffee production in Rwanda is quite ideal for a small-holder farmer type system. The original ways of planting and pruning the tree are well done, with the already-mentioned varietal selection (Bourbons-types, generally), plant spacing, mulching for water-retention, organic material input and weed control, light shading of coffee with trees, and Kenya-type pruning techniques. The government (via their coffee board NAEB) distributes fertilizer to farmers at the wet mills. Bourbon types grown in Rwanda include these attractively named plants: POP3303/21; Jackson 2/1257; BM 139.

After the coffee is picked, the cherries are often floated in water to remove light beans. Pulping is often done with Kenya-type disc depulpers than include a grader for light and heavy beans. The light beans are taken out and go to a secondary huller and a separate low-grade fermentation tank, for B and C grade coffees. The heavy dense beans go to the fermentation tank for A grade beans, and these are eventually designated as A1, A2 and A3 qualities.

One of the best things in Rwanda processing is the fact that all the coffee goes to the "skin-drying tables". These are raised shaded beds where the wet parchment coffee is picked over to remove defects that are especially apparent in the still-wet parchment. In particular, the workers remove Antestia affected coffee, under-ripe beans, pulper-nicked coffee, fruit skins, or beans where the parchment was mistakenly removed and ffected by the ferment water in the tanks. (Remember, the purpose of fermenting coffee is not to affect flavor. It is to break down the fruit mucilage that clings to the parchment layer surrounding the bean. This skin keeps the ferment process, and broken-down mucilage fruit, away from the green bean. If a green bean comes into contact with the sticky ferment water, it will taste like ferment (think rotting fruit) and ruin the cup quality.)

This skin-drying phase not only allows an extra chance to remove defects, it slows down the initial drying of the parchment, which I feel increases cup quality. The coffee then goes out the the raised drying tables, where it takes 15-20 days (ideally) to reach a moisture level of 11% or so. In the heat of the day, the workers cover the coffee to prevent too-rapid drying under direct sun. The result with the best Rwanda coffee is a totally white-colored parchment coffee with no cracks from rapid drying. Why is this good for quality? Because this tiny parchment "shell", facilitates a safe drying environment, buffering it from the outside. It allows a slow and even loss of moisture, which results in less loss of organic compounds (good for cup flavor), and ultimately a green coffee that can be stored longer without degrading.

One of the challenges in Rwanda is the poor organic material content in the soil. Every small patch of land is cultivated in this country, and has been for many decades. The soil is depleted, and there isn't enough sources for new organic material to add back. Some level of chemical fertilization is needed, as well as returning every possible type of compost to the ground. The NGOs brought the California Red Worm here to introduce vermiculture as a source for improved compost, especially to break down the coffee pulp (the skin and outer layer of the fruit) created during processing.

Another great challenge is the dreaded "potato defect," so named because it smells like an old, sprouted potato in the cup. The problem is specific to the East African lake areas of Kivu, also found in Burundi and Congo coffees. This off-flavor is caused by a bacterial agent that enters the cherry skin and produces a pyrazine chemical toxin that binds to the forming green beans. The bacterial transmission is often brought into the fruit by the Antestia bug, a type of coffee berry borer insect that is attracted to sugars in the coffee fruit. But anything that pierces the cherry wall can allow the bacteria to enter and eventually release the the nasty pyrazine. Removing the affected beans is necessary to keep from getting a "potato" cup, but at this time, there is no mechanical way to identify them. The result is that, even with top coffees, an occasional cup will have this potato taste. It's tragic, given how good the coffee can be.

Another issue that is often overlooked is the business of the washing station. In years where the coffee market is high, there is usually a rush of investors building washing stations and buying coffee cherry, often without forethought as to how they will finance their purchases, sell the coffee (so they often overpay for cherry thinking there is a big payout on the other side), and the important relation between quality and price. Additionally, cooperatives can be poorly-managed, and in fact are often not "cooperatives" as we imagine them to be. They might be a group of some larger local farmers and a few people from Kigali, the capital, who have never farmed coffee in their lives. There might be 10 "coop members", but the farmers they buy cherry from are not actually members of the coop, nor allowed to be. With both these less-than-ideal scenarios, the problem for the farmer is that the market for their coffee cherries is not reliable. One year the station might operate, the next year it doesn't. They always have the option to process themselves and sell it as semi-washed, but the price is much lower.

For our part we have tried to seek out private and coop stations that are serious about the coffee business. They need to understand it well, be from the area, and want to return something beneficial to the farmers they buy from. Some of our sources were supported by a good program run by the Technoserve NGO in Rwanda, and now receive support from the service providers born out of that effort.

Each year we make a few trips to Rwanda during the coffee season and have participated in the early competitions here, including the first-ever Rwanda Cup of Excellence competition in 2008, and again in the 2010.

Rwanda Tumba Cocatu
Drying beds with parchment and the valley of Cocatu
Arrival dateDecember 2013 Arrival
Appearance.2 d/300gr, 17-18+ Screen
ProcessingWet Process (Washed)
RegionTumba, Rulindo, Northern Province
Intensity/Prime attributeMedium-Bold Intensity/ Balanced cup, between body and brightness, and sweetness/bittersweetness
RoastCity+ has the most aromatic cup, but we found it works well in a wide range from City to FC+, and the darker roast produce intensely pleasant chocolate roast taste.

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.

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Rwanda Gakenke Ruli
Beautifully painted washing station - Ruli
Arrival dateFebruary 2014 Arrival
Appearance.2 d/300gr, 15+ Screen
ProcessingWet Process (Washed)
RegionKirambo, Karongi District
Intensity/Prime attributeMedium intensity / Fruit complexity, spiced tea, raw sugar
RoastCity to City+ roasts were our favorites showing the most complexity, but even Full City is quite nuanced. Best before any 2nd crack.
The last of this year's Rwanda offerings, this coffee from the Ruli mountain area of the Gakenke District in the southern region has us leaving on a high note (pun slightly intended - acidity is quite high!). Ruli has really great altitude, with the majority of farmers sitting just below the 2000 meter range. It's a dizzying height, and the Bourbon stock that is grown in the area does quite well at this elevation. Farms are tiny - most much less than an acre - family run on their own property, and with hundreds of contributors to the local washing station. And as you can see from the pic, the washing station is 'lively', to say the least. And another up side to the bright painted color schemes is the ability to see just how clean this station is. Coffees are traditionally wet processed, parchment soaked, and then laid to dry on raised African beds. This un-complex processing method helps to create a rather complex cup of coffee.
It's been a refreshing year for us with Rwanda coffee, all lots have been so different from each other, and Ruli continues the streak of uniqueness. It boasts a fruited, herbal profile, with allusions to loose leaf tea and pectin sweetness permeating through aroma and cup. The dry grounds have a strong smell of Earl Grey tea, spiced and sweet, and a hint of vanilla bean. A scent of cooked fruit comes up off the wet grounds. It's like date sugar mixed with heavy cream and vanilla. Breaking the crust releases a floral note, like butterscotch syrup. City roasts have pungent fruit flavors in the cup, with papaya, pineapple, and a bit of grapefruit. The sweetness is like cane sugar, with a heavy black tea note - not so much tannic in mouthfeel, but actual black tea flavor. There's a tartness in both flavor and acidity, like a sweet lime, or even tart lemonade (and really with the tea it's like Lipton iced tea with lemon). City+ and Full City roasts see fruits ranging from fresh stonefruit to tropical. Body is slightly bolstered, though it's not a bodied coffee per se, but rather middle-weighted. Acidity is tartaric, with a brilliance that is mouth refreshing. Like all the other Rwandas on our list, this lot of Ruli is complex, dynamic, and makes an excellent brewed cup of coffee.
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Rwanda Small Producers Mutovu Cooperative
Sorting parchment coffee at Mutovu
Arrival dateFebruary 2014 Arrival
Appearance.2 d/300gr, 15+ Screen
ProcessingWet Process (Washed)
RegionNyamasheke, Rwanda
Intensity/Prime attributeMedium / Developed sugar sweetness, delicate florals, bergamot, sweet finish
RoastCity to Full City is a safe range for this coffee, though we felt that our lightest roasts didn't quite develop the full potential sweetness.

Mutovu is a newer cooperative, established in 2012 in Nyamasheke area of Western Rwanda. It is in an ideal area with rich soils and not much competition for coffee cherry from farmers. Another mill we buy from, Kanzu, is one of the nearest competing coffee mills. Mutovu is at 1800 meters, with coffee being grown in the area up to 1950 meters. Mutovu Coffee is a made up of a small cooperative of 9 farmers, each with between 1,500 - 5,000 coffee trees. Each farmer supplies their own cherries to the station, as well as collects cherries from their neighbors. The location of Mutovu and ownership structure has made it an instant success. 2012 was it's first season of production, yet it was able to produce 20 tons of parchment that has consistently cupped very well. We see a bright future for the farmers at Mutovu coffee station.

The fragrance from the ground coffee has strong caramel butterscotch sweetness and slight florals, especially at lighter roast levels. There is a more cola-like roast taste at Full City with cinnamon stick and all-spice notes, along with a scent of dried cherry. The wet aroma has sweet cream soda scent, with caramel and vanilla, as well as a mix of warming spices. The sweetness is intensely aromatic and alludes to butterscotch candy. Mutovu is a complete coffee, well balanced, and a pleasant (not aggressive) level of complexity. It has apple-like fruited brightness, sweet spice, and caramel-vanilla sweetness from beginning to end. The cooling cup sees flavors of stone fruit, grape, and apple, fading into bittersweet cocoa and lingering tea-like tannins. Bergamot citrus and a strong sense of Earl Grey tea also emerge rounding out an already beautiful cup.

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Rwanda Karenge Coffee Villages
Delivering coffee via bicycle to the station. That's heavy!
Arrival dateDecember 2013 Arrival
Appearance.2 d/300gr, 15 + Screen
ProcessingWet Process (Washed)
RegionKarenge, Eastern Rwanda
Intensity/Prime attributeMedium-Bold intensity / Lively bright cup, light body, grain-like sweetness
RoastCity+ to Full City is ideal. The brightness is rather tart at the lighter City roast level.

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.

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Rwanda Karongi Gitesi
Harvest trip this year to Gitesi, with ripe coffee on the trees.
Arrival dateDecember 2013 Arrival
Appearance.2 d/300gr, 15 + Screen
ProcessingWet Process (Washed)
RegionKirambo, Karongi District
Intensity/Prime attributeMedium intensity / A very refined, if somewhat restrained cup, floral and sweet
RoastCity+ roast is ideal, but this coffee holds up very well from City - Full City+. Better to stay out of 2nd crack territory.

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.

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