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Alternative Africas: Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania

Coffees from the mountain ranges and plateaus that parallel the east coast of Africa are among the most distinctive in the world. The great coffees of Ethiopia and Kenya are by far the best known, but other African countries also produce distinguished Arabicas. For this month’s article we review twelve coffees, six from Rwanda, four from Burundi, and two from Tanzania. Rwanda and Burundi essentially share a common topography in Central Africa. Despite stress from climate change, generally there could not be much better growing conditions for Coffea Arabica than here in the heart of Africa, where many growing areas also benefit from surviving plantings of the great heirloom Bourbon cultivar and its various local derivatives.

In fact, the main impediment to getting more fine coffees out of these regions is infrastructure: Burundi and Rwanda are landlocked, and the coffee growing regions of Tanzania might as well be, given transportation difficulties. This means that moving coffees out of these regions to a port and on to consuming countries is a slow process. Along the way green coffees may fade in flavor, and at worst pick up a shadow, moisture-induced mildew note the trade calls “baggy.” Complicating the picture are difficulties small holding producers in this region face with fruit removal and drying, tasks that are best performed at small centralized facilities Africans call “washing stations,” facilities that may not exist in many regions.

Given these difficulties, the fact that over 25% of the samples we sourced attracted ratings of 90 or higher is a tribute to the potential of this part of the world to produce distinguished coffees.

Sadly, however, infrastructure problems and more doubtless account for the relatively poor showing of a handful of submissions we received of other Africa origins: Uganda and Zaire in Central Africa and in southern Africa Zambia and Zimbabwe. In particular coffee production in Zimbabwe, once a reliable producer of a softer version of the great Kenya profile, has fallen off badly in recent years owing to the misery created by its ongoing social and political disorders.

Rwanda Success

Certainly the thirteen excellent Rwanda coffees that turned up, six of which are reviewed here at 90 or over, come to us not only owing to the industry of the thousands of small holding Rwandan producers, but also to international aid efforts dedicated to rebuilding the Rwanda coffee industry as a way to heal the aftereffects of the Rwandan civil war and genocide.

This month’s co-reviewer Jim Reynolds (see the last paragraph of this article for Jim’s biography) was a modest contributor to those efforts. He volunteered as a member of a “Coffee Corps” delegation from the Coffee Quality Institute that visited Central Africa in 2003 to meet with producers and make recommendations. He observes that “It’s not surprising to see so many good Rwanda coffees, because a tremendous amount of effort has been put into developing specialty coffee in Rwanda in the last eight years. They seem to be improving year by year. Burundi has been producing some very nice lots for years, but it’s been an undiscovered origin not to mention a problematic one in that serious shipping delays often compromise the quality before it even gets to a roaster’s warehouse. But the good ones are really good, and I enjoyed cupping the several submissions that Coffee Review received.”

Surprises from Burundi and (What Else?) Peaberry from Tanzania

Over half of the Burundis we cupped this month ended with a rating of 90 or higher, a somewhat better percentage showing than Rwanda. One of the Burundis, the complexly complete Kaldi’s Burundi Kinyovu, topped the ratings at 95. As in Rwanda, coffee-growing conditions in Burundi are typically ideal, and there are large plantings of heirloom Bourbon-related cultivars. The best washing stations pursue meticulous Kenya-style fruit removal procedures.

Of the eleven Tanzanias we sourced for this article, two came off the cupping table at 90 or better and are reviewed here. Both are coffees consisting entirely of the peaberry grade, in which a single oval bean replaces the usual two beans. All coffee trees produce some peaberry, but peaberry, sold as a separate grade of coffee, is particularly associated with Tanzania. Both of the reviewed samples nicely fit the sensory profile the specialty industry assigns (and in effect enforces) on Tanzania peaberry: delicate but complex, gently but not lavishly floral and fruity.

Relaxed Distinction and Quality Premiums

Although in general one might apply those same terms to most of the alternative Africa coffees reviewed this month. All were balanced in their acidity; all were distinguished by a medium-bodied, silky mouthfeel, and all expressed quiet, gentle-to-rich versions of the more intense floral and fruit character of the best coffees of Ethiopia and Kenya. These are relaxed but distinctive coffees.

They are also the product of thousands of small producers devotedly working their little plots of bananas, vegetables and coffee trees. Although there were no formally Fair-Trade certified coffees among the twelve we cupped, several were produced by cooperatives, and all benefited in some way from quality premiums, whether as prize winners in the Rwanda Cup of Excellence competition held last year or through premiums offered by quality-seeking importers and roasting companies working directly with exporters and grower cooperatives.

Jim Reynolds

Co-reviewer for this article, Jim Reynolds is a revered figure in specialty coffee. For decades he was coffee buyer for Peet’s Coffee & Tea, the famous and influential San Francisco Bay Area roasting company, and currently continues as Peet’s Roastmaster Emeritus. He has traveled extensively to most of the world’s coffee growing regions, and has judged specialty coffees in both international and domestic competitions. He is a past president of the Pacific Coast Coffee Association and has served on the Board of Directors of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

2009 The Coffee Review. All rights reserved.

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About the Author:

Kenneth Davids is a coffee expert, author and co-founder of Coffee Review. He has been involved with coffee since the early 1970s and has published three books on coffee, including the influential Home Roasting: Romance and Revival, now in its second edition, and Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, which has sold nearly 250,000 copies over five editions. His workshops and seminars on coffee sourcing, evaluation and communication have been featured at professional coffee meetings on six continents.

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