Rwanda is a small, landlocked countries nestled in the heart of Africa near the headwaters of the Nile in the region of the African Great Lakes.
Rwanda shares many commonalities with Burundi, both as a coffee origin and a society:
- Small country with a problematic history but nevertheless produces very good, distinctive specialty coffees
- High average growing elevation and excellent coffee terroir
- Large plantings of old, traditional tree varieties related to the heirloom Bourbon
- Proximity to the African Great Lakes may impact typical cup profiles in ways not yet documented or understood
- Sporadic regional coffee taint — the infamous potato defect, the unmistakable and quite unpleasant taste of raw, sprouted potato
- Rwanda and Burundi — along with neighboring Uganda and the far eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo — suffer ongoing political and economic conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi, groups that share the same language and roughly the same culture but, for historical, economic and class reasons, identify as different peoples. Political and economic competition between he two has given rise to bloody conflicts that have both hampered and, in the case of Rwanda, sadly but dramatically helped in the development of high-end specialty coffees.
Genocide and Revival in Rwanda
The shocking turning point for both Rwandan society and its coffees came in 1994,
when the genocidal killing by Hutus of 500,000 to 1 million mainly Tutsis appalled the world and pushed international development agencies into an urgent search for ways to bring economic growth and social healing to Rwanda. They found it in Rwanda’s potential for producing high-end specialty coffee: in its Arabica-friendly terroirs, its traditional tree varieties celebrated for their distinctive cup character, and its small-holding, hard-working coffee farmers.
Before the genocide, Rwanda was a source of inexpensive coffees carelessly prepared for a largely commodity market. Within a few years after the end of the conflict, development agencies, with significant help from specialty-coffee roaster and importer volunteers, established a coffee infrastructure that liberated the potential of Rwanda’s traditional tree varieties and fine terroirs. In just a few years, Rwanda graduated from minor, overlooked supplier of commodity coffee to celebrated source of distinctive specialty types.
In recent years there has been some weakening of coffee consistency amid clear signs of repression of dissent by the government of Paul Kagame. But for the moment Rwanda, along with Burundi, continues to produce a range of deeply expressed, resonantly distinctive coffees. We need to hope that coffee continues to win in its struggle to provide a catalyst for social and economic cooperation that will transcend a history of distrust, competition and conflict in the region.
Rwanda Growing Regions
Specialty coffee is more likely to be labeled by names associated with specific wet mills or washing stations and their exporter operators (like the famous Bufcafe) or wet mills operated by cooperatives (COOPAC Kabirizi). Nevertheless, these names are regional in nature because the wet mills draw coffee fruit only or mainly from the regions which they serve. Kabirizi, for example, draws coffees grown in the Western Province relatively close to Lake Kivu, a fact that some feel influences the deep, resonant fruit that one often finds in coffees from the Kabirizi mill. But the compact and rather cohesive nature of Rwanda production (similar varieties and processing methods) together with the selectivity of importers seems to minimize regional differences. Lists of washing stations and their locations and elevations can be found on the websites of some green-coffee importers.
The Traditional Rwanda Cup
Typical Global Descriptors.
The best specialty Rwandas coffees are almost always sweet and balanced (vivacious but not overbearing in acidity; lightly syrupy or satiny in mouthfeel), engagingly and resonantly complex, often with herb or savory suggestions. The bracing juxtaposition of lush sweetness and pungent, savory tartness characteristic of the great Kenya SL28s also shows up in many Rwandas, but with less intensity than in Kenyas. On the downside, some Rwandas at this writing show flat, woody tendencies which may be owing to poor drying practices or delays in transport from this landlocked country.
Common Aroma/Flavor Notes.
Sweet but quiet flowers (can read as honey), stone fruit, ripe citrus, crisp roasted cacao nib or cocoa, sometimes tartly sweet berry (black or red currant), sometimes musky florals, sometimes deep-toned wood (oak, redwood), occasionally starchy, root-vegetable undertones that can range from pleasant to not so.
Rwanda Coffee Ratings and Reviews
Click here to view ratings and reviews of coffees from Rwanda.