Coffee in Rwanda grows in the country's namesake's tropical highlands: the Land of a Thousand Hills. The stunning, vibrant slopes dappled by coffee plantations are the country's real treasure.
From a low-grade cash crop, coffee in Rwanda turned into a highly-sought specialty coffee.
Half a million small-scale farms sit in the Rwandan hills west and in the south of the country, most of them at an altitude between 4.600 and 7.200 feet above sea level. Rwanda's coffee industry relies on farmers and their families.
They harvest between 20.000 and 30.000 tonnes of high-quality Rwanda coffee every year. Other families and cooperatives oversee the washing stations in a framework similar to the Colombian Finca.
Growing Arabica Bourbon Coffee - What's the Deal?
But what made the Rwanda bean, boom on the market is more than a superior, sweet coffee variety.
Rwanda's ensemble of weather conditions has coffee growing to a very high quality.
High altitude and stable temperatures slow down the coffee maturation so that the sugars and volatile compounds in Rwandan coffee beans get more time to develop, and that's not all.
The volcanic soil in Rwanda boosts the coffee tree growth. Rich in both minerals and organic matter, volcanic ashes also have water-retention properties. Farmers can use less water, which makes for more sustainable farming and a smoother cup.
Among African coffees, Rwandan coffees hold some of the best scores. This even when compared to more established competitors as Kenya and Ethiopia.
The Rwanda coffee output might be small, but it sure landed a hit on the world's market.
Rwanda Coffee Growing Regions
Rwandan coffees' general profile presents hints of citrus peel, cocoa notes, buttery sweetness.
But the connoisseur could still see many specific flavor profiles by different regions: five specialty coffee profiles, five coffee-growing areas.
The best known of the five is coffee grown in the hills along Lake Kivu, in western Rwanda. Sweet. A light but full-bodied brew. It packs cocoa and citrus flavors, a full-body, and produces a lovely espresso or drip coffee. It's home to coffee company Kivu Noir. Coffee production in Lake Kivu makes perhaps Rwanda's top single-origin coffee.
Look up at the north-west. Hills peak at 7.200 above sea level. That's where Virunga coffee farming takes place. It's a coffee-producing region with sweet, smooth notes: hints of butter and nuts, liquor, honey—a rich taste. Best enjoyed as espresso.
Southeast Rwanda, we have the Akagera region. Lower highlands than other areas, at 4.900 feet above sea level. Her coffees hint at tart berry flavor, cardamom, tea leaves, and spices. This coffee is lovely when iced or made with the drip method.
Regions number four is Rift Valley. Another high altitude area (7.200 feet above sea level). Kizi Rift coffees make a great cup no matter the brewing. With florals and spice notes, and a caramel cream finish, this Rwanda coffee shows an outstanding balance.
Last of the Rwanda regions, coffee-growing here happens on another of Rwandan lakes. This Rwanda coffee, dark cocoa notes, deep complexity, and a smooth finish make it best suited for the drip.
Rwandan Coffee Industry
At the end of February, Rwanda's coffee farmers have to get ready because March to July is the season to handpick their labor fruit. Only once the fruit ripens, it gets picked: green coffee beans sit out to complete maturation. Rinse, repeat. And work starts with the wet season: until June ends, coffee trees aren't safe from the downpours.
From a resource, Rain turns into a threat to the high-quality Arabica coffee grown in western Rwanda.
Coffee beans might fall from the trees, or the moisture could cause them to ferment. Too much water also causes them to crack open.
After coffee gets harvested, farmers can draw a breath of relief. But let me tell you, there are many more delicate tasks waiting around the corner. 20.000 to 30.000 tonnes of coffee beans get moved to the washing stations.
Fully Washed and Ready
Farmworkers sort out the ripe cherries from green coffee utilizing flotation tanks: anything that floats gets skimmed off. Then, the next phase of coffee production begins.
In Rwanda, this means that coffee undergoes the thoroughly washes process. Much more expensive than traditional processing, it keeps the high-quality Rwandan coffee beans intact.
Coffee pulp stripped off means fewer chances of fermentation. The Rwandan coffee, authentic flavors can shine through.
A combination of machinery, washing, and hand-drying gets the beans clean and ready. It's time for the final phase of the coffee process, the drying.
Workers spread the beans on drying tables or on brick patios, then turn them often with rakes. Even drying and controlled light are the most critical factors: too much sun makes for a flat-bodied coffee.
To finish the process, machinery hulls the beans, and the best get handpicked again. Only high-end beans make it to the world's market as a premium. Before shipping, they age in reposo for 30 to 60 days.
Note: Aging is a necessary step to preserve the quality of the Arabica coffees.
Not Too Wet - Beyond Washed Coffee
Another method made it to Rwanda washing stations in the last years. The honey process. Perhaps thanks to the coffee industry's hunger for novelty coffee, a couple of stations obtained permits to experiment with it in the last few years.
This sustainable method halfway between natural and thoroughly washed, uses very little water. Quality coffee produced this way sees novel flavors, but more chances of processing defects.
Not many washing stations have adopted it for now. But the country may show interest shortly, given their recent issues tied to climate change and water management.
Not Just Coffee Farmers
We already see that the coffee Rwanda produces aims to the top. But what else sets Rwandan Arabica coffee apart from the competition?
This small country's dedication to breach the world market created a very close relationship between farmworkers and coffee cuppers.
You see, rebranding Rwandan coffee went beyond efforts to highlight flavor characteristics.
The government worked hard on the country's image, where it concerns Rwandan coffee. Any coffee worker in Rwanda can get help from one of the regional support centers and their cupping laboratories.
This way, they can learn to shape coffee beans to taste foreign buyers and search for the perfect brew.
A Small Scale Strategy
This strategy turns the figure of the coffee farmer into an artisan. Choppers role as intermediary results from their western training. Not seen elsewhere, it's unique to the Rwanda coffee trade.
What do a chipper do, you ask?
The typical task of a cupper is quality control. At the end of processing, cuppers check roasted coffee quality and defects. They sort premium reserve coffee from the chaff. But in Rwanda, cuppers also function as trade intermediaries.
They guide visiting buyers through Rwandan coffee microregions. They give tips to the washing station. In a pinch, they can also be translators for cooperatives and sellers.
A Coffee Industry from (Almost) Nothing
The Rwandan coffee painstaking process develops from political choices and economic planning. The country went through an economic downturn by the '80s until the '90s.
In the year 1994, the Rwandan genocide happened. The world reacted. Coffee prices, already collapsed, dropped even lower.
The genocide not only claimed one million lives, but struck down whatever coffee industry was left, and most other crops. Society and trade collapsed.
With the combined efforts of the Rwanda government and foreign aid, this country industry's crisis improved.
Low-grade coffee production trickled to nothing, but as direct access to infrastructure improved, trade picked up. And Rwanda's interest in high-grade coffee grew on. In 2018, the country became the first in Africa to host the Cup of Excellence competition.
Rwandan Coffee Troubles - A Very Short History
Rwandan coffee history is short, indeed. A small mission founded by Germans introduced their trees only in 1904. Curiously enough, even the first Arabica variety was Bourbon (sub. Mibirizi, after the location they planted them).
Alas, no quality coffee was found back then, and not a single processing structure on Rwandan soil. Belgian occupation followed and imposed unsustainable economic goals.
What trade there was, began more than a decade later and was short-lived.
A New Rwanda coffee
Things started looking up only from 2001 onwards. Sometime later, thanks to government interventions and foreign aid, Rwanda had its first washing stations.
Many workers and cooperatives had the tools that would help improve their crops. With production back on, cash began to flow in again. More help followed.
USAID, PEARL (now SPREAD) brought coffee infrastructure and training. Arabica coffee became a luxury product.
But even now, it's far from over. Life conditions improved. Yet of the targets set by Rwanda's National Coffee Strategy, none is fully reached, and youth is hesitant to take on the farms.
Long hours and low salaries (240 dollars per tonne of coffee) contribute to this climate. A search for a political solution to direct reforms is needed.
Future Challenges for the Coffee Industry
As much as coffee is still an essential part of the Rwandan economy, there's more trouble on the horizon. Climate change makes it difficult for quality to stay consistent.
Humidity causes plant disease to spread. In the last decade, coffee growing in Rwanda caught the potato defect. This disease causes, as the name suggests, an unpleasant peeled potato smell on the coffee beans.
Only the Kivu Lake coffee avoided the danger, for now. Others of the country's farms aren't so lucky. Bourbon coffee trees are especially vulnerable to diseases.
Increasing rainfalls and floods put Rwanda's coffee infrastructure at risk, too. But there's hope on the horizon for the coffee industry.
The development of new, sustainable methods applied to crops may help farms protect Rwanda's coffee. So will better water management practices.
Beyond Starbucks Rwanda Coffee - Brew a Good Cup at Home
The Rwanda coffee Starbucks sells sure a sign that this specialty Rwandan coffee beans got popular and easy to find. Nothing tastes like a nice cup of single-origin of your favorite coffee place, sure.
Still, no reason you shouldn't know what makes a decent coffee, with plenty of reputable online sellers around. Even Amazon and Alibaba sell some of the now- albeit of lower commercial grade.
Remember to use good water. Limestone and chloride from tap water will affect the taste.
Coffee Rwanda Makes and Flavors
When I think about what taste coffee is grown in Rwanda, I think medium to full body. It has depth. And plenty of florals and spice flavors. The brewing method would focus on what flavor notes you like best: that doesn't mean your cup should be boring.
You can play around with techniques, You can play around with the temperature. You can choose the grind. Nowadays, online coffee stores and roasters let you choose all this.
And if you want to take it a step further, you can even buy the beans green. Try roasting at home. Believe me; it's fun to try.
Roasted Coffees Flavors
It brings out notes of chocolate and caramel because of the caramelization. Oils on the bean surface release a nutty or buttery flavor once heated to this degree. Not as tart as a lighter roast.
Heat affects good acids and harmful acids, so you may lose some complexity and body by going too far. I choose this when I want a sweet, strong coffee with a medium body. Espresso coffee, uses dark roasted coffee beans. French press a medium-dark.
A Lightly roasted brew keeps more of the green beans profile, as well as their tartness. It keeps florals like jasmine and violets with hints of berries and citrus too. It's full-bodied with no flatness.
Well, as long as the beans come from a good coffee company. I get light roasts when I want to appreciate the terroir fully. Drip coffee, uses lightly roasted beans.
All these flavors, notes are found in Rwandan coffee. Great single-origin coffee needs to reach an equilibrium. In the case of Rwanda's single-origin coffee beans, remember that the bright flavor is the defining characteristic.
Too dark a roast coffee would lose what makes it prized. Find a balance.