If Burundian coffee isn’t yet on your radar, it should be.
It’s an all-too-common story for some of the most exceptional coffee producing countries in the world—a turbulent history of colonial rule, civil war, and unrest. While Burundi is a country small in scale, nestled under Rwanda, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the left, and Tanzania to the right, and below, the Heart of Africa, as Burundi is known, quietly produces a diverse range of incredible coffee, thanks to incredible resilience, innovation, and a remarkable landscape. Here, we delve into and celebrate Burundi’s extraordinary production of speciality coffee.
Coffee wasn’t introduced to Burundi until the 1930s, with Arabica plants brought in under Belgian rule. During this time, coffee was a cash crop, with exports mainly heading back to Europe. Farmers were forced to grow a set number of trees, receiving very little money and recognition for their efforts. After gaining independence in 1962, the production of coffee increased, and the coffee sector was privatised, stripping control from the government—but the recent history had left the country’s people with a negative view on coffee, and it fell out of favour. Quality declined, and many coffee plants were abandoned.
With civil war breaking out in the 1990s, many people were displaced from their land, and plantations were neglected or destroyed. As the civil war came to an end in 2005, Burundi’s economy found itself on the brink of total devastation. Inspired in part by neighbouring Rwanda’s success rebuilding through coffee, the crop slowly emerged as a possible means to recover the agrarian sector and increase foreign exchange. With an increase in investment, and a healthier balance of privately and state run coffee companies and facilities, greater stability, and more opportunity, began to open for Burundi.
Influenced by the growing field of speciality coffee, Burundi also turned its attention to quality in place of yield. As both government and international private companies began investing in the coffee sector, with more recognising the earning potential in speciality, new initiatives were introduced, emphasizing the production of higher quality coffees. At the same time, smallholder producers began organising themselves into cooperatives.
While still a long – and often difficult road – to put Burundi’s coffee on the world map, the country has made huge strides, focusing on utilising an idyllic coffee growing landscape
With its hilly topography, volcanic, nutrient rich soil, and favourable climate, Burundi has all the key ingredients for growing coffee.
The tiny country, while landlocked (though with a large portion of Lake Tanganyika to the west), benefits from an equatorial, tropical climate that provides perfect conditions for the country’s main exports of coffee, tea, and cotton; coffee and tea account for 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings for the country. There are between 600,000-800,000 coffee growing families in Burundi; no small number in a country with a population of around 11 million. The country’s geography does make for financial and physical challenges, getting the coffee to market, with the need for it to travel long distances on often unmaintained roads. Once the coffee reaches a neighbouring country, it still had to then then make the journey to the country’s nearest port. This means that the cost of transporting coffee out of Burundi can be extremely expensive.
There are five main coffee producing regions in Burundi: Buyenzi, Kirimiro, Mumirwa, Bweru, Bugesera, with a range of altitudes over a broad variety of flavour potential. Coffee grown higher often exhibits fruitier, sweeter notes, while coffee grown at lower altitudes are known to be balanced, with notes of chocolate and hazelnut common. Burundi experiences two periods of prolonged rainfall throughout the year, receiving approximately 1,200mm between February and May, and September to November.
When it comes to producing high yields of coffee, Burundi simply can’t compete with some of the other major coffee producing countries in Africa, such as Ethiopia. Sitting at number 31 (of around 70) in world coffee production, this small country’s focus lies wholly on quality, with tremendous results.
Most coffee production takes place in the north of the country, especially around the border with Rwanda. Most producers produce on land less than one hectare in size, which is why it’s important for farmers to get the most out of their yields. Meticulous sorting is paramount, ensuring only the very best cherries are selected (with harvest typically taking place between March to July), so they can be sold at the prices they deserve for such high quality. This same level of care is given to processing.
Wet processing (washed) is the norm in Burundi. Each lot beginning the process within six hours of delivery. Quality checked. Sorted. Pulped. Density checked. Then sorted again. The small-scale level of production, mostly by smallholders, along with education programmes rolled out from washing stations, means the quality of coffee in Burundi is very high; all coffee is selectively handpicked and sorted.
Often sharing qualities with neighbouring country, Rwanda, coffee from Burundi is typically sweet, with bright acidity and big body, with the Bourbon and Jackson (a hybrid of Bourbon) varietals commonly grown. Coffee from the country can be clean, and floral, with delicate flavours; you might find sweet berry notes, and hints of citrus: with coffee meticulously grown, sorted, and processed, the potential is huge.
THE POTATO DEFECT: WHAT IS IT?
If you’ve ever enjoyed a coffee from Burundi, then you may have heard of the potato defect: but what is it, and what does it mean for your coffee? Like its neighbour, Rwanda, coffee from Burundi is susceptible to the potato defect. The potato defect occurs when airborne bacteria enters the coffee cherry via a puncture or tear in the outer skin, caused by insects, or rapidly ripening cherries during excessive rainfall. Chemically, potato defect is caused by pyrazine, a symmetrical aromatic compound, called isopropyl-2-methoxy-3. Despite sounding less than appetising, pyrazines are a common feature in food and drink, including wine.
The potato defect means that roasted, ground, and brewed coffee can smell – and taste – like raw potato: not exactly the sensory experience you’d hope to encounter. However, the defect is not a processing error, or down to a lack of farmer care. While not preventative, intensive sorting techniques can help detect the defect, but there are also ways a barista – and you – can prevent it from spoiling the coffee brewing experience, should it be detected in the hopper. By grinding small amounts at a time, you can check for the defect in aroma, before combining for the brew recipe, eliminating it from the cup. As with many things, the reward an exceptional quality cup of coffee from Burundi, makes the small risk worthwhile.
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