Introduction by Chris Kornman
The Democratic Republic of Congo has a pretty significant history in the African coffee story, one that has traditionally centered around its Robusta crop – the DRC has its own unique genotype of the species. Perhaps in part because of its significance to global commodity coffee production, specialty coffee from the DRC has been a little slower than its East African neighbors to reach an appreciated status in the canon, but that’s not to say the quality can’t be exceptional. Arabica is grown predominantly on the country’s Eastern borders with Rwanda and Uganda, the harvest often resembles the characteristics of other African Great Lakes coffees.
This particular Crown Jewel comes to us from the small town of Kirumba, just north of Lake Kivu, from a washing station named Hutwe operated by a company called Virunga. Virunga operates five washing stations in the region, and provides free training, quality management, and organic certification support to approximately 2,000 local farmers.
Some of the reasons for DRC coffee’s slow modern specialty recognition has to do, unfortunately, with ongoing turmoil in the country. Dating back to colonization, the country was ravaged by Europeans engaging in slave trade, and even after achieving independence in 1960, political turmoil led to ongoing upheaval. The country changed its name multiple times after its first colonial name, Congo Free State, including an eleven year stretch during which it was referred to as Belgian Congo, then Republic of Congo, then Democratic Republic of Congo, then Republic of Zaire. During and after the Rwandan Genocide in 1996, Rwandan and Ugandan armed forces crossed Zaire’s borders waging war. Civil wars, displacement, humanitarian crises, international intervention, and conflicts regarding politics and natural resources are ongoing. Eastern parts of the DRC like the Lake Kivu region are so far removed from Kinshasa, the country’s capital 1500 miles away, that in many cases they operate somewhat independently.
International investment in the region has been critical to taking the coffee production from baseline to specialty quality. Virunga has been operating in the region since 2011 as an extension of Schluter’s work in East Africa, though Hutwe is a brand new station constructed in 2015, making this coffee the station’s first export. The coffee is eco-pulped with a Penagos, then fermented and washed before drying on raised beds. Skin drying occurs under shade, followed by full sun drying with tarps used to cover the coffee during brief seasonal rains. The station also produces a natural process coffee dried in the cherry.
Green Analysis by Chris Kornman
Traditional varieties are common in rural equatorial Africa. In addition to heirloom Bourbon, the smallholders surrounding Hutwe washing station are also cultivating a local variety they refer to as Rumangabo, which is the name of a local village. I’ve struggled to find information about the cultivar, but it’s likely a local Bourbon descendant, either a naturally occurring variation or a locally distributed type developed for the microregion.
The coffee is mostly 16-18 screen with a few outliers above and below. Fairly high density combined with a water activity of 0.60 could make this coffee a little trickier than average to roast as you attempt to balance sugar browning with heat energy before first crack.
Roast Analysis by Jen Apodaca
With the large screen size, high moisture content, and high density of this coffee, you will want to make sure to apply enough energy and heat at the beginning of the roast. Just after turn around, the RoR was quite low and the roast profile started to drag and plateau after Maillard reactions began around 330 °F. If you need to reduce heat as you near first crack, I advise doing so cautiously so you do not stall. First crack occurred slightly earlier than normal and was lively.
This week we decided to roast this coffee to a light medium roast and into second crack so we could compare how the flavor transforms with additional sugar browning. Our first roast, PR-549 had a lovely Kenya-like quality with a dynamic acid profile. Lots of dark plum, golden raisin, tart cranberry, and even some sweet yellow tomato was in our cupping notes. The second roast, PR-550 was full bodied reminiscent of a black tea with lots of tactile tannin notes. The flavor profile also displayed more floral characters like juniper and lavender.
Brew Analysis by Evan Gilman
Jen kindly provided both dark and light roasts of this coffee as well, and we are happy to say that the two tasted completely different. If you’re looking for a sweet and tart coffee with plenty of juicy texture, this is your huckleberry – not the usual Congo profile, to be sure. If you’re looking for a classic, however, this may not be a bad choice at more developed roast levels.
We brewed this coffee in three different devices: the Chemex, the Kalita, and the Bonavita (for the darker roast). The group overwhelmingly enjoyed the Chemex of this coffee, leading me to believe that a thorough extraction of this coffee is going to get you the most enjoyable results. Juicy and with plenty of stone fruit, this is a Congo to remember.
The Bonavita brought the bass (low tones, not the fish). Thick like an oatmeal stout, this brew brought to mind malted barley, tannic cacao nibs, and chewy dried stone fruit.
This coffee is available in full size bags as well. Contact Us to find out more.