Appreciation for coffee from Burundi is always multifaceted – the effort taken to create and export great coffee takes a colossal, combined effort by all involved, yet when it’s done well Burundian coffees bring some of the most exciting and unique experiences to the cup.

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Burundi Coffee Beans

What are the challenges to getting great coffee from Burundi? The landlocked country has no port and limited infrastructure, making logistics complicated. Its 600,000+ coffee-growing citizens – almost exclusively smallholder farmers whose trees number in the low hundreds – live predominately rural and agrarian lifestyles, with scarce access to basic resources, farm improvement techniques, and even education.

Yet coffee is the country’s single most important export by both volume and value, and despite being geographically miniscule, Burundi commands an outsized presence in specialty coffee sourcing. Its hills provide exceptional climate and elevation for growing, and its most conscientious producers are cultivating, processing, and exporting coffee that rivals the best and brightest from anywhere in the world.

Commercial arabica coffee cultivation was introduced to the region by colonizers in the 1930s, under the ruthless occupying authority of the Belgians who escalated production, peaking in 1959. After the country’s independence in 1962, competing interests limited the country’s output – despite state support for the private industry, land was scarce, global prices were volatile, and coffee was largely viewed negatively as a colonial holdover. In 1976 production and export were nationalized in an unsuccessful effort to increase production, and thereby improve foreign exchange earnings. With global prices at historic lows in the early 1990s and under guidance from the IMF and World Bank, the industry reverted in stages to privatization under washing station management organizations called “SOGESTALs” (Société de Gestion des Stations de Lavage du Café; Company for Managing Coffee Washing Stations). 

Extant tensions in the country escalated post-independence, and – coinciding with privatization of the coffee industry – a long and bloody civil war raged in Burundi from 1993 until 2005, formally ending with the signing of the Arusha Accord and the swearing in of President Pierre Nkurunziza. Coffee production in Burundi has consistently declined since the early nineties and the country lags well behind its neighboring countries in volume produced per hectare. However, with the increasing interest internationally for coffees of specialty quality and newfound access to differentiated, independent producers in the mid-aughts, the importance of coffee sourcing in Burundi for roasters continues to increase to this day. 

Rhapsodic descriptions of intense citrus flavors, deep blackberry notes, and a distinctive tea-like finish are frequently heard at Burundi coffee cuppings, particularly of high elevation washed coffees from the north of the country. Blood orange and pink grapefruit notes often accompany an expressive complexity and full body, rich dark chocolate flavor, and unique tannins. Floral notes like rose, hibiscus, and chamomile may accompany some of the more delicate coffees of this style. Honey and natural process coffees from Burundi are more recent entries from the region and can still widely vary depending on the source. However, especially with natural coffees we frequently taste riper blackberry and red grape flavors, muted but present lemon and lime flavors, and an undertone of spicier notes like nutmeg, ginger, and rooibos. 

With an average elevation of around 1,700 masl and its lowlands at Lake Tanganyika just under 800 meters, a large swath of the hilly, fertile country is ideal for coffee growth.  

Kayanza and Ngozi are likely the most familiar provinces to most specialty coffee buyers, both situated at the north center of the country, sharing a border with southern Rwanda. Coffee washing station density per square mile and prices paid for coffee cherry are the highest in these two regions, as is farmer participation in trainings offered by local organizations like the SOGESTALs. 

Other major producing regions include central provinces like Gitega, Muramvya, and Karuzi, as well as Kirundu and Muyinga in the far northeast. SOGESTALs also operate in Cibitoke and Bubanza in the northwest. 

Legacy Bourbon cultivars dominate the fields throughout most of Burundi, and in fact many of the trees date back to colonial plantings many decades ago. Because of limited training and miniscule farm sizes, farmers are often hesitant to prune or uproot older, less productive trees and plant new seedlings due to the lag between tree management and/or planting and the first viable harvest. 

Subvarieties found frequently in the region often include Jackson and Mbirizi (also spelled Mibirizi). Jackson is an early 20th century selection from India, introduced to Africa through Kenya and Tanzania in the 1920s, and World Coffee Research (WCR) testing confirms its relationship to the Bourbon genetic group. Mbirizi’s lineage is foggy, and may have stemmed from Typica trees first transported from Guatemala to Rwanda. Subsequent crossbreeding with Bourbon type plants has further muddied its ancestry, but WCR testing indicates a strong Typica group relationship. WCR also notes that tree types from a Mayaguez subgroup of Bourbon, selected in Puerto Rico and introduced to Africa through what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1930s are also commonly found in Burundi. There is also limited robusta production in parts of the country. 

The average smallholder farmer in Burundi with older tree types is unlikely to be familiar with the exact genetic strain of coffee they grow. As such, it’s common to simply see variety type for most Burundi coffee simply labelled as a catchall “Bourbon.” 

Burundi lies just south of the equator, and its main seasonal harvest typically begins in February and may extend through June in some cases, usually peaking in March and April. Harvest coincides with seasonal rains in the country and this, combined with limited land to dry coffees, may extend post-harvest drying times significantly up to four weeks in many cases. 

Specialty quality coffees are frequently available for sampling beginning around May or June at the earliest, and – in best case scenarios – contracts completed in July or August may find ocean freight that arrives state-side by October or November. However, because Burundi relies on export internationally – typically through the major and frequently congested ports of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and Mombasa, Kenya – the timeframe for transportation from the country’s limited number of dry mills by truck to a container yard and then onto a US-bound vessel may take much longer. In the current climate of global supply chain delays, we expect Burundi coffee to usually become available in the first quarter of the calendar year following its harvest. 

Production volumes in Burundi have generally declined over the past few decades. Burundi is also subject to significant volume fluctuations, usually in a two-year cycle of high and low. Low yield seasons allow for longer drying times, and more labor is available for quality sorting, which may result in higher quality coffee during these years. 

Post-harvest processing in Burundi for specialty quality coffees is mostly washed, representing around three-quarters of all coffee produced. Cherries harvested on small farms during the day are delivered to washing stations in the evening where they will be immediately pulped and fermented underwater overnight. A secondary post-harvest soak is a common additional step, and coffee of all types is typically manually floated before processing to sort for defects and floating, low-quality beans. This in many cases leads to the designations of “Double” or “Triple” Washed, depending on what’s being counted (and who’s doing the counting). 

Natural and honey process coffees are newer (and highly coveted) entries to the Burundi processing scene. These coffees are frequently floated prior to processing, much like with their washed counterparts. 

Specialty coffees – including honeys and naturals – are dried almost exclusively on raised beds or drying tables constructed with wire or mesh screens. Thin layers of drying coffee will frequently be covered overnight and in rainstorms with plastic tarps (often an iconic yellow color). This process may take many weeks in the rainy season causing congestion at the drying stage, particularly in high-yield years. 

FAQ

The potato defect has been found as a natural occurrence in certain East and Central African Great Lakes coffees, including Burundi. It holds no relationship to root vegetables other than the fact that coffee containing the defect tastes and smells quite a bit like raw potatoes. This is caused by a particular member of the chemical family of pyrazines, which in this case is caused by a unique species of bacteria that finds an entry point into the coffee seed by way of a break in the skin of the cherry, frequently caused by Antestia insect feeding. 

The intensity of the aroma is perhaps the major factor in the industry-wide reaction to coffees from affected regions. While it is possible to detect potato taste defect before roasting, it’s usually much more apparent once the coffee is roasted and ground. The fragrance of an affected bean, even if just one bean in a bulk-ground bag, can be quite intense and detectable from across a large room. 

We don’t stop buying these coffees; we tighten our quality control standards and continue to support exceptional coffees. Keeping a close eye on these coffees by putting extra cups on a table to get a larger sample set, for example, is a great way to weed out the troublemakers. 

Check out our full-length article which includes tips for roasters and producers on how to reduce the impact of this sensory defect.