Rwanda is famously known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, a fitting moniker for the small, densely populated country whose topography is laced with verdant mountains and valleys. Coffee grows on many of these hills, and Rwanda’s place in the specialty coffee industry has been cemented since the mid-aughts as a source of exceptional washed coffees with characteristic orange and grapefruit acidity, lush caramelly sweetness, and oolong-tea like tannins. Rwandan coffees have a special place on our menu, and while we don’t import a huge amount, they do represent a large part of what Royal is proud of: coffees of high quality with good traceability, community focus, and a commitment to preserve the integrity of the natural world.

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Rwanda Coffee Beans

The history of coffee in Rwanda is complex, at times tragic, at others triumphant.

Commercial arabica coffee cultivation was introduced to the region under German colonial influence as early as 1905. After WWI the Belgians had replaced the Germans, and by 1927 were “aggressively promoting coffee production.” In 1931 they formally legitimized its forced cultivation.

The decades that followed involved escalating, systemically reinforced tensions between two groups of people in Rwanda – the rural, agrarian majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis, whose pre-colonial attachment to cattle wealth became interpreted as “traditional authority” in the eyes of Belgians, who exploited this political disparity for economic advantages.

In 1956 after years of lobbying internationally, the Catholic Church donated a hectare of land to aid Hutu farmers, establishing a coffee cooperative called TraFiPro (travail, fidélité, progrès – labor, faith, progress). Rwanda’s soon-to-be first president, Gregoire Kayibanda, was named the cooperative’s head in 1957, and the organization became a political launching pad for a counter-elite movement. By 1958, TriFiPro was also economically successful – yet its leadership had become dominated by Tutsis.

Divided on increasingly ethnic lines – which had been reinforced for generations by European colonizers – the country voted for independence in 1961. A “Hutu Revolution” was declared, under the guise of which tens of thousands of Tutsis died and hundreds of thousands more were displaced.

Coffee had become Rwanda’s primary source of foreign currency by the middle of the twentieth century, but the country’s rifts were far from healed. After a transition of national power, TraFiPro was dissolved under a policy of privatization. This policy precipitated rapid consolidation of land ownership to the extent that “by 1991 43% of the land was held by 16% of the landowners.” Prosperity in urban areas increased tensions with coffee growers and other rural citizens in tandem with the ongoing rise of coffee’s prominence as the country’s leading export revenue generator.

Overreliance on coffee caused a massive crisis with devastating consequences in the years following 1989’s dissolution of the International Coffee Agreement and resulting devaluation of the crop on global markets. Faced with a cratering economy, a foreign-backed military incursion, and sparked by the death of the country’s president and the president of Burundi when their plane was shot down over Kigali, civil war and violence once again beset the country in April of 1994. Atrocities were enacted asymmetrically, once again along ethno-political lines. 800,000 people died in less than 100 days.

In the wake of such violence there’s little that can be said that doesn’t somehow cheapen or diminish the unmitigated tragedy of the loss of life. Yet if there’s a motif that can be held as hope in such circumstances, it’s the resilience of humanity. In the case of Rwanda, its revival happened to be aided, somewhat unexpectedly, by the very crop which had catalyzed its crisis: coffee.

Beginning in 2000, funds from USAID filtered through an organization called Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL) to begin working with the country’s cooperatives and cuppers to improve qualities and enhance training. One of PEARL’s early successes is the Maraba Coffee brand, supported by National University of Rwanda. PEARL’s project manager, Tim Schilling, would go on to found World Coffee Research (WCR).

It could be argued that, in addition to training national quality control specialists, PEARL’s greatest contribution to the country was emphasizing the value added by washing coffee. Since the first years of the 21st century, production of “ordinary” (the country’s commodity grade natural and semi-washed coffees) has declined while washed coffees have skyrocketed in production. Myriad sources report dramatically improved incomes for farmers and agriculture labors as a direct result of higher prices for Rwandan coffee.

Washing station management over the past decade has been fraught with turnover, as many organizations originally assembled as cooperatives dissolved and sold to private owners. However, the essential infrastructure and training remain largely in place. Rwanda’s iconic, blue-painted fermentation tanks and yellow-tarp-covered raised drying tables can be spotted from hillsides away.

Today, the country’s coffee production volume still fluctuates annually and faces challenges such as climate change, gradually declining yields, and the ever-present nuisance of potato taste defect. However, the industry’s foundations are strong, with strong government and private sector support. We’ll continue to see remarkable Rwandan coffees for many years to come.

Lauded for bright and clean cup character, washed Rwandan coffees often remind the taster of navel oranges, paired with baking spice notes like nutmeg and an oolong tea-like tannic characteristic. Complex harvests from the south and west of the country may be accompanied by light berry notes, ethereal citrus blossom fragrances, a touch of salted caramel, and silky mouthfeel. Earthier flavors may be present in lower elevation coffees, providing a mellower cup profile for those who prefer a little less acidity in their roasts. Great naturals and honeys remain somewhat rare in the country, as they continue to call back to the commodity grade “ordinary” coffee, processed minimally and sold at discounts. That said, with innovations at the forefront of coffee production, anaerobic fermentations and other processing strategies are beginning to rise to the surface. 

Bordered on the west by the majestic Lake Kivu and surrounded by coffee-producing neighbors including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda, the country is home to a range of microregions many of which are just a short drive from the nation’s centrally located capital city of Kigali. Yet despite the proximity, most the country’s coffee growers are smallholders with minimal access to infrastructure. Local washing stations act as both processing centers and buying hubs, whether cooperatives or privately owned. Landlocked as Rwanda is, export logistics require careful maneuvering to secure overland transport to international port cities.  

Rwanda’s hilly topography, lush climate, and fertile soil provide exceptional coffee-growing conditions and indeed the crop is cultivated throughout much of the country, in every one of its 30 districts. 

Innumerable farms and cooperatives can be found in the west, particularly along the breathtaking hillsides erupting from the shores of lake Kivu. The western districts of Nyamasheke, Rusizi, and Rutsiro, along with Huye in the south, are the country’s top-volume producers. In the north, Gakenke district leads the province in production, while in the east the distinction is held by Gatsibo. 

These current district names replaced older provinces pre-2006. Coffee buyers of a certain age may remember such names as Giseny, Kibuye, and Cyangugu (in the west) and Gikongoro and Butare (in the south) as coffee production regions. 

FAQ

Legacy Bourbon cultivars dominate the fields throughout most of Rwanda, 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 Rwanda. Robusta can be found as approximately 1% of production in parts of the country. 

The average smallholder farmer in Rwanda 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 Rwandan coffee simply labelled as a catchall “Bourbon.” 

Rwanda lies just south of the equator, and its main seasonal harvest typically begins in March and may extend through June in some cases, usually peaking in April and May. 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 June or July 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 Rwanda 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 in Kigali 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 Rwandan coffee to usually become available in late December or by the first quarter of the calendar year following its harvest. 

Post-harvest processing in Rwanda for specialty quality coffees is mostly washed, despite a slight majority production of so-called “ordinary” natural and honey coffees which are sold as non-specialty commodity grade. 

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). 

Specialty grade natural and honey process coffees are newer (and highly coveted) entries to the Rwandan 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. 

The potato defect has been found as a natural occurrence in certain East and Central African Great Lakes coffees, including Rwanda. 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.