Tales from Africa Series 3 - Rwanda Coffee
Rwanda Coffee Beans
Rwanda is blessed with particularly good coffee-growing conditions: high altitude, volcanic soil and plenty of sun and equatorial mist. Known as the "Land of a Thousand Hills", many of them are cultivated in high-grown coffee between 1,700 and 2,000 meters above sea level (MASL).
Rwanda coffee can be world class. They often have clean bright flavours rivalling the best Central America coffees, more balance than Kenyas, attractive fruited sweetness, floral characteristics, and with a tea-like finish. Coffee chains differ a lot from each other from country to country: in Rwanda the production is fully in small farmers' hands. Farm sizes range from 0.1 to 0.2 hectares in contrast to other countries, for example, Brazil, where a farm with less than 20 hectares is a small one.
In Rwanda coffee berries — or cherries — are picked by hand and delivered to processing stations where barefooted men tread on coffee cherries in outdoor tanks while singing. The coffees are wonderfully sweet, either bright with clear citric characteristics, or plush and full of berry and chocolate-like flavours. By riding booming demand in the developed world for specialty brews Rwanda has made premium coffee-growing a national priority and is achieving international recognition as a producer of some of the world's best coffee. Once separated from the cherries, the beans are sorted using water as well as a rake-like tool bean by bean. After sorting, the beans are placed in the sun to dry. Because the beans are sensitive to humidity, a sudden breeze of wind signalling rain spurs the workers into action as the tables need to be quickly covered with tarpaulins.
Rwanda Coffee Flavours
There are a great variety of flavour profiles in Rwanda: cherry, grape, lime, chocolate, cantaloupe, mandarin orange, nectarine, candy, apricots, plum and more. These fruity flavour profiles are a result of the country's good growing conditions. There are around 400,000 smallholder producers in Rwanda (NAEB), with most farms sitting at 1,700-2,000 m.a.s.l., according to Sweet Maria's. This high altitude adds complexity to the coffee's flavour profiles (and necessitates a higher charge temp and RoR — but more on roast profiles to come!). Most of the country's coffee comes from the south and west, but there are actually five distinct producing areas. In the northwest, we find the volcanic region of Virunga (which is also home to the famous Silverback mountain gorillas). To the west, the Kivu region lies alongside Lake Kivu. Moving forward the centre of the country, we come to the Kizi Rift region. Further south lies Akagera, known for its relatively low altitude (1,300 m.a.s.l.). And last but not least, there's the Muhazi region toward the east.
Of course, all these coffee regions are distinct. However, high altitudes and nitrogen-rich volcanic soils can be found across the country. These create excellent conditions for the production of the high-quality beans that we love to roast and consume.
In the past, Rwandan coffee would be inconsistently processed on individual farms and then blended with that of neighbouring farms.
After the genocide, as the floodgates opened for assistance to the Rwandan population, revitalising coffee production was made an important goal. To do this, organisations like the PEARL project and SPREAD standardised and trained farmers and new cooperative washing stations in traditional techniques of coffee production based on other East African countries. Burundi in particular offered a good model for production.
It's also worth mentioning that fully-washed coffees, also called double-washed, are normally processed slightly differently to washed coffees. They are typically soaked twice, in a method common in Africa but not Latin America.
One of the best things in Rwanda processing is the fact that all the coffee goes to the "skin-drying tables". These are raised shaded beds where the wet parchment coffee is picked over to remove defects that are especially apparent in the still-wet parchment. In particular, the workers remove Antestia-affected coffee, under-ripe beans, pulper-nicked coffee, fruit skins, or beans where the parchment was mistakenly removed and affected by the ferment water in the tanks.
(Remember, the purpose of fermenting coffee is not to affect flavour. It is to break down the fruit mucilage that clings to the parchment layer surrounding the bean. This skin keeps the ferment process, and broken-down mucilage fruit, away from the green bean. If a green bean comes into contact with the sticky ferment water, it will taste like ferment (think rotting fruit) and ruin the cup quality).
This skin-drying phase not only allows an extra chance to remove defects, it slows down the initial drying of the parchment, which I feel increases cup quality. The coffee then goes out to the raised dying tables, where it takes 15020 days (ideally) to reach a moisture level of 11% or so. In the heat of the day, the workers cover the coffee to prevent too-rapid drying under direct sun. The result with the best Rwanda coffee is a totally white-coloured parchment coffee with no cracks from rapid drying. This is good for quality because this tiny parchment "shell", facilitates a safe drying environment, buffering it from the outside. It allows a slow and even loss of moisture, which results in less loss of organic compounds (good for cup flavour), and ultimately a green coffee that can be stored longer without degrading.
There are of course, also find other processing methods here if you look hard enough. But the typical Rwandan coffee is a sweet, full-bodied, fully washed Bourbon grown at high altitudes.