Burundi is a small landlocked country with a population just over 11 million, it's capital city Bujumbura has been plagued by power struggles over the years. Most recently the country battled through civil war in 1993 which caused a precipitous drop in coffee production. Like most African countries, corruption and famine kept Burundi locked in strive.
In 2011 the country had one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world, fortunately, inspired by their neighbours; Rwanda and imitating their success; Burundi’s coffee industry saw an increase in investment and growth. Farmers have been able to privatise small lots of land, known as ‘microlots’ and slowly the economy has recovered. The industry of tea and coffee that make up approximately 90 percent of its foreign exchange, struggle with distribution thanks to the countries location. Bordering Rwanda with the similar mountainous terrain, the coffee beans have similar flavour notes: red fruit, jasmine, hibiscus and dark chocolate.
Growing and Cultivation
Today, more than 800,000 Burundi families are involved in growing coffee. These landowners cultivate an average of 250 trees each, unfortunately, some farmers are confined to a hectare or less to produce an ever-increasing demand. This means about 25 million coffee plants (mostly Bourbon variety) are being cultivated on more than 60,000 hectares. The positive side is thanks to outside investment and protection these farmers are receiving due payment and world renown. This in turns leads to western sources lending a hand to encourage production, ultimately the coffee industry does not want to lose a unique source of coffee that creates fantastic flavours in the cup.
Burundi does not have distinct growing areas, instead coffee grows right across the country, wherever there is suitable land and altitude. The country is divided into provinces, and coffee farmers are clustered around washing stations. Having said this, it is important to remember Kayanza and Ngozi which are two provinces on the rise within the coffee industry, this is mainly due to the number of washing stations found in both areas, not so much the terrain. Both harvest their crop between April – July and variety of bean is similar to the rest of the nation: Bourbon, Jackson and Mibrizi. These two outlying areas can be found in the north of Burundi close to the Rwandan border with an altitude well over 5000ft they create perfect environments for growing speciality coffee.
Washing Stations - Tracing the Bean
Approximately 160 washing stations can be found in the country, around two-thirds of these stations are under state control with the rest being privately owned. You may be wondering what happens at a washing station? After ripe coffee cherries are picked they end up in a large troth of water. Any underdeveloped or low-density cherries float to the top, where they are easily skimmed off. One this process is complete the cherries are laid on a mesh table and any overripe ones are returned to the farmer. The cherries left over are weighed and recorded in a logbook acting as a receipt for the farmer's daily delivery. The coffee is then separated and the pulp removed, this process removes the cherry from the coffee bean. The coffee is then left to ferment for 12 hours overnight. The next day workers stomp all over the coffee to ‘agitate’ it, the fermentation process is halted by pushing the coffee into channels that are flooded with fresh water. During this process, the workers grade the coffee to ensure a clean transition to drying tables. After this final bath, the coffee is left on tables in the shade so it doesn’t dry too quickly, workers pick through by hand to ensure all defects are removed. Finally the beans are moved to tables in the sun where they will dry from eight days to three weeks and to prevent mould the coffee is turned frequently.
So there you go, a brief guide to what occurs at these washing stations around Africa. Until recently the coffees from all the washing stations within Burundi were blended together, this meant tracing which province or farm the bean came from was difficult. However, in 2008 the country began to embrace the speciality coffee sector, allowing more direct and traceable purchasing. In 2011 there was a coffee quality competition in Burundi known as the ‘Prestige Cup’, this led to ‘mirco lots’ from individual washing stations being kept separate and ranked on quality. At this point, the coffee was sold at auction with the traceability kept intact. This meant specific farmers and stations were more identifiable and unique tastes were no longer lost in the transfer, ultimately a step in the right direction for Burundi and its coffee industry.
The Potato Defect - Final Thoughts
Unfortunately, the coffee beans sourced from Rwanda and Burundi can be struck by microorganisms infecting the bean that are damaged by insects called Antestia bugs. (We talk about the Potato Defect in our Coffee Origins series on Rwanda here). It is thought that these bugs transmit Methoxypyrazines which is a class of chemical compounds that produce odours. This occurs when they feed on the unripe fruit and therefore produce a defective bean. The damage that the bugs create are hard to detect when farming and processing and so it is not uncommon to find your ground coffee at home giving of a potato scent. When you grind an East African coffee, pay attention to the dry aromas before you serve it. If you smell some potato just dump the grounds, purge your grinder and re-brew. This defect is limited and the overall production is unhindered, don’t let it put you off buying coffee from these areas of Africa.
In truth, the beans found in Burundi closely resemble those found in Rwanda and yet the coffee from both nations are unique with noticeably different flavour notes. The sweetness found in beans from Burundi can’t compare to the darker stronger notes of coffee beans harvested by their neighbours. Their cup profiles can be dynamic and bright, with red fruits, berry or citrus. Therefore it's no secret that Burundi has the potential to produce great coffee, but unlike Rwanda, sourcing can pose an ever greater challenge. Speciality coffee production has greatly benefited from a couple different aid programs that focused intently on quality instead of quantity, pushing the value of these beans. The best coffees from the last few harvests have had brilliant malic apple-like acidity and even tartaric white grape like acidity with a more spiced thread.
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