The tiny East African country of Burundi produces exceptional coffees. With its high altitudes, volcanic soil, and good processing, it’s no surprise that it has a good reputation – or that consumers ask for its coffee.
But while many roasters and importers are looking here to source their coffees, it’s a different experience to buying beans from Latin America or Asia.
So in today’s article, allow us to give you all the information you need to source specialty coffee from Burundi. We’ll take you through processing methods unique to the country, how to make contact with producers and exporters, and what you should consider if arranging transportation.
A technical training session in Burundi. Credit: Long Miles Coffee
Burundian Coffee: The Basics
Most coffee in Burundi is Bourbon or a Bourbon-derivative, which lends sweetness and body to the cup profile. Add fruity acidity caused by the great soil and altitude, and you have a delicious combination.
There are 600,000–800,000 coffee producers in Burundi, according to The World Bank (2011). They produce the vast majority of the country’s coffee, meaning you may find yourself working with cooperatives of these farmers. Coffee is grown throughout Burundi, but most farms and cooperatives are in Buyenzi, Mumirwa, and Kirimiro in the northeast. (Read our guide to the different producing regions of Burundi for more information.)
Fully washed coffee being sorted by density. Credit: Long Miles Coffee
Specialty coffee production is growing, and is being promoted by bodies such as Café du Burundi/InterCafé Burundi, the country’s association for coffee professionals. Eric Wright, a coffee entrepreneur, tells me, “Producers are definitely trained in ways that they can make more money… The focus in Burundi right now is on specialty coffee.”
This makes sense, given that the country’s economy relies heavily on the industry. Coffee accounted for an incredible 27% of its exports in 2015 (MIT Observatory of Economic Complexity). And according to a Deloitte report published in 2016, agriculture is responsible for 40% of the country’s GDP.
At the same time, nearly two-thirds of the population live in poverty (The World Bank, 2014). Coffee buyers concerned with financial sustainability can have a real impact when sourcing from this country.
Burundian coffee, from bean to cup. Credit: Padre Coffee
Unique Coffee Processing Methods
Washed and fully washed processing dominate Burundian coffee production. Café du Burundi states that washed coffee processing is often done on the farm. Fully washed processing, on the other hand, is typically done in coffee washing stations, with the station setting the price. Many of these are administered or regulated by SOGESTALs, private or partly privatized management companies.
Also called Kenyan processing, double fermentation, or double soaked, fully washed coffee processing involves soaking the coffee for a second time after fermentation. This is a method common to East African countries such as Burundi, Rwanda, and Kenya, but rare in other parts of the world. It results in an exceptionally clean taste, as it removes all of the mucilage – even that which is inside the crack of the green bean.
Cafe du Burundi further divides fully washed processing into two types of coffee: Ngoma Milds, which describe the best-quality coffees, and “normal” fully washed. And all coffees are categorized by bean size, coffee quality, and more.
Gitaba Wet Mill. Credit: Brian Speckman via InterAmerican Coffee
How to Buy Coffee From Burundi
For many people, buying coffee from Burundi seems more formidable than, say, Central America. But while it’s a different market, this is an exciting time of liberalization for the region.
The World Bank, in 2011, described the market prior to 1991 as a “state export monopoly”. Everything was controlled by the government, including prices. Then, in 1991, the government switched to an open auction, setting just the initial floor price. And finally, in 2008, direct trade became possible.
Today, there are two ways to purchase coffee in Burundi: via state-run auction or direct through the exporter or coffee producer.
Eric tells me that it’s not as easy to travel around and meet producers as it is in the Americas, but it’s still possible. You just need a different method. “Whether you are a roaster or importer, the first step is to establish a relationship with exporters…
“Find an exporter or well-known coffee producer in that region” – he suggests looking to Cup of Excellence results for the latter – “cup their coffees, figure out which one you like, and then you go to the field and meet that producer.”
Signing coffee deals on the farm. Credit: Long Miles Coffee
How to Export & Import Coffee From Burundi
I ask Felix Cowling of Supremo about transporting the coffee out of Burundi, and he reminds me that the supply chain here involves many hands. “The pickers will only pick, the pulpers will only pulp, and the millers will only mill. After all of this, the country is landlocked so there will be a separate process to transport to the nearest port of loading.”
This means that you might need to discuss transport details with someone other than the coffee grower or the washing station. And as with any coffee, it’s important to make sure it’s packed well and transported in good conditions. Eric adds that there is currently a fuel shortage, which can make getting the coffee out of the hills difficult. Be prepared for things like this, and be patient.
Buyers may also be worried about the conflict in Burundi. Yet Felix tells me, “From our point of view, we don’t have any problem with the conflict.”
Buying coffee from Burundi and transporting it to, say, the US is not as easy as buying and transporting coffee from Central America to the US. But the effort, my interviewees assure me, is worth it. They are compensated by the high-quality coffee with its distinctive flavor profiles.
Burundian coffee ready for export. Credit: Long Miles Coffee
It’s no longer 1991. Burundian coffee is high-quality, increasingly well produced and processed, and available for specialty buyers. The process may be a little different, but the potential rewards are high for importers and roasters looking to add Burundi to their menu.
Written by Alejandra Muñoz Hernández. Feature photo credit: Long Miles Coffee
Heading to World of Coffee Budapest? Discover more of the flavors of Burundian coffee with Cafe du Burundi’s cupping, workshops, and events. The Barn, Cloud Picker Coffee Roasters, Kafferostare Per Nordby, Diamond’s Roastery, Imperator, and Five Senses will all be running events – find the schedule here.
Please note: Cafe Du Burundi is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind and was consulted in the creation of this article. They have received a courtesy copy of the article prior to publication but have exerted no editorial control over the final copy.
Want to read more articles like this? Sign up to our newsletter!