Rwanda: this small East African country should not be overlooked by roasters and coffee lovers. Known as the Land of a Thousand Hills, its production of high-quality, high-altitude coffee goes side-by-side with its fight against poverty.
It’s not one of Africa’s largest producing countries; in 2016, it harvested just 220,000 60-kilo bags, compared to 7.1 million in Ethiopia and 4.9 million in Uganda. However, Rwanda is positioning itself as a world-class specialty coffee origin and the delicious flavours of its coffee back this up.
But what should roasters know about Rwandan coffee? What flavor and aroma profiles does it have? How is it produced? And what roast styles does it lend itself to? Read on to find out.
Coffee is processed in wet tanks and then dried on raised beds at this Rwandan mill. Credit: Stean Bean
Coffee: A Crop of Hope
Coffee isn’t native to Rwanda. It seems to have been brought to the country by German missionaries in the early 1900s. From then on, it grew to represent economic opportunities for many rural families.
Yet no account of Rwanda’s history can ignore the tragic Rwandan Genocide of 1994, when 800,000 people were murdered in just 100 days and as many as 250,000 women were raped. In the wake of the tragedy, organizations such as the Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL) and Sustainable Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprises and Agricultural Development (SPREAD) were launched. PEARL, directed by Dr. Dan Clay, and SPREAD, directed by Dr. Timothy Schilling (now Founder and CEO of World Coffee Research), were both funded by USAID and aimed to support Rwanda by revitalizing its agriculture.
And coffee, as one of the country’s most valuable crops, was one of the primary focuses. Investment in infrastructure and training supported coffee producers, with the impact of these initiatives still felt today.
Despite that, Rwanda still struggles with many issues: around 40% of the population live in poverty, for example. However, as of 2016, the coffee industry is the country’s fourth-largest export, worth US $59.4 million a year. Improvements here can continue to help the country recover, especially when structural inequalities in the supply chain are addressed.
Rwanda’s National Agricultural Export Development Board (NAEB) states that its coffee strategy is “positioning Rwanda as a specialty coffee producer” to “best enable the sector to contribute to the growth and prosperity of the country.” It points to increasing prices as a sign of its success, and focuses its efforts on improving production and processing practices.
Let’s take a look at those practices and what they mean for roasters.
Washing freshly picked coffee cherries. Credit: Bryan Clifton
Coffee Production & Flavor Profiles
“The reason that I love Rwanda coffee so much is for its syrupy, heavy mouthfeel,” Brett Stenson of Barista, Portland tells me. This sweet, full-bodied character is due in part to the coffee variety: most Rwandan beans are either Bourbon or a Bourbon-derivative.
However, you will find a great variety of flavor profiles in Rwanda: cherry, grape, lime, chocolate, cantaloupe, mandarin orange, nectarine, candy, apricots, plum, and more. Brett mentions that he nearly always gets hints of dates – in addition to a clean, crisp, and citrus acidity.
These fruity flavor 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 flavor 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 north-west, 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 toward the center 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.
Freshly picked ripe coffee cherries.
Fully Washed Processing for Clean Coffees
In the past, Rwandan coffee would be inconsistently processed on individual farms and then blended with that of neighboring farms. However, after the Genocide, both the government and bodies like PEARL incentivized producers to invest in fully washed processing methods. This was so successful that there are now 245 washing stations across the country (NAEB, 2015) compared to, according to Sweet Maria’s, just one before.
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.
You will, 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.
A rare honey processed Rwandan coffee dries on raised beds. Credit: InterAmerican Coffee
What Challenges Does Rwanda Face?
Rwanda’s coffee industry is stronger than ever but it still faces challenges. The biggest of these is the potato defect, something that affects Rwandan and Burundian coffees in particular. It’s caused by the Antestia bug, which sucks nutrients out of the cherry. Its tiny puncture marks are hard to detect during the harvest, but the raw potato aroma and taste it leaves in the cup is soon noticed.
“The biggest problem with the potato is that one bean that has this can completely ruin your brew,” Brett tells me.
To fight it, producers can attempt to detect the pest on their land and use pesticides – providing they have the know-how and resources.
Additionally, coffee producers in Rwanda face the same challenges as those all around the world: a changing climate, a reduction in the amount of land suitable for farming, low prices…
However, Rwanda’s coffee industry is continuing to grow, with a focus on quality and processing. The future looks promising for the Land of a Thousand Hills.
Producers sort freshly picked coffee cherries at Bumbogo Washing Station, Rwanda. Credit: Nightjar
How to Roast Rwandan Coffee
So now we’ve looked at the delicious flavors of Rwandan coffees and how they’re produced, let’s move on to a roaster’s biggest question: how should they be roasted?
Like all coffees, this will vary dramatically according to your desired cup profile and also the beans, their precise origin, processing method, and more. However, there is one thing you should bear in mind: due to their high altitudes, Rwandan coffees can be very dense.
Brett tells me his one general rule for specialty African coffees is to apply plenty of heat through the development. Hard beans like these transfer heat well and so benefit from a relatively higher charge temp and rate of rise. If the temperature is too low, they may bake instead.
At the same time, you don’t want to rush through the roast. Since Rwandan coffees tend to have great mouthfeel, you may also want to experiment with stretching out the development time and first crack to accentuate body.
“Very lightly roasted Rwandan coffee can be really acidic in a pleasant way, but don’t be afraid of pulling more syrupy bodies and mouthfeel out of the coffee,” Brett emphasizes.
Freshly roasted coffee beans.
Rwandan beans: sweet, full-bodied, fruity, acidic… But there’s so much more to the story of this country’s coffee industry than just its delicious flavors and aromas. Indulge yourself with a high-altitude, fully washed Bourbon and remember that the harvest represents opportunity for 400,000 smallholder farmers across this country.
Written by Gisselle Guerra.
Perfect Daily Grind
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