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Everything you need to know about Rwanda Coffee
Rwandan Coffee offers you a unique flavour from the Land of a Thousand Hills.
This tiny East African nation of 7 million people produces a highly prized, exclusive coffee, a smooth, mellow drink with a balanced acidity noted for its sweet flavours and lingering aftertaste. A medium or light roast is preferred and it is suited for most brewing methods including cafetieres, filters and percolators.
Unlike most of the other coffee-producing nations in Africa, Rwanda has no large coffee estates. Instead, the growing of beans is in the hands of some 450,000 small farmers, which lends a particular exclusivity to what they produce; the country as a whole is responsible for only 1% of the world coffee production.
What types of Rwandan coffee are there?
What Rwanda coffee varietals may lack in terms of volume, they more than make up for in quality.
Much of Rwandan coffee is grown on farms located at high altitude, between 4,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level. These high altitudes combined with volcanic soil and a continuous supply of sunlight, plus artisan roasters can deliver some exceptional coffee. Generally, you can expect to find a rich, creamy body with a sweeter aftertaste, accompanied by citrusy flavours in Rwanda coffee. However, thanks to the independent approach to production, you will be pleasantly surprised by the layers of complexity you will find in your espresso. It is not uncommon to detect chocolate or cinnamon notes, with fruity aromas.
Right in the heart of Africa, on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, sitting about 4,800 ft above sea level, you will find Lake Kivu. This is one of the African Great Lakes and the deepest body of water in Rwanda. It is the richly fertile soils in the land surrounding Lake Kivu that provide the ideal conditions for growing some of the world's most exclusive coffee beans - the Rwandan Red Bourbon Arabica. Quantities of the Red Bourbon Arabica may be small, but the taste is big. The Kivu region is at the centre of coffee production in Rwanda, along with the smaller coffee regions of Virunga, Kizi Rift, Akagera and Muhazi. While these areas may not be well-known or plentiful, the fruit from these high-quality, high-altitude plants cannot be overlooked by coffee lovers across the world.
About 97% of Rwanda's coffee plants are the Arabica varietal, Bourbon. Also cultivated are smaller quantities of the Catuai and Caturra varietals. The Catuai is a high-yielding Arabica cultivar derived from the Mundo Novo and Caturra varietals. It was first produced in the 1950s by the Institute of Agronomics in Campina, Brazil, in an attempt to breed a high-yield, pest-resistant plant with strong and flavourful coffee cherries. You may also find the Coffea Arabica varietal Mayaguez, which actually originated from South Sudan and Ethiopia but is now being cultivated worldwide as farmers have grown coffee plants from its seeds.
In Rwanda coffee growing regions, the coffee plants flower in September and October and the cherries, most of which are hand-picked, are harvested in the rainy season that runs from March to May. Most of the green coffee beans are wet-processed, often at a communal washing station shared by numerous coffee farmers.
History of Coffee in Rwanda
Not so long ago, individual farmers on each Rwanda coffee plantation were responsible for processing coffee using their own preferred method which included blending their produce with that of their neighbours. As a result, the quality was inconsistent, often poor and certainly didn't give you an espresso coffee you would want to shout about. Now, thankfully, there has been a considerable update to the brewing methods and coffee farming operations throughout Rwanda, leading to a coffee revival. One notable development has been the creation of approximately 250 high-quality washing stations across the country. At these stations, fully washed coffees, also known as double-washed, are soaked twice; a practice that is now quite common in Africa but not so well known, for example, in Latin America. This wet-processing lends a cleaner, sweeter taste and aroma to brewed coffee while adding a slightly acidic note.
Coffee growing is not native to Rwanda. It was first brought to the country by German missionaries in the early 1900s. However, production of the plants on a commercial scale didn't come about until the 1930s when Rwanda was under Belgian rule. The colonial government at that time decided on a national coffee strategy which meant using agricultural areas to grow as much coffee as possible. As a consequence of this policy, coffee in Rwanda had a reputation for being of low grade but highly accessible and affordable.
That all changed towards the end of last century when first the 1980s' economic crisis hit home and then Rwanda was devastated by the civil war that broke out in 1990. Its most horrific episode was the genocide of 1994, in which 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. Swathes of the population were massacred, and the economy ground to a halt. Coffee production in the country was almost entirely destroyed.
Remarkably, in the 25 years since then, Rwanda has been reborn. Nowadays it is considered to be one of the most stable countries in East Africa, and its economy, of which agriculture is a vital component, has shown a steady annual growth of about 8%. Rwanda coffee beans production, along with black tea exports and tourism, has been key to this regeneration.
What is happening today?
The idea of high-quality speciality Rwandan coffee sits nicely alongside the country's burgeoning trade in high-end tourism, where luxury travel welcomes visitors to its terraced hillsides and wildernesses. Sipping a 'cup of excellence' on the terrace of an exclusive five-star safari lodge while watching the local wildlife is a traveller's dream.
Oddly enough, although coffee is one of Rwanda's cash crops and one of the top four sources of economy for the country, it only just makes it into the top 30 list of global producers. Each of the country's 450,000 coffee farmers owns on average no more than 0.25 hectares of land, which is considerably smaller than many nearby countries. On this land, many of their trees tend to be old and as a result, coffee is grown in relatively small quantities and their yields have been falling. Farmers have not been making enough money from their crop to be able to re-invest and move beyond a subsistence level.
Things are slowly but surely changing, however. The government of Rwanda is pushing for a big improvement in the coffee industry by investing in the unique aroma and flavours of its Red Bourbon beans rather than targeting high volume production.
Quality vs Quantity
Putting high-quality coffee ahead of quantity in Rwanda is a smart policy. The country is unlikely to compete with the big league of producers in the coffee industry around the world. Apart from its small size, the nation is landlocked so delivery over a long distance is difficult, to say the least. The coffee has to be shipped from the container ports at Mombasa or Dar Es Salaam, after a 1,000-mile trip through Kenya or Tanzania. This overland trip alone takes many hours and can cost as much as shipping the goods from Africa to the United States!
With a significant investment from the central government in Kigali, Rwanda's speciality coffee business is developing strongly. The Coffee Upgrade & Promotion Rwanda (CUP Rwanda), a technical programme, has set up model coffee plantations in Rwanda to teach growers the best methods and agricultural practices to produce their beans. At the same time, many farmers have been able to establish cooperatives with a handful of local roasters, which boosts the producers' livelihoods as prices for roast coffee beans are double what they can ask for green coffee beans.
Today's Rwanda, characterised by its friendly people and positive attitude, is a far cry from the past. Its speciality coffee cultivation is a young and growing industry and strong support from the government plus big international investment has engineered this turnaround. For unique coffee flavour profiles and distinctive products, Rwanda is fast becoming THE place to go.
What does Rwandan Coffee taste like?
The best Rwanda coffee is one for the discerning palate. Many connoisseurs of Rwanda coffee beans compare its taste to that of its counterparts from Kenya and Ethiopia although thanks to the various brew methods, independent plantations and individual roaster techniques, you will discover a great variation in the flavour profiles of this country's coffees.
The most popular Red Bourbon beans give you medium-bodied, creamy coffee, with a sweet and mellow finish packed full of aroma and flavour. Aficionados of Rwanda's coffees enjoy a taste of caramel and spices, detecting notes of orange blossom and fruit such as raspberries and cherries.
With a light roast or medium roast, such coffees are ideal accompaniments to sweet fruity desserts such as crumbles or cakes and go very well with white chocolate.
Our medium roast Rwanda coffee gives you a smooth mellow brew with balanced acidity and a sweet lingering aftertaste.
How to import coffee from Rwanda?
Importing coffee from Rwanda is no easy task, given its landlocked position. If you are wondering how to buy Rwanda coffee beans without trekking to another continent, Coffee Direct is here to help.
We offer some of the finest, handpicked beans from Rwanda, available roasted, or as green coffee beans if you prefer to roast them yourself. Our Rwanda single-origin coffee from the Lake Kivu region is a smooth mellow cup with balanced acidity and a sweet lingering aftertaste.
How to roast Rwanda coffee?
The best roast profile for Rwanda coffee will vary according to your preferences, the region of origin for the beans and how they have been processed. Generally speaking however, these beans work very well with a lighter roast. This brings out the acidic fruity flavour profile and unique aromas. If you prefer medium to dark roasts, the beans will still taste great but with a fuller body.
As these beans are grown at high altitude, they tend to be quite dense and transfer heat well, meaning you will need to roast them at high temperatures, to ensure they are roasted and not baked.
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