African Great Lakes Coffees: Quality in the Face of Adversity

Coffee drying on raised beds in Nyaruguru District, Rwanda. Courtesy of Kakalove Cafe.By now, a lot of readers of Coffee Review are familiar with the win-win-hypothesis of specialty coffee: If customers pay more for much better coffee from dedicated manufacturers, and if some of the high rates paid by customers make it back to those manufacturers, they will be encouraged to create even better coffees, which will please even more customers, who will gratefully continue to pay higher prices

, and everybody, from farmer to customer, will benefit. This is roughly the hypothesis upon which Coffee Review was established in 1997, and it stays main to our objective. This report is not the location to evaluate this hypothesis or its total success, but in regard to the impact on manufacturers, it is essential to keep in mind that accumulating statistical proof suggests that North American specialized coffee roasters do pay substantially higher costs for the coffees they purchase than does the product coffee market. In other words, a few of the greater rates Coffee Review readers pay for today’s fine specialty coffees do make it back to producers.

The reason for bringing up the specialty coffee win-win hypothesis in the context of this report is to argue that it is nowhere as crucial just like the coffee-growing societies we include in this report, those in the heart of Africa situated around and near the enormous 1500-mile-long string of Africa’s fantastic lakes that form the source of the Nile river. The coffees from this area are mainly grown at high elevations and they originate from admired tree varieties common in the region for decades. Origins include the tiny but coffee-rich nations of Rwanda and Burundi, the neighboring Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo), and parts of Tanzania, Uganda and Malawi.

Some of these societies are among the most impoverished on the planet, and coffee, typically produced on tiny plots balancing less than 4 or five acres, is a frantically required lifeline. Specialized coffee is also a crucial automobile for financial cooperation among competing, frequently warring, social groups. The incredible long-lasting success of the USAID-funded PEARL job aimed at reconstructing genocide-ravaged Rwanda through improving its coffees and positioning them at the luxury of the specialty market is frequently pointed out as one of the primary reasons the Hutu and Tutsi factions in Rwanda now preserve a mostly serene, productive coexistence after years of strife and tension.

Kabirizi cleaning station, COOPAC Cooperative, Rwanda. Thanks To Cafe Imports. True, traceable coffees from single farms of the kind we recognize with from Latin America are rare in the majority of these African coffee-growing regions. Coffee is normally brought by smallholding farmers to mills (called cleaning stations). There, the coffees are bulked together in lots by knowledgeable mill operators who are either members of the cooperative running the mill or well-informed supervisors acquainted with regional farms and farmers. Despite the relative anonymity of private farmers, the lots coming from the very best mills are typically remarkable, often extraordinary, and definitely deserving of appreciation and rates to match their quality.

Lots of Samples, Impressive Ratings

We tested 75 Great Lakes coffees for this report. The greatest number by far were produced in Rwanda (36 samples; typical score 90.6, low 81, high 94) followed by Burundi (18 samples; average ranking 89.9, low 87, high 93). DR Congo and Tanzania supplied fewer samples however still generated remarkable ratings. We tested six samples from DR Congo (typical 89.3, low 85, high 94) and eight from Tanzania (average 90.1, low 86, high 94). Just Uganda and Malawi lagged, with very couple of samples.

Sorting just-picked cherries in Nyaruguru District, Rwanda. Courtesy of Kakalove Cafe. Great Coffees, Devastating Setback in DR Congo Nevertheless, specialty coffee’s guarantee of better lives and higher social stability for the region’s smallholding producers is an typically fragile endeavor. This was made starkly clear simply three weeks before the publication of this report by the terrible eruption of the volcano Nyiragongo in the Kivu area of the DR Congo. The eruption struck at the heart of among specialized coffee’s most motivating current success stories. Over the previous years, a variety of agencies has actually led a progressively successful push to establish fine coffee in the Kivu area. The eruption, which happened without warning, displaced numerous hundred-thousand individuals, much of them coffee producers who were simply attaining a modicum of stability in this region long tortured by ethnic violence.

Tio Fallen of Houston-based Three Keys Coffee preparing to roast” Congo Square.”Courtesy of Rob Sykes. The six samples we cupped from Kivu for this month’s report balanced a rating of almost 90 and include the excellent 94-rated Three Keys Congo Square reviewed with this report. The Three Keys sample showed a strikingly initial wet-processed profile, concurrently intensely sweet, deeply savory and vibrantly tart all at once, with an intriguing juxtaposition of pistachio-like nut and sweet honey. Those interested in other variations of the Congo cup may search for the Joe Bean Congo Umoja or the Fieldheads Democratic Republic of the Congo, both 90-rated, though not formally evaluated for this month’s report.

Recovery in the Kivu region will doubtless be slow; immediate help is required. If, in addition to supplying indirect long-lasting support by purchasing DR Congo coffee, readers are inclined to help straight, here are two appropriate programs now active on the ground helping those displaced by the eruption.

On the Ground is a non-profit that supports smallholding coffee farmers in the DR Congo and Chiapas, Mexico areas. It remains in part supported by Coffee Review marketer Amavida Coffee Roasters and regular submitter Wonderstate (previously Kickapoo) Coffee. On the Ground is using immediate emergency situation aid to those displaced by the eruption from its headquarters in the coffee town of Minova. Together with other charitable non-profits, Save the Children is working on an emergency situation basis directly in the area.

The Classic Great Lakes Washed Cup: Deep, Sweet-Savory, Cocoa and Flowers

It is assuring, maybe, to report that the classic washed cup from these origins, especially from Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo, has actually not been completely submerged in a torrent of cup-altering processing experiments of the kind that are rippling through the coffee-growing areas of the world. It is a cup distinguished by a savory-sweet depth and richness, with occasional nutty or starchy undertones, but generally with cocoa-toned chocolate leanings and surprising grace notes of flowers and dried fruit. We evaluated numerous gratifying variations of this cup from several roasters that we ranked sturdily in the 89 to 91 range. Fairly priced, constantly with some little sensory surprise concealed amongst the more familiar aromatics, these are exceptional options for daily drinking, particularly when they remain in season from roasters, usually spring and early summer season in the global north.

For two particularly great renditions of the design, see our reviews here of the cocoa- and floral-toned Big Creek Rwanda Rulindo Tumba (94 ) and the similarly deep, chocolaty and floral Kakalove Rwanda Akagera CWS (93 ), the latter complicated by a shimmer of tart citrus.

Coffees of the Akagera Project in Nyaruguru District, Rwanda, in various stages of the drying process. Courtesy of Kakalove Cafe.

Coffees of the Akagera Project in Nyaruguru District, Rwanda, in different stages of the drying procedure. Thanks To Kakalove Cafe. Many coffees from the Great Lakes origins are produced from variations of Bourbon-derived ranges long grown in the area. It may not be fanciful to relate the sweet-savory, floral and cocoa propensities of Rwanda and Burundi coffees in particular to this Bourbon heritage. When it comes to processing, many mills in the Great Lakes region, as well as in Kenya, practice an especially complex version of the cleaned process, in which freshly skinned fruit is very first subject to a ferment action without any added water (” dry “ferment), then cleaned, then fermented a 2nd time with tidy water added to the tank, prior to being cleaned still once again. The effect of these treatments on the sensory design of these coffees has not, to my understanding, been systemically examined and even much gone over, however I would guess that these practices may have something to do with the local propensity to low-toned yet deeply revealed intricacy.

The Potato Defect

Rwanda coffees, in specific, are haunted by this taint– the abrupt, disconcerting aroma and taste of raw potato. Obviously, the flaw is triggered by bacteria (Pantoea coffeiphila) introduced under the skin of the coffee fruit through a types of stinkbug called antestia. The bacteria cause a substance to develop around the bean that produces the effective and remarkable raw potato taste. A single fully potato-tainted bean can spoil a whole brew batch. Incredibly, amongst the 60-some coffees we tested from areas impacted by the taint, we faced no full-on potato cups, as we call them. This is a homage to careful farm management and to mindful assessment of freshly cleaned coffee. Beans carrying this taint evidently can be determined just by visual examination when the coffee is still in its damp parchment, fresh from washing, and the tainted beans need to be picked off the drying tables by hand, one by one.

Effect of Alternative Processing Methods

Like coffee producers all over the world, many mills in the Great Lakes regions are explore alternative processing approaches. The goal is to distinguish their coffees from the local wet-processed standard I described earlier and to attract more attention and higher rates from buyers. Real, the Great Lakes producers do not appear to be taking as numerous processing shots in the dark as their equivalents are performing in Central America and elsewhere. We had no samples whatsoever processed using the experimental anaerobic ferment techniques increasingly popular in Latin America and Ethiopia. (See our May 2021 report, Fun With Ferment: Anaerobically Processed Coffees.)

We did test many natural-processed samples, however (beans are dried in the entire fruit), and a handful of honey-processed coffees (the skin of the fruit is removed however at least a few of the sticky fruit flesh is allowed to dry on the beans). The Great Lakes naturals we evaluated struck me as rather conventional offered their processing approach. They tended to aim unapologetically for the big-time sweet fruit and chocolate capacity of the method. We review here two of the successes, the Rwanda Kinini Village Natural from PT’s Coffee (94; juicy sweet, blueberry pie) and the Rwanda Dukunde Kawa from Black Oak Coffee (93; dark chocolate, crisp and fragrantly cedary).

Sorting cherries for the Long Miles Coffee Project in Kayanza State, Burundi. Thanks To Oliver Stormshak. If the drying is not dealt with well with honey coffees, profiles can end rather rough, even moldy. The two honey-processed samples we evaluate here were particularly elegant examples of the style. The Olympia Coffee Burundi Mikuba Honey (93)is round, balanced and crisply sweet, with subtly initial aromatics (spicy flowers, apricot). The really light-roasted Mamechamame Coffee Rwanda Simbi (93) is lightly tart and delicately vigorous with pomegranate ideas.

The Roast Card

The majority of coffees we check throughout a year are light-medium to medium in roast, showing each private roaster’s personally calibrated goal of totally developing the character of the bean while leaving behind neither a disruptive scorchy edge nor the grassy, nutty hints of an underdeveloped roast. This month, however, we evaluate one effective darker roast, the Valverde Burundi Kinyovu (92; sweetly roast-toned, roundly pungent and chocolaty), and one extremely light roast, the Mamechamame Rwanda Simbi (kept in mind above, brisk and sweetly tart).

The Tanzania Exception

Tanzania, the big country south of Kenya, surrounding Rwanda and Burundi on the west and the Indian Ocean on the east, is a producer that, unlike its northern neighbors Kenya and Ethiopia, has actually never rather broken into the specialized coffee big time. It is blessed with a variety of outstanding coffee terroirs and big plantings of standard, discreetly distinct Bourbon-related ranges of Arabica. It also takes advantage of a strange marketing benefit (or maybe limitation) bestowed on it by coffee tradition. “Tanzania peaberry” is an approximate sort of specialized coffee “brand name.”

The landscape surrounding Sambewe AMCOS Cooperative in Songwe Region, Mbozi District, Tanzania. Courtesy of Cafe Imports. Peaberries, of course, are a grade of coffee produced everywhere that coffee is grown, yet for reasons that are not entirely clear, Tanzania is particularly connected with its peaberry grades. Simply put, all coffee origins produce peaberries, however of all coffee-producing nations of the world only Tanzania appears to be particularly related to them. In the early days of specialty coffee,” Tanzania peaberry “was a requirement, nearly requisite offering in specialized stores, and it continues to appear on specialized coffee menus and sites, though with less frequency than it once did.

The nursery at Sambewe AMCOS Cooperative in Songwe Region, Mbozi District, Tanzania. Thanks To Cafe Imports.

We evaluate one Tanzania peaberry this month, an excellent one, the Volcanica Tanzania Peaberry (94 ). It was produced in northern Tanzania, toward the border with Kenya, and maybe because of that its suave balance and juicy character are rather Kenya-like, with aromatics built around pungent fruit (black currant, pink grapefruit) and rich flowers. The other impressive Tanzania we evaluate, likewise a cleaned coffee, the Lexington Tanzania Sambewe (94 ), is high-toned, richly juicy and sweetly brilliant. If neither of these profiles quite sound like the rounder, more savory Great Lakes profile I generalized about previously, it is because Tanzania is a bit of a coffee world apart. We include its usually brighter, higher-toned coffees here for expediency (otherwise Tanzania tends to get excluded of our reports), and for its geography, because much of its long western border runs through or beside the coasts of 2 of the best of the Great Lakes, Tanganyika and Malawi.

Nevertheless, just like other origins we highlight in this report, Tanzania producers, often smallholders arranged in cooperatives or operating in cooperation with a mill, are deserving of our attention and assistance– as are all of the farmers, mill operators and their exporter, aid company and roaster partners who are hectic raising the coffee societies of the Great Lakes area from anonymity to difference.

This post was inspired by the article at Coffee Review, a website specializing in coffee reviews, espresso ratings, informative articles, and coffee blogs written by coffee experts.

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