Coffee Bean Origin Series: Burundi

Author: Michael

Michael Wang
Jul 11 · 7 min read

This series stemmed from our hobby: coffee.


Coffee can be a polarizing subject. In Asia (where most of our team members live), coffee has a long history of being made poorly and conveniently, and, above all, cheaply. For many people, coffee was simply liquid fuel, something that got their gears going in the morning. It wasn’t supposed to taste good. Most of our parents didn’t drink craft coffee back in the days and we had little exposure to it growing up. Most of the time, we just order our first cup of coffee black because it was the cheapest drink on the menu.

Thankfully, for the past 10 years, independent roasters and cafes have been thriving, and it has become a lot easier to sample coffee made with high-quality beans from around the globe and brewed on any of several different devices. Unfortunately, the coffee world uses a lot of jargon, and the industry has a reputation for snobbery. On the journey of exploring the full body of coffee knowledge, we found that there is a lot of misinformation out there. From the perspective of “non-professionals”, we are here to provide what we have learn so far. We will start with the regions of production.


Africa

While Ethiopia is commonly recognized as the birthplace of coffee, significant coffee crops are also grown in central and eastern Africa. Each country has its own particular techniques and varieties, creating a diverse selection.


Bururi Region, Burundi

BURUNDI

Tasting Profile: berry-fruit acidity, caramel sweetness, aroma of spice
Beans Profile: mainly Bourbon, farmer washed and fully washed
Population (2018 Estimation): 11,844,520
Number of 60kg Bags in 2018: 200,000 (100% Arabica)

HISTORY

Burundi is a small country in Central-East Africa bordered by Tanzania, Rwanda, Congo, and Lake Tanganyika. Burundi gained its independence from Belgium in 1962 as the Kingdom of Burundi, but the monarchy was overthrown in 1966 and a republic established. Political violence and non-democratic transfers of power have marked much of its history; Burundi’s first democratically elected president, a Hutu, was assassinated in October 1993 after only 100 days in office. The internationally brokered Arusha Agreement, signed in 2000, and subsequent ceasefire agreements with armed movements ended the 1993–2005 civil war. Burundi’s second democratic elections were held in 2005. Pierre NKURUNZIZA was elected president in 2005 and 2010, and again in a controversial election in 2015. Burundi continues to face many economic and political challenges.

LOCATION

Burundi (Source: Wikipedia)

COFFEE GROWING IN BURUNDI

The Kingdom of Burundi (also known as the Kingdom of Urundi) was created in the early 17th century and was ruled by monarch. The king owned the title of Mwami. European missionaries and explorers arrived in 1856, and from the late 19th century until its independence in 1962, Burundi was tossed around like a hot potato by different European entities, including Germany, Belgium, and the League of Nations. In 1899, Burundi became a part of German East Africa despite king Mwezi IV Gisabo’s efforts to resist European influence. In 1916, the Belgium military occupied the territory of Ruanda-Urundi (which included current-day Burundi) during World War I, and in 1922, the League of Nations mandated the territory to Belgium. There were 3 major races in Burundi: Hutu (80%), Tutsi (20%), and Twa (a Pygmy people, 1%). Hutu and Tutsi speak the same language, share many cultural characteristics, with traditional differences being occupational: Hutu were often farmers, and Tutsi were mostly cattle herders.

Coffee then came to Burundi in the 1920s under Belgian colonial rule, and from 1933 every peasant farmer (mostly Hutu) had to cultivate at least 50 coffee trees. In the same year, Belgian colonial government exacerbated racial tension between Hutu and Tutsi by requiring Burundi people to carry an identity card for tribal ethnicity. The several droughts in early 1940s that eventually led to the Ruzagayura famine of 1943–1944 caused the estimated deaths of 1/3 to 1/5 of Burundi’s population, and a large migration of Burundians to neighboring Belgian Congo. The move further escalated the racial tension between Hutu and Tutsi.

When Burundi gained full independence in 1962, coffee production went private. This changed again in 1972. In 1972, an uprising in Burundi by Hutu people against the Tutsi-dominated government turned into massacre. The Tutsi-dominated Burundian Army conducted a genocide, killing more than 200,000 Hutus (mostly educated, especially those wearing glasses) and dispatching more than 300,000 Hutus. In 1976, the State took control of all coffee fields and production, plummeting both quality and quantity. Coffee started returning to the private sector after the first Hutu president, Melchoir Ndadaya, was elected in 1993, but the recovery almost stalled after his assassination three months after he was sworn into office. In retaliation, Hutu peasants began killing Tutsis, leading to a decade of ethic conflict and civil war, but the land also continued to flow back to private coffee field smallholders in retribution.

A peace agreement was signed in 2003 and in 2005, Pierre Nkurunziza, a formal Hutu rebel leader, was elected President of Burundi. Since then, efforts have been made to increase both production and the value of coffee in Burundi. Investment in the industry is seen as crucial, as Burundi’s economy has been shattered by conflict. In 2011, Burundi had one of the lowest per capita income in the world with 90% of the population relying on subsistence agriculture. Coffee and tea exports combined make up approximately 40% of the totally foreign exchange earnings (coffee is 23%, tea is 16%, with gold export taking up about 23%). Coffee production is recovering but has not yet reached the levels of the early 1980s. After years of conflict, there are no coffee estates in Burundi. Instead, there are 600,000–800,000 coffee farmers (mostly smallholders, with an average plot size of 0.12 hectares and 200 trees) replying on the crop. Recently these producers have become more organized, usually centering around one of the 283 washing stations (as of 2018) and 8 dry mills in the country. Before 2008, most washing stations were under state ownership, but a World Bank project in 2008 led the privatization of Burundi’s coffee sector which made it possible for private companies and cooperatives to own washing stations and dry mills that had previously been owned by the state. Currently, 1/3 of these washing stations have went private. Within each region, these stations are grouped together into SOGESTALs (Société de Gestion des Stations de Lavage), which are effectively management organizations for groups of washing stations. Development of quality in recent years has been directed through these organizations. A $55 million World Bank-funded coffee project, Coffee Sector Competitiveness Support Project, which began in 2016, improved production by over 15% between 2016 and 2018 by giving farmers subsidies for fertilizers and insecticides, grants for bicycles, training, and motorcycles and vehicles to agronomists.

GEOGRAPHY

Burundi’s geography is well suited to coffee. Much of it is mountains, providing the necessary altitudes (1200–2000 meters) and climates. The harvest usually runs from March to July. The coffees from Burundi are fully washed and usually made up of the Bourbon variety, though other varieties are grown. In many ways, there are similarities between Burundi and its neighbor Rwanda: the countries have similar altitude and coffee varieties, and both face the challenges of being landlocked, which can hinder the rapid export necessary for raw coffee to arrive in the consuming countries in good condition. As in Rwanda, coffees in Burundi are also susceptible to the potato defect.

PROCESSING AND TRADING

The washing stations and dry mills are concentrated in the Northern and Central provinces. Until recently, the coffees from all the washing stations within each SOGESTAL were blended together. This meant that coffees exported from Burundi were only traceable back to their SOGESTAL, which is effectively their region of origin.

In 2008, Burundi began the embrace the specialty coffee sector, allowing more direct and traceable purchasing. Burundi also embraces a unique washed process that “double fermented/double washed” its coffees. During the process, cherry is first floated in a bucket or concrete basin to skim off underripe coffee (which are called the “floaters”). Then the cherry is depulped and dry-fermented for 12–24 hours where it sits in a tank; followed by being washed in channels (with different quality coffees going into different tanks based on density). Finally, it will be wet-fermented/soaked for another 12 hours before being put on raised beds for sorting and drying for the next 10–20 days depending on the weather. These extra efforts result in exceptionally clean and tasty cups. Since 2011, a coffee quality competition, called the Prestige Cup, has been held in Burundi. It is a precursor to the more established Cup of Excellence. The lots from individual washing stations were kept separate and ranked on quality, then they were sold at auction with their traceability intact.

Burundi is quickly gaining a reputation of producing outstanding coffee. Coffees from Burundi offer bright stone fruit note, juicy acidity, and silky body.

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