When we think of African coffee, we often think of Kenyan or Ethiopian coffee. But if we look beyond these two powerhouses, there are a whole plethora of coffee-growing African countries that are revolutionizing specialty coffee. One of these is Rwanda, a landlocked East African country, which is home to some exceptional coffee and is the 9th largest coffee producer in Africa.
Rwanda is a fairly small country with a population of 11 million and most of them are employed in agriculture, mostly subsistence farming and not cash crops. Coffee is a major cash crop here and the fertile soil, terraced hills, and temperate climate are all conducive to growing coffee. Also known as ‘the land of a thousand hills’, Rwanda has a higher elevation than most of its Equitorial neighbors which lends itself well to growing high-quality, high-altitude coffee.
Rwanda is a poor country and a cash crop like coffee provides people with hope for economic and social development. Coffee cultivation has come to be a symbol for a better future in Rwanda and a strong contender in the fight against poverty.
The History Of Coffee In Rwanda
Coffee is not native to Rwanda and the origin of coffee cultivation here can be traced back to German colonization.
The first coffee seeds entered the country with the arrival of German colonizers in 1904. Adoption of coffee cultivation was slow however and it didn’t reach commercial capacity till the 1930s when coffee cultivation was encouraged by the Belgians who entered after the Germans. The Belgian Colonial government encouraged widespread cultivation of coffee over large parts of the country. This gave rise to a system of high quantity, low quality coffee production that continued to plague Rwandan coffee production for decades.
Economic turmoil in the 1980s and political strife in the 90s culminating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide completely decimated coffee production in the country. If we talk about anything in Rwanda, including Rwanda coffee beans, we can’t escape the shadow of the 1994 genocide. An estimated 1/8th of the population was killed in the span of 100 days. The scars of this conflict run deep but subsequently, the government and the people have come together to rebuild from the ashes.
Coffee and tea production has been a major factor contributing to economic stability in Rwanda. Most coffee production in Rwanda is done on small farms and there are no big estates. This gives many people the opportunity to invest in coffee cultivation as a way to improve their livelihoods. There are around 400,000 small farmers and around 42,000 hectares under coffee cultivation in the country. Almost all Rwanda coffee beans are Arabica, and 95% of this Arabica crop is a Bourbon varietal.
The Rwandan government has invested heavily in moving towards quality-focused coffee production and in maintaining the integrity of Rwandan coffee varietals.
Characteristics Of Rwanda Coffee Beans
Now that we know the history behind the beans, let’s get down to practical matters- how does Rwandan coffee taste?
The most recognizable theme in Rwandan coffee beans is a creamy, rich body with a silky and almost buttery texture. After the initial creaminess, Rwandan coffee reveals delicious notes of citrus, fruitiness, and floral flavors. The notes of lemon and orange blossom work well with the floral flavors and settle into a sweet caramel aftertaste. The bright acidity of Rwandan coffee is often compared to Kenyan coffee.
Rwandan Bourbon varietals have distinct notes of sweet cane sugar mixed with spice flavors like cinnamon, allspice, and clove. The aroma is a floral rose scent and the aftertaste is buttery and creamy.
There is a range of fruity flavors in Rwanda coffee beans thanks to the climate of the country. Most farms sit at around 1700-2000 MASL, and this high-altitude contributes greatly to the complexity of flavors and bright acidity featured in Rwandan coffee.
Coffee Growing Regions In Rwanda
Most Rwandan coffee comes from the southern and western regions of the country. The western regions are more densely cultivated along with the capital region of Kigali. These areas constitute the coffee-growing hubs in Rwanda.
There are 5 distinct coffee cultivation zones overall:
- The volcanic region of Virunga (home to the iconic Silverback gorillas) in the north-west
- The Kivu region alongside Lake Kivu in the west
- The central Kizi Rift region
- Akagera in the south, known for its comparatively low altitude (1,300 MASL)
- Muhazi region in the east
The common theme between these regions is the high altitude and the nutrient-dense volcanic soil, rich in nitrogen. The Kivu region deserves a special mention for its fertile environment amidst nature reserves and particularly high altitude which produces coffee beans with complex flavors containing dessert-like notes of cacao, cherry, lime, and sweet orange. This makes it uniquely suited for brewing espresso and for drip brewing methods.
Processing Of Rwanda Coffee Beans
The traditional processing method in Rwanda is to individually process coffee on small farms and then mix it with neighboring farms. This whole system changed after the 1994 genocide when the government started to focus on building coffee processing infrastructure, particularly infrastructure geared towards fully wet-processed methods. There are now 245 wet processing stations across Rwanda, a huge leap forward for coffee processing in the country.
There are countless micro-lots of coffee produced each year and this investment in processing infrastructure has helped reduce the time spent between harvesting and delivering the final coffee product. Since a majority of coffee farms are very small, individual farmers cannot invest in washing stations by themselves. These community wet processing stations help small farmers process their coffee effectively and efficiently and ultimately help them get a fair price for their produce in a global market.
It’s worth noting that fully washed coffees are a little different from the usual wet processing where the coffee cherries are washed once. In fully washed coffee, the cherries are soaked twice. This method is common for African coffees but not something you would see with coffee from South and Central America.
Transporting coffee out of Rwanda is another major challenge. Historically after processing, Rwanda coffee beans would be transported to Kenya via Uganda. This is a long journey and by the time Rwandan coffee reaches European markets, there would be a significant decrease in freshness. Recent improvements in processing, storage, and shipping have made it easier for Rwandan farmers to get their coffee into wholesale markets.
Current Scenario For Rwandan Coffee
If there’s one outstanding feature of Rwandan coffee farmers, it has to be their resilience. After the horrors of the 90s, it would make sense for the local coffee market to cave in and simply die out. But the coffee farmers have remained tenacious and determined, driving the industry forward in the early decades of the new millennium.
The early 2000s saw the rapid development of the aforementioned co-op washing stations which was the biggest leap forward for small farmers. They could now process their own coffee and farmers using these washing stations saw their incomes double. Instead of focusing on high-volume cultivation, the hundreds of thousands of small farmers turned towards focusing on creating high value and high quality in their limited space.
Government and private funding have changed the earlier commodity-focused trading. Earlier, farmers would sell their semi-processed coffee to middlemen and there was a monopoly on exporting. Now, farmers process their own coffee and there is a larger pool of buyers for them to work with. This has helped drive prices up to a fair level and improved the lives of these farmers and their communities.
As a testament to their rise in specialty coffee, Rwanda held its first Cup of Excellence competition in 2008 to introduce more people to their outstanding Bourbon coffees.
Brewing Rwanda Coffee Beans
The delicate flavor of Rwandan coffee lends itself well to certain brewing methods over others. The best brewing method for Rwandan coffee is a filter brewing technique like pour-over or drip coffee.
Since the flavors are so delicate and complex, it doesn’t work well with intense brewing methods like the French Press. Gentler methods like pour-over draw out the complex flavors without over-extracting. When it comes to the roast level, a light or medium roast works best. Lighter roasts let the natural acidity of the coffee shine through and give you a bright cup. Medium roasts accentuate the creamy and rich body.
If you haven’t tried Rwandan coffee, it’s something you definitely need to add to your coffee bucket list. The unique history behind these beans, their delightful flavors, complex varieties, and sheer dedication of the coffee farmers make Rwandan coffee is a must-try.