Since February 2007, when Counter Culture first visited the country of Burundi, we knew this was a country on the brink of great things. The decades of strife and years of civil war that mirrored the horrific events of Rwanda haven’t been forgotten here, but a new era of reconciliation and rebuilding seems to budding quickly. Even the violence and turmoil that was still occurring back when we first visited in 2007 seems limited today. Part of the rebuilding is without question taking place in Burundi’s largest export, coffee.
In the past, the perception of Burundian coffee has been as commercial grade filler that commands bottom-of-the-market prices. The people from Burundi and outside aid agencies knew though that with high quality coffee varieties and remarkable altitude throughout the country, the coffee here had so much more potential. Realizing this potential and the possibility to improve the income of the 800,000 families involved in coffee, USAID and other organizations have put together plans to make sweeping changes. Training along with new techniques to improve picking, fermentation, drying, and even traceability to the producers have been implemented. It hasn't stopped there, though. Advocates of change along with the Burundian government are in the middle of changing the whole system of coffee.
This whole system change can be summed up in one word, privatization. This is the word in almost every conversation that has to do with Burundi and coffee. In very basic terms, the government has run almost everything coffee since the late 1970's. They controlled everything from the price the farmers get paid for their cherry, to the management of over 100 washing stations scattered throughout the country. It all has been under their leadership, and now the government is looking to pass the control to private investors. This means that all the washing stations are going to be sold, and businessmen and women are going to invest in the growing market. Producers will be able to receive premiums for their coffee, and hopefully friendly market competition will better the industry. There is so much to work out and make happen, but this a huge step and the government is looking to do much of this over the next 6 months. Keep your ears to the ground, because it is an exciting prospect, and things are going to happen quickly.
A very small glimpse of this happened this past year. One of our importing partners told us they had finally managed to ship a single washing station's production of super-high-quality coffee. They had been able to pay premiums to the farmers for it, and some of this coffee would be available to us. We were more than ecstatic. As many of you know, that coffee came from the washing station of Bwayi in Northern province of Kayanaza. Brimming with refined acidity, sweet fruit notes, and a delicate syrupy mouth feel, Bwayi has impressed almost everyone who has tried it. We were able to finally see what Burundi is capable of and looked forward to what the future was looking like. And, of course, a trip there was certainly in order.
Burundi: On the ground
Potential doesn’t even come close to describing this country, nor does simply saying that Burundi is beautiful. From the moment you step off the plane, there is a vibrancy coming from the people, the landscape, and the culture, and as much as you want and try to take in all at once, it is just impossible. Forgetting about the long flights to get there wasn't much of task; I would have happily traveled 10 times what I just had to be there. Waiting for morning to get going was going to be the hard part.
Well, first thing in the morning was without question visiting the washing station of Bwayi. With so many questions to be answered: how is the coffee processed, what kind of systems and techniques are in place, and is Bwayi going to be the right partner for Counter Culture in the future? Bwayi was where my journey would start. Driving there was an experience in itself. The streets are full of people and bicycles. The women walking along the roads wore the most beautiful and brightly colored clothing I had seen in any country before. There was a constant procession of people coming to and from the tiny villages hidden among the rolling hills of coffee, tea, and banana trees. Just by driving I got even greater insight of the coffee producers here, as well.
In much of Africa smallholder farmers are who we work with, and many times they produce some of the greatest coffees in the world, but until you see the small plots of land for yourself it is hard visualize. Driving along the roads you see just the few hundred trees the producers grow here, on very tiny plots of land, in most cases just outside their house. These small producers were whom I was thinking of as I pulled up to the washing station of Bwayi.
Elias Ngendakumana, the production manager of the whole region of Kayanza, showed me around the washing station and described all the things they were working on through the help of USAID and others to help improve the coffee quality. One of the very first things implemented at Bwayi, and a few other washing stations in the area, was to use small water tanks to float out any insect damaged coffee beans. These concrete floatation tanks are the very first step for quality. Any cherries that float due to insect damage could potentially ruin an entire day's worth of coffee, so taking these beans out is essential. After using the new floatation tanks, all the unripe coffee beans, overripes, and any other damaged cherries that were not floated out, are hand sorted before being pulped. This further step of sorting the coffee makes these washing stations have some of the ripest cherry selection I have ever seen! Once sorted, the coffee is then pulped and fermented. This is yet another area where lots of experiments have been taking place.
Last year Bwayi, along with many other washing stations, changed from a double fermentation process similar to what we find in Kenya, to a single fermentation more akin to Central America. (It's not exactly like Central America, but close.) This year, however, they have tried both and are now in the process on trying to figure out which produces the higher quality. Also along the lines of innovation, Bwayi, along with a few other washing stations, is using new drying techniques on raised beds to help preserve the quality of the coffee longer.
Two things became very clear through talking with the people at Bwayi about all of these improvements. One was that Bwayi was very receptive to experimentation in the hopes of better quality. And, two, many of the washing stations around Bwayi have adapted these same practices all in the hope of producing better coffee. Which immediately begged the question, were there dozens of washing stations producing quality this high or maybe even better? I had to see this. I thanked Elias for showing me around Bwayi, took some samples of the coffee to taste later, and headed out to see six more washing stations that were all using these amazing practices to produce coffee.
Over the next two and half days, I bounced around the Northern part of Burundi, making my way from the Province of Kayanza to the Provinces of Ngozi, Muyinga, and Muramvya. The next washing station I visited was Kinyovu, followed by Rugerero, Ngogomo, Murambi, Kiryama, Gatare, and, last but not least, Teka. I had the opportunity to talk with many production managers about how positive things are looking, along with some struggles that the producers and washing stations are having. On the positive side of things, all of the washing stations have impeccable systems for coffee cherry selection.
One place that really impressed me was Kiryama, another washing station in Kayanza. Here I was able to talk a lot about the coffee and was given a clearer idea on some of things that producers struggle with. The production manager talked about how the number one issue for coffee in Burundi is the year to year, up and down nature of the harvest. He explained that last year had been a very successful year for coffee and the washing stations were receiving lots of cherry. This year however, most of the washing stations had received less than 50 percent of the coffee than they had in 2008. The producers at Kiryama explained that the coffee trees are in some cases 50 years old or more and are slowly losing productivity. In addition to the age of the trees, a very limited amount of fertilizer is applied. Those two factors are making very volatile swings in production. I was told that in the next year the government and other coffee experts will be putting much effort into the production of the trees, and, hopefully, things will get better.
I continued to learn much about the coffee here as I continued my travels. Every washing station I went to, I learned something new and was greeted by excited, enthusiastic people. I gathered samples from all of the washing stations as I went, and couldn’t wait to cup these all in the lab later in the week.
On the third day of visiting washing stations around the country, I was sad as I arrived at the last washing station of the trip, Teka. Teka is in the province of Muramvya, a province that borders the south of Kayanza. There, Cassien Nibaruta, the production manager of that region greeted me. At 1,938 meters Teka is one of the highest altitude washing stations in the country and has received high marks for their quality. Right from the start I got the impression that Cassien is a very forward-thinking individual. He talked a lot about the fermentation of the coffee and asked what Counter Culture thought produced the best results. He also described how advanced the lot separation is now for many of the washing stations, including Teka. Every single day the washing station is open, they document every producer who brings them coffee cherry and how much that producer brought. On top of that, every single day of production is kept separate, so in the future good lots can be separated from lots that don't meet the highest of standards. Potential microlots could even come out of this system, but the focus this year is keeping it simple and trying to get the best cumulative lot possible. From the talk of quality separation Cassien also talked about partnerships on how this washing station in particular is very interested in having a partner that can work with them over the next few years to keep improving the quality of the coffee, and how valuable that input and communication is.
After such good conversation, I was dragging my feet at Teka, because I did not want to leave. After staying a little bit longer, I said my goodbyes to Cassien and the producers of Teka and headed back to Bujumbura for a day of cupping.
As with almost all things in coffee, the results in the cup would tell us the story. We would learn where to start and what road we need to take. Tasting these coffees would tell us whether or not the floatation of cherry is improving quality, what fermentation style is the best, or what drying technique will have the best results. Everything I had seen for the last five days really came down to this.
Just like the public tastings that we do at Counter Culture every Friday, I was cupping all 15 samples blind so my results would not be skewed. The first table I tasted had some really nice coffees. All of the samples had notes of tangy fruit, with a nice acidity, and round sweet aftertaste. It was one of the best groups of coffees I have tasted while in origin, no doubt. What I wasn't prepared for was the second table being even better. While a few of the samples didn't shine as much, with maybe slightly less complexity than we would hope for, three samples made my trip. These coffees were super sweet, bright, and crisp, with tropical fruit notes and a perfect finish. These three coffees were from the washing stations we want to work with.
After the cupping, I gathered my notes and looked at the sheet that told me where the coffees came from. As soon as I saw the results, I knew there was going to be a long road ahead, with possibly more work than ever before, but for these coffees it is clearly worth it. On that final note, I will leave you all in suspense as to which coffees Counter Culture will carry this coming year, as we work tirelessly to bring them in.