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Despite being one of the top 30 coffee producing countries in the world, you tend to hear very little about Rwanda coffee. They are relatively new to the specialty coffee scene and have had to power through some pretty major setbacks. Nonetheless, the geo-climatic conditions of this beautiful country are perfect high-quality coffee growth.
So, why are we just now hearing about them? Read on for the full scoop on Rwandan coffee from some of our top bean picks to an explanation of their past, present, and future Java outlook.
Wandering into Rwanda
Rwandan coffee, like the country it is from, is known for its depth and complexity.
In 2018, they produced 33,069,000 pounds of green coffee beans, and nearly 100% of that sum was exported, making it Rwanda’s number one export. It accounts for more than 24% of the country’s exports.
However, you don’t see it as much because a large portion of Rwanda’s exports are actually sent to Japan, much like Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, making it seem more scarce in other markets. Plus, overall it only accounts for less than 1% of the total coffee produced globally.
Also, Rwanda’s coffee production wasn’t always this high or lucrative. In 2000, specialty coffee accounted for 0% of their crops, leaving only low-grade coffee beans. But, by 2017, that number jumped to 52% and is projected to continue to increase until it reaches more than 80% in 2020.
Now, 95% of their crop is the highly respected Bourbon Arabica coffee plant. And, under the right conditions, that plant produces a great, high-quality bean.
Best Rwandan Coffee
Westrock Coffee Company Rwanda Select Reserve
First up, we have a premium, Fair Trade, 100% Arabica option from Westrock Coffee co. This Arkansa based company got their start in promoting sustainable farming in Rwanda through their Agribusiness Training Program. Now they’ve expanded their sustainable practices to reach the coffee industries of 21 countries.
These dark roasted beans brew a rich, dark bodied cup. It has a smoky cedar flavor with hints of black currant and a citrus aroma. In addition to being Fair Trade certified, this company also uses Direct Trade practices to ensure that their beans are being ethically sourced.
This also allows them to create more hands-on relationship with the farmers who are producing the crops, fostering an environmentally and socially sustainable cycle.
Cubico Coffee Rwanda Kopakaki Coffee
From the Karongi District in Western Rwanda, Cubico Coffee offers their Kopakaki coffee, grown by a small farmer cooperative. The beans are freshly small-batch roasted, which you can check with the date and roasters signature on each bag.
These Arabica beans are a medium, City roast and produce a full-bodied brew with notes of black tea and limeade with a winey finish
Teasia Coffee Rwanda Single-Origin
Teasia’s Rwandan coffee is another single-origin, sustainably sourced, 100% Arabica offering. These beans are grown by Lake Kivu around 5,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level. The beans are wet-processed and medium-dark roasted at an artisanal roaster.
The brew has a rich, deep finish with clean bright flavors. You can expect notes of dark chocolate under a pleasant caramel aroma. They are packaged within 24 hours of being roasted, so you can count on freshness.
Heavy body with deep berry tones, with hints of mandarin orange, stone fruit (such as peach and apricot) and subtle hints of spice. light roast.
AmazonFresh Light Roast Rwandan
Next up we have a light roast coffee from AmazonFresh. Now, we know what you are thinking, but honestly, this coffee isn’t too shabby.
This one is also 100% Arabica and it’s a single-origin direct trade. The fresher the beans, the more satisfying the cup. Their coffees are fresh roasted and packaged, then sent directly to you through Amazon. These beans brew a delicate cup with pleasant, citrus notes. You can enjoy that under a nice, rich aroma.
If you want your coffee to taste a bit stronger, go for a slightly finer grind than usual with these beans. Additionally, you could up the coffee to water ratio a bit to achieve your preferred strength.
Starbucks Reserve Coffee Rwanda
In the past, Starbucks has offered several different high-quality Rwandan coffees through their reserve program. Some of the more recent ones have been Abakundakawa (February 2018), Hingakawa (March 2019), and Muhondo (June 2019).
All of these are small batch roasted and sourced from small farmers. Additionally, they are all fully washed bourbon variety beans, and the line has received consistently high ratings. So next time you are at your local shop, keep an eye out for a Rwandan Reserve coffee.
Rwandan Coffee Growing Regions
Across the board, Rwandan growing regions tend to have nice, high-altitudes with nitrogen-rich volcanic soil. Still, there are five main areas for coffee production: Virunga, Kivu, Kizi Rift, Akagera, and Muhazi.
Additionally, the main districts across Rwanda that participate in the coffee industry are Gakenke, Rutsiro, Karongi, Nyamasheke, Nyagatare, Kamonyi, Kayonza, Ngoma, Kirehe, Nyamagabe, and Huye.
Within these areas you can still detect a lot of variety and complexity, so it is difficult to pin down any specific regional profiles.
What Makes it Special?
First up, to understand the coffee, you need to know where and how it is grown. The Rwandan coffee that is gaining global recognition for its high quality is generally from on farms located on mountainsides between 5200 and 6500 feet above sea level.
However, the bulk of the farms are still located in the 4,000 to 6,000 feet range. The high altitudes, volcanic soil, plentiful sunlight and equatorial mists favor Arabic growth. The plants flower in September and October, and they are processed from March to July.
In Rwanda, the vast majority of the coffee is fully wet processed. This is a more recent development in the coffee industry there but is largely responsible for the increase in production volume and quality.
Unlike in other parts of the world, these washing stations are not linked to massive coffee estates to process everything in house. Instead, these washing stations cater to a number of smaller farmers who often grow coffee in addition to other crops.
The process is also referred to as fully washed or double washed. It involves soaking the beans twice, and is much more widespread in Africa than it is in other regions such as Latin America.
Wet processing is best suited for complex flavor profiles and is responsible for the noticeably clean, bright and fruity notes that Rwandan coffee is now known for.
The favorable climate plus the high-quality processing makes for some seriously delicious coffee. Across the board you can expect a rich, creamy body with a buttery overtone and caramel aftertaste. As far as flavor, your tastebuds will delight in the bright, citrusy flavors accompanied by floral or fruit notes.
On top of that baseline, Rwandan coffees often introduce several layers of complexity. So you could be surprised with anything from notes of clove or cinnamon to nuttiness and white chocolate. You may even detect some dates or plum notes. Plus, on top of it all, the aroma carries hints of orange blossom and lemon.
Once upon a time, in 1904 German missionaries introduced coffee plants to the beautiful, vibrant country of Rwanda. But from there, things were far from a fairy tale. Growth of the plant was slow and even when the industry picked up in the 1930’s under the exploits of Belgian colonialists, it was mainly high-volume, low-grade coffee production.
Decades of European influence in Rwanda ultimately led to the destabilization of the sociopolitical system there, and served as the catalyst for the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In the span of just 100 days, 800,000 people were murdered and over 250,000 women were raped.
Unsurprisingly, this event led to the collapse of much of the economic and infrastructural systems in place, including those driving the production of one of Rwanda’s primary cash crops: coffee.
Following the tragedy of the Genocide, there was a need for not only rebuilding but also for improvement. The coffee industry was no exception. As the country looked towards the future, they also aimed to rebuild a a better, quality focused production system that, with the rise of the Third Wave Coffee movement, could prove more lucrative for their economy.
Organizations such as the Partnership for Enhancing Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL), and Sustainable Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprises and Agricultural Development (SPREAD; directed by the founder and CEO of World Coffee Research Dr. Timothy Schilling), assisted in this process.
Over the last decade, Rwanda’s coffee industry has become an impressive economic force. The country has become the ninth largest producer of Arabica coffee. There are over 450,000 small-scale farms and coffee is now the country’s fourth largest export.
While there is definitely still a lot of room to grow and recover, the beautiful, impressive country has much to offer, especially when it comes to coffee.
Despite some of the challenges that come with developing a coffee industry, the outlook for Rwanda’s coffee industry is overall quite positive (despite what the abysmal coverage by Western media outlets would leave you to believe). Over the past two decades it has seen an incredible amount of growth alongside the growing stability and success in other areas of the country.
In addition to the growing focus on specialty coffee, there is also a push to grow coffee culture within the country. As we mentioned earlier, pretty much all of the coffee that Rwanda produces is exported.
So, recent efforts by organizations such as the National Agricultural Exports Board (NAEB) are moving to teach farmers and locals how to brew their country’s primary crop at home. That way they can also appreciate the quality of their products.
How to Buy
Because of the challenges that their coffee industry and country as a whole have faced, the best buying practices for coffee in general apply especially strongly to Rwandan products. You may have noticed that a lot of big names in coffee like Volcanic and Coffee Bean Direct, don’t have coffees from this region.
The coffees we have listed above are some of the more easily accessible ones available that still aim to ethically source their products. However, for many Rwandan coffees, you are going to have to buy a bit more directly from smaller companies and do a little digging to make sure they are exploiting their workers.
Keep an eye out for sustainability programs and certifications such as Fair Trade and Direct Trade. While these systems aren’t perfect, they do generally indicate some attempt to encourage socially and environmentally sustainable practices. Both facets are incredibly important to the future success of the Rwanda coffee industry.
How to Brew
Now that you know how to source your Rwandan coffee, let’s talk about how you should brew it when it arrives.
The two most popular method are espresso and drip brewing (pour overs). You are going to come across a variety of different roasts and profiles, so take those into consideration when deciding on how to make the brew.
If you opted for a darker roast with stronger, richer overtones, go ahead and reach for your tamper and espresso machine to pull a shot. On the other hand, if you are working with something with more delicate, intricate notes, then go for a Chemex or other pour over tool to maximize the flavor.
There you have it! Rwanda might be small, but their coffee is a big deal. If you are looking for a coffee that will surprise you with it’s depth or a region that has enough variety for any tastebuds, you should definitely be looking at Rwanda.
From the optimal growing conditions to the wet-processing, these beans have a lot going for them. Plus, the commitment both at a local and national level to producing quality coffee effectively boosts the success of the industry.
As always, remember to look for ethically sourced coffee. Labels such as Fair and Direct trade are great, but you should also do some beyond surface-level sleuthing into whatever coffee company that you are looking into.
Despite the lack of coverage and recognition, this coffee deserves to be seen and appreciated both domestically and internationally. So keep an eye out because this coffee and country will probably surprise you.
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