Rwandan Coffee's Success Story

The roastery's been abuzz as of late with the first coffee to be released in our 2012 Reserve Line, an offering from the Hinga Kawa Women's co-operative in Rwanda. There's been trial roasting, sipping, swigging, talking and tweaking aplenty. We are thrilled with the resulting fine and unique cup, and we'll talk more about that later, but we can't talk about this coffee without talking about what an important social project it represents – for us, for the families of Hinga Kawa, and for you.

First, a little history. Until very recently nearly all Rwandan coffee was low-grade Arabica intended for the commodity market. Under Belgian colonial government, farmers were required to plant coffee trees for high-volume low-quality production. As the sole purchaser of these small producers’ coffee, the Belgian colonial government dictated the buying price, paying the farmers a pittance while they prospered. After the global market price for coffee crashed in the 1980s, and in the economic and social devastation following the genocide in 1994, the struggling industry collapsed completely. In recent years , Rwanda has been touted as a striking example of how specialty-grade coffee can be used as a cash crop to raise the income and improve the quality of life of rural farmers. Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for 90% of its population, the majority of those surviving through subsistence farming. In a country with a population of about a million, an estimated 400,000 of whom are small-scale coffee farmers, the potential impact of the specialty coffee market was enormous and obvious.

Today things look very different than in the commodity-market past, in part because of a US AID-funded initative called SPREAD (Sustaining Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development). You can learn more about the impact of this important project here [http://video.arcgis.com/watch/471/grounds-for-change]. The video is definitely worth watching, but at its core is a description of the strategy to improve the economies and entrepreneurship of rural agrarian communities through high-value coffee. Rwanda has always had the potential to produce great coffee – fertile land, high altitude, good annual rainfall levels, and a majority of coffee plants that bear the highly sought-after and delicious Bourbon varietal of Arabica coffee. The problem has historically been in the processing - the step that converts coffee cherries to the final green bean product purchased by roasters.

Communal washing stations have tapped Rwandan coffee’s potential and have been a crucial ingredient to the success of Rwanda's efforts to tap into the specialty coffee market. These washing stations are a means of processing coffee cherries, separating immature or defective beans, and washing the stripped coffee so it does not over-ferment, thus ruining the taste. This has allowed an unprecedented level of quality to be achieved. The benefits of farmers producing higher-quality coffee and thus being paid a higher price for their coffee are many and varied. Aside from the direct economic benefits to the community – improved access to health care and education, improved food security, creation of new infrastructure - there are also important social benefits to the lives of individuals and to the health of communities in Rwanda. Reconciliation and collaboration is at an all-time high within communities haunted by past horrors of the genocide. As the people work together they are drawn together in a spirit of community and co-operation; the divisions between them become blurred.

When we first heard about the Hinga Kawa co-operative, we wanted the chance to work with them for so many reasons. We saw a chance to really work together on the issues of social justice, equality and community we hold so dear. This co-op is part of the Café Femenino network, which describes itself as “an ambitious project created to connect and empower female coffee growers in origin countries that have traditionally offered few rights to women”. Read more about their important work here: [http://www.cafefemenino.com/]. The co-op is made up of members of the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, who have decided to overcome the violence of the past and work together to make poverty their mutual enemy.

It is also the first year of their transition to certified-organic farming practices, a challenging time. They must cope with decreased yield, weakened resistance to pests and disease, plants dependent on chemical fertilizer adjusting to healthy soil as their sole means of nutrition, all without the benefit of the premium they will be able to charge for certified organic designation once the transition is complete. A portion of all the roasted coffee we sell (above and beyond the price we paid for the green coffee) will be donated to Café Femenino. This was really a project we all wanted to put ourselves behind and we knew our customers would too.

But there remained one important question: how does it taste?

Finding the best way to tap a coffee’s hidden potential is always one of our favorite parts of the job as roasters. All sorts of intense and unusual flavors and aromas came out when we first began trial-roasting this coffee, and we were excited by its unique taste and thick syrupy body, carried through by a brilliant acidity. Early efforts yielded such descriptors as cranberries, pecans, and “pineapple and coconut – it’s like a pina colada in coffee form!”

In the roasting profile we eventually settled on, this is a rich, bright and complex coffee, with enough development to smooth and sweeten its acidic notes. It will deliver to your tongue, like a chorus of caffeinated angels, notes of blackberries and pecans with a smooth, long lasting vanilla-bean and toffee finish. The aftertaste lingers like a good-bye kiss, carried by a cranberry-lemon acidity that has some zing without being sharp, like a quick-witted friend too good-natured to be cruel.

We hope you enjoy it. We sure do. Cheers!

Regards from the roastery,

Ananda Kavanagh