This week our coffee origins in focus series takes us to the Burundi which is in the East of Africa. It is a small nation with a big personality in speciality coffee terms, renowned for producing fruity and delicious beans. Let’s learn more about it together!
East Africa is an area renowned for its special small-batch farms and cooperatives. But there is more to this expansive area than the big-hitters in Ethiopia and Kenya, as we’re about to find out. Smaller countries like Rwanda and Burundi are important markers on the coffee buyer’s roadmap, even more-so now than ever before.
Let’s start by getting one thing straight about coffee production in East Africa. When we talk about small-batch production we mean it. You could combine the output all of the region’s main growers (from Tanzania up to Ethiopia) and still only make around half of Brazil’s annual production, even with two of the world’s coffee wonders Kenya and Ethiopia. What it may lack in quantity is almost always supplemented with excellent quality, and Burundi is no different.
Burundi is the world’s 31st most prolific coffee grower, according to Afrika News. Around 600,000 farming families contribute to the country’s 260,000 bags (60kgs) that are produced each year, and many of them trade as part of a cooperative which is common in most African countries. Coffee makes up more than a third of its exports at 34% with gold a distant second (25%).
Life can be tough in Burundi, in part thanks to dense overpopulation, there are over 11 million people within its land-locked borders that stretch around an area just 27,834 km2. This is the same amount of space as the land devoted to coffee cultivation alone in Brazil! The ratio of Burundian’s who work in agriculture is very high compared to other industries at around 90%, which makes coffee all the more important to the country’s wealth and social mobility.
The Climate In Burundi
Burundi is small, so small that you may struggle to spot in on a map of Africa at first glance. It is nestled in off of the east coast, in between Tanzania and DRC. Its neighbour to the north, Rwanda, is also very small and produces equally excellent speciality coffees. Could the clue to this be in its geography? Almost certainly.
Firstly, it is Equatorial which means plenty of sunlight all year round and coffee plants love that, especially the varieties grown in Burundi (more on that later). The country lies on a rolling plateau in the middle of Africa with an average elevation around 1,700 masl, this is key. Check out our article on why elevation is important to speciality coffee production and you’ll understand why. While the more vast landmasses of Tanzania and DRC are capable of higher outputs, they are unlikely to yield coffee that’s on par with Burundi or Rwanda in terms of quality.
Like other Equatorial countries with good elevation, Burundi has a tropical climate. The lowlands around the border can be very hot, while the temperatures on the elevated savannahs are cooler (around 23℃). Unlike most other tropical regions, Burundi experience two periods of prolonged rainfall throughout the year, a short one from September to November, and again from February until May. The higher regions where coffee is predominantly grown also experience more rainfall than other parts of the country, where drought is an inherent threat to farming.
So, with plenty of sunshine and two wet-seasons, Burundi appears to be an Arabica farmer’s dream! Let’s look closer at coffee production in this region...
Burundi Coffee Production
The majority of coffee production takes place in the north of Burundi, especially around the border with Rwanda. Altitudes in the main regions can very anywhere between 1,700 masl and 2,200 masl. This is conducive to stable and favourable climates, and also nutrient rich volcanic soils that are full of nitrogen - arabica plants love this.
Most farmers produce small-batches grown on land areas that can cover less than even 1 hectare. These micro-lots are then taken to bigger processing stations where they are often washed and traded under a cooperative. So, when you see a region such as ‘Ngozi’ listed on the bag label, the chances are that is the appellation where the main washing station is located, and the green beans will have come from a collection of small-holdings around the region.
With a lack of land available for growing, it is important for farmers to get the most value from their yields. Meticulous sorting is vital to the health of coffee production in Burundi to help ensure that the very best beans are sold at the price they deserve. That same level of love and care is given to the processing which is often similar to the Kenyan style of washing (sometimes twice) and drying on raised beds.
Burundi is famed for growing two main varietals; Bourbon and Jackson. The latter is a hybrid of Bourbon found mostly in this region of Rwanda and Burundi. Coffee-buyers and even everyday coffee-lovers will know that bourbon varieties tend to have excellent natural sweetness and brightness, that will only be enhanced by Burundi’s favourable tropical climate and consistent rainfall.
Another similarity between Burundi and its neighbour Rwanda is what’s known as the ‘potato defect’, which still affects some of its coffees. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to have tasted it you’ll know it can ruin a brew. This article from Intelligentsia coffee helps to explain exactly what this is. The important thing to bear in mind is that it only affects coffees from Central Africa and it’s perfectly safe, it just doesn’t taste nice at all!
Coffee is usually harvested around what is spring time for us in the northern hemisphere between March and August, with most of the coffee being exported to Europe and the US.
What Does Burundi Coffee Taste Like?
Burundian speciality coffee follows the same profile as its closest neighbour, Rwanda, in being naturally bright and fruity. While Rwandan coffees tend to offer notes of black fruits with high acidity, Burundis can taste a little more tropical and refreshing, with a little more body. If you’re lucky enough to find a coffee from Burundi that has been naturally processed, you’ll get a little more earthiness that can make for a really funky cup (it’s a delicacy that you either love or loathe)!
You’ll most likely see speciality coffees from Burundi on the specials board or as a guest filter option in your local cafe due to the nature of them being micro-lots. With that in mind, any drop-filter method or even an Aeropress will deliver a brew from Burundi in its best form.
They’re also usually a little too refined in flavour to roast as a single-origin espresso, but can add depth and complexity to a blend - the high acidity can compliment good quality Brazilian beans for example.
Famous Regions: Ngozi, Karuzi, Muyinga
Common Varietals: Bourbon, Jackson
Common Processing Methods: Almost always fully-washed in shared stations
Growing Altitude: 1700-2300 masl
Flavour Notes: Bright citrus acidity with stoned fruits