The eastern sector of the continent of Africa has played a formidable role in shaping the history and charting the course of coffee production. Nowadays it is a region that’s packed with national parks but it is the hills and the mountains that helped to carve the region’s place in the global coffee community.
Ethiopia with its vast plateaus high above sea level is widely attributed as the birthplace of coffee cultivation, when a monk noticed his spritely goats were eating the cherries from a coffea arabica plant (just don’t tell the story to anyone in Yemen which has its own origin story in coffee). Then of course there is Kenya, which has traditionally been one of the first origins on the tip of people’s tongues when discussing coffee.
Nestled west across Lake Victoria and through the most northerly tip of Tanzania you’ll find Rwanda. The entire country is at a high altitude: the lowest point is the Rusizi River at 950 metres (3,117 ft) above sea level, which is very good for coffee cultivation. It is also a place of natural beauty dominated by mountains in the west and savanna to the east. The climate goes through wet and dry seasons, again like most coffee growing regions, with average temperatures reaching highs of 28℃ and lows of 15℃ throughout the year.
It is a country with a checkered history of turbulent times spent battling war and drought. Agriculture is the main source of income for its 11.2 million citizens with coffee and tea their primary exports.
Rwanda Coffee Production
Coffee has been cultivated in Rwanda for over a hundred years, with the first plants being introduced by human intervention (like most coffee growing origins). Back then it was colonial interests that lit the spark for coffee production in Rwanda, particularly from Belgium colonials. The country was part of German East Africa between 1884 and the end of the First World War when control was assumed by Belgian forces. Rwandan coffee farmers worked under pretty unsavoury conditions with largely unfair tax-levies on exports in those days.
The reality of political oppression and warfare disrupting the lives of Rwandan coffee workers is sadly a cycle that would repeat itself in various forms throughout the 20th century. The coffee industry had eventually established by the 1990’s, only for the 1994 genocide to devastate the entire nation - nearly all of whom were reliant on agriculture.
Thankfully for farmers, today more than three-quarters of the country is again being utilised for agriculture. More than 400,000 make their living from coffee cultivation alone.
Until the 21st century, coffee culture in Rwanda was largely charged toward high-yield low-quality production. That changed when farmers were encouraged by the government to focus their efforts on speciality coffee, with infrastructure and protocols being established to support them.
The move was a masterstroke as it made perfect sense as a best use of Rwanda’s small but ecologically favourable land-mass. There aren’t any large-scale farms like you would find in South America, most farmers work with less than a single hectare of land high up in the many steep hills - the French even called it “The Land Of A Thousand Hills”.
Therefore the emphasis on quality over quantity became palpable. The government remains voraciously committed to its strict guidelines for coffee production. Thanks to this nine times out of ten, the coffee you’ll get from Rwanda will be high-quality Arabica beans.
Despite its tiny size in comparison to many other origins, Rwanda produces around 15,000 metric tonnes of coffee every year. This makes it thirtieth in the list of the world’s top coffee producers, with almost all of its exports being Arabica - unlike Vietnam which is number two but is largely made up of lower quality Robusta beans. It’s even higher on the list than Yemen and Panama, which are two arguably more famous origins.
The Potato Defect
Have you heard of the Potato Defect? It is caused by an airborne bacteria that penetrates the cherry when it is still on the coffee plant, resulting in an unpleasant taste when the beans are brewed. It has been the bane of many a coffee drinker (particularly those who enjoy East African origins) but it wreaked havoc with Rwanda especially.
A lot of research goes into keeping coffee plants healthy, like any natural product they’re susceptible to pests and diseases. Extra effort has been made to tackle the Potato Defect in particular, especially in Rwanda and Burundi which have been the two worst hit countries.
The good thing is, it’s pretty easy to spot, smell and identify during the production journey so the chances of you ever tasting it are slim. Nowadays the extra emphasis on research and awareness means that Rwanda is producing more high-scoring specialty coffee than ever.
What does Rwandan coffee taste like?
Please don’t let Mr Potato Defect put you off Rwandan coffee! As we mentioned, the chances of you ever tasting it are minuscule and it is totally harmless. You’ll be rewarded for trying Rwandan coffee with the taste.
Great examples are bright and refreshing with juicy acidity which is why they make such perfect filter options. Blackcurrants, black grapes and dark cherries are definitely the notes most people identify with Rwandan coffees.
Famous Regions: Everywhere!
Common Varietals: Bourbon varietals
Common Processing Methods: Washed
Growing Altitude: 1700+ masl
Flavour Notes: Bright and refreshing with juicy acidity. Blackcurrant, black grape, cherry.