Small Batch on the road

Rwanda May 2015

Back in May, we headed out for our first trip to Rwanda. We have just released the first of three coffees we bought on the trip and it seems an apt time to examine how we are now working in Rwanda and why we want to increase our volumes and involvement in this great little country.

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Rwanda has been a key origin since the earliest days of Small Batch and we’ve always loved the balanced bourbon coffees the country produces. It was not however, among our biggest origins in terms of volume due to unreliability in availability and shipping and the problem of the potato defect (more on this later). As we have grown we have been looking at origins from which we can expand our buying. In that same time we have seen several things happening that make a Rwanda a great fit for our needs. Firstly the quality of the coffee continues to improve and we are seeing more diversification and complexity in terms of cup profile. Secondly, infrastructure (and crucially, shipping) has improved a lot. This is very important for a landlocked African country. In the past, coffees harvested in April and May might not reach the UK until December or January which is less than ideal. We are now receiving Rwandan coffee in late September and October meaning that it is super fresh and plugs the gaps in our offer list left by departing Central American and other African coffees at this time of year. Finally, we are seeing less and less potato defects in the cups. Potato Taste Defect or PTD is a bizarre phenomenon that sounds unlikely until you experience it. If you grind a roasted bean infected with PTD you cannot miss the unmistakeable smell of raw, peeled potatoes. The taste is as strong and unpleasant as the smell and can ruin a whole cup, or worse, a whole bag of coffee if it is all ground together. PTD is caused by the local Antestia bug, which feeds on coffee cherries but not the coffee bean itself. The damage caused to the cherry allows microorganisms to infect the fruit creating off flavours. This means that damage caused by Antestia can only be seen in cherries or coffee still in parchment. Crucially the damage is not visible in a green coffee bean ready for roasting unlike most other insect damage that occurs in coffee.


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cherry with antestia damage


This has made PTD hard to eradicate as once the coffee is out of parchment (i.e. once it has been made ready for export) there is no way to detect it until it is too late. This has been such a problem that many speciality roasters have not used coffees from Rwanda (nor Burundi or DRC who suffer the same problem) in espresso blends as the occurrence of PTD and wastage of coffee coupled with risk of a bad cup is too high. It is the severe reduction in PTD due to vastly increased sorting and quality control that, more than anything, has made Rwanda a viable option for us as a high volume origin. My travelling companions were Alex Evans and Matt Smith from Falcon Coffees, an importer based in Lewes through whom we purchase a lot of our coffees. Matt had only recently joined Falcon having spent the best part of the previous decade setting up Rwanda Trading Company, a coffee exporter in Kigali that is now a sister company of Falcon.


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coffee delivery at Rwanda Trading Company


The coffee production in Rwanda is similar to most African countries. Smallholder farmers, typically family units that own a few acres of land, farm some cash crops such as coffee, sustenance crops and maybe some livestock. They sell their freshly harvested coffee cherries to a local washing station who process the coffee from cherry to dried parchment coffee and sell it to an exporter who grades it, prepares it for export and sells it to an importer or other buyer. Upon arrival we cupped RTC’s early samples, figured out what we were most interested in and then headed out around this small and jaw-droppingly beautiful country to visit the stations we liked, see how they operated and find some coffee to buy. I’d had several friends tell me how stunning Rwanda is but as we headed out of Kigali I was still blown away by the endless, rolling green hills, vivid red soil and verdant plant life everywhere you looked. Just when it couldn't get more picturesque suddenly lakes started appearing everywhere with inlets here and jutting headlands there as we got our first look at the giant Lake Kivu that divides Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.


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Butembo washing station on the shores of Lake Kivu


About an hour past Kibuye, a bustling market town on the edge of the lake, we pulled off the newly paved main road onto a side road that was little more than a dirt track. We were heading for a brand new washing station called Butembo that had been one of the highest scoring coffees on the cupping table back in Kigali. Butembo turned out to be a small station sandwiched between the village of Ruhingo and Lake Kivu. We met with the owner Jean Bosco who told us that he had only completed construction of the station in February and only just had everything ready in time to start buying cherries at the start of the harvest season. It turned out that Bosco used to work for his brother Justin at his washing station Mahembe which we had driven past on our way in and from which we have bought fantastic coffees in the past. Bosco has a single disc pulper that feeds three fermentation tanks relative to three different grades of coffee and with his current set up and drying beds he is able to process about 5 ton of cherry per day. He had already stopped buying cherry for the season as he had a backlog of coffee to finish drying and he had hit his targets for this first season and did not want to overextend himself financially by buying more cherry. RTC pay station owners like Bosco up front for parchment that they buy by weight and then a dividend at the end of the season based on the total weight of coffee they supply over the harvest. A percentage of this dividend has to be passed on to the farmers that Bosco buys from so that they receive a second payment as well. With the rest of his profit and dividend Bosco said he intended to improve the station further, specifically his water filtration systems, building more beds to increase capacity and planting some coffee of his own on land adjacent to the station. We cupped more recent samples that Bosco gave us when we got back to Kigali and again back in Brighton and I was so impressed with them and with Bosco’s set up in such a short space of time that we ended up buying all of his specialty grade production for this year, around 230 bags. The coffee has now landed in the UK and we are currently featuring it as a single origin, it will also go into our Goldstone Espresso blend after Christmas when we finish the current version.


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Jean Bosco (second from left) and his team at Butembo


This coffee is super clean and transparent and I think a real example of how high quality some of the coffee coming out of Rwanda is now. We’ve cupped this from early first pass and last pass pickings, to pre-shipment samples, landed approval samples and finally production roasts and the coffee has developed beautifully. I’m really excited to see how Bosco gets on with his second season at Butembo and hope to be able to buy even more coffee from him next year. After spending the night in Kibuye and taking a dip in Lake Kivu we were back on the road and headed south to Nyamasheke. We visited several really good stations in the area including Mwasa; a beautiful site in a natural bowl surrounded by drying tables and fields of coffee. Mwasa had formerly been co-operative owned but the co-op had gone out of business a few years ago. Thankfully a union of the more senior members had been able to club together and purchase the station which is now run as an informal mini co-op. Just down the road and with a similar backstory was Kanya, one of my top three coffees we had cupped back in Kigali. Like Mwasa this station had formerly belonged to a co-operative but, after going out of business, had been purchased by Edmond Kanyamibwa. Matt was familiar with Edmond and told us how Edmond, unable to secure a loan from the banks, wrote to the President of Rwanda himself as well as RTC to try and secure a loan and register the lack of aid presented to farmers by the banks.


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parchment coffee in storage at Kanya


Matt and Edmond were very happy to tell us that while no word came back from the President, RTC were able to loan Edmond the money to purchase Kanya. This is one of the many ways RTC is helping to grow and solidify the specialty coffee sector in Rwanda. As well purchasing coffee and finding it a path to market they are able to loan money to set up or renovate stations like Kanya. They provide pre-financing to owners like Edmond and Bosco to buy cherry at the start of the season also setting a minimum price to be paid for cherry and guaranteeing the end of season dividend to both washing station and farmer. Quality-wise, RTC help with training and developing best practices in picking, processing, water treatment, drying, soil management and many other things besides through local managers who provide a direct link between buyers, the cupping room and the station owners. Crucially RTC also hedge some of a producers coffee against the world market to protect them in the case of a market drop or low crop year (we generally rally against the coffee commodity market and its volatile pricing but one of its original intentions was to afford producers exactly this kind of protection) It’s really cool to have Edmond’s lovely coffee here in the roastery. It’s currently featuring in our Throwback Espresso blend and will definitely be released as a single origin later in the year. It has a darker fruit flavour than your typical Rwanda cup with blackcurrant and fruit of the forest notes which makes it all the more interesting. Finally we headed for a station I had heard a lot about, Huye Mountain Washing Station outside the town of Butare. Huye and it’s owner David Rubanzangabo featured in last years ‘A Film About Coffee’ and is a staple coffee of globally renowned roasters like Stumptown and Single Origin. To reach Butare we had the pleasure of driving through Nyungwe National Forest, a mountaintop rainforest and national park that is home to chimpanzees among many other birds and animals. The drive up to Nyungwe was as breathtaking as anything else we had seen in this amazing country, as we climbed above coffee growing altitudes we encountered vast fields of tea on the hilltops that soon gave way to the misty clouds of the forest. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to stop and hike into the forest, and didn’t see any chimpanzees, but the drive through Nyungwe was one of the highlights of the trip. We arrived at Huye to be greeted by another Bosco (Jean-Bosco is one of the most popular male names in Rwanda) who runs Huye’s own roasting operation, Rachel their Q grader and head cupper and David himself. A nicer, more welcoming man you couldn’t hope to meet and David gave us a grand tour of Huye alongside Aloys who is the tour guide on Huye’s recently launched coffee experience for the growing Rwandan tourist trade. David’s set up, with two washing stations, a good amount of land under coffee of his own, a roasting operation, quality control and coffee tourism was not something we had seen at other places in Rwanda and is more typical of a Latin American coffee farm. This set up affords David a greater degree of control than other stations, especially having a lab and cupper on site. Huye was the only place we visited that was keeping different day lots and area lots separate through the wet mill and cupping them individually before sending samples back to RTC.


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Al with David Rubanzangabo from Huye mountain


We cupped some great coffees with Bosco (who learnt to roast while working at Stumptown in Portland, Oregon) and Rachel and had enough time to hang out until evening and watch the wet mill in action. We had arrived in Rwanda quite late in the harvest and due to heavy rain most stations had stopped purchasing cherry by the time we arrived so we hadn’t seen any wet mills in action all week. Butare is a little dryer and it’s harvest a little later and Huye was still operating in full swing. David has recently purchased a new Panagos eco-pulper and Matt and Aloys went through some fine tuning of the machine while me and Alex had time to chat in English and broken French with the wet mill workers as we waited for the cherries to arrive. It was interesting that the older workers spoke mostly French as their second language while the younger generation had universally learned English. It was really nice to be able to chat with the guys at Huye. At the other stations, despite our translator Joseph’s excellent skills, it was hard to really converse when you have no language in common. My French is awful but even a broken conversation about what role we all played in the journey of the coffee, the fortunes of Leicester City and how 3g phones work in Rwanda was one of the highlights of the trip.


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wet mill workers at Huye mountain washing station


After a few cold ales in Butare it was back to Kigali for a final round of cupping and then homeward bound. On a personal note I fell in love with Rwanda, it is the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited, they have decent beer, excellent fresh water fish, and the people are as friendly, welcoming and passionate about coffee as anywhere I’ve been. From a professional perspective we achieved everything we set out to do, finding three great new producers we hope to work with for a long time as well as RTC and the excellent and far-reaching work they are doing. I’m really excited about the coffees we have from Butembo, Kanya and Huye and I hope you will come to enjoy them as a key part of our offering year after year.


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