Rwanda is blessed with ideal coffee growing conditions that include high altitude, regular rainfall, volcanic soils with good organic structure and an abundance of Bourbon. The vast majority of Rwandan coffee is produced by smallholders who organise themselves into cooperatives and share the services of centralised wet-mills – or washing stations as they are known locally.
Huye Mountain Washing Station is the station that has recently been made famous in Stumptown Coffee Roasters’ film – ‘A Film about Coffee’. It is located on the slopes of the Huye Mountain in the Huye District in South Rwanda and was established asrecently as 2011.It is a private washing station owned by David Rubanzangabo who is something of a philanthropist. He caresdeeply about the smallholder farmers who deliver their coffee to his station, of which there are around 1,330. His drive for quality has brought about a big increase in prices for local farmers. To encourage consistency of quality David awards members whose coffees carry the highest cupping scores with the prize of a cow (40 members each won one) or a goat (60 winners last year). A cow makes a huge difference to the lives of a family since it will provide milk for around 6 years and a constant supply of dung for organic fertilizer for the coffee trees.
Typically a small holding is just quarter of a hectare in size with around 200 trees. The yield is about 4 KG of cherry per tree so ultimately each farm produces only 2 sacks of coffee. It is entirely bourbon, which, coupled with an altitude ranging from 1,600m to 2,300m, brings about a wonderful complexity of great flavours in the cup.
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Bourbon: This varietal originated on the Island of Bourbon (now known as Reunion Island) and is a mutation of early Arabica species from Ethiopia. It yields slightly more coffee than the Typica varietal but is relatively low yielding. The leaves are broad and cherries can ripen red, yellow or orange. This varietal is known for its amazing complex acidity and great balance.
Coffee Growing in Rwanda: Despite the tragedies of genocide and civil war which shook the world in 1994, Rwanda is an incredibly beautiful and culturally rich nation which also produces exceptionally good coffee. In Rwanda coffee has brought hope for a better future since those dark days and the country is now rightly heralded as a top producer of fine speciality coffee. Coffee was introduced to Rwanda in 1903 by German missionaries. As a cash crop it received government backing but the focus was very much on quantity rather than quality. However the impact of the world coffee crisis in the late 1990s, when prices fell for several years below the cost of production, caused many Rwandan coffee farmers to rethink their position. Working hand in hand with the Rwandan Coffee Board (OCIR Café), international NGOs such as USAID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and other coffee-focused organisations, a speciality coffee sector was created in the early 2000s.
Coffee is grown in most parts of the country, with particularly large concentrations along Lake Kivu and in the southern province. Flowering takes place between September and October and the harvest runs from March to July with shipments starting in late May early June. The processing is based on washing the coffee with the usual set up that is typical throughout East Africa. The freshly delivered coffee is inspected to ensure only good red and ripe cherries are included. Then it is put into the receiving tank and inferior floaters are removed. The denser, high quality cherries are then pulped in a locally made disc pulper before entering a concrete fermentation tank where they are held for 12 to 15 hours. It is a dry fermentation process meaning that extra water is not added. After this time the mucilage is loose enough to be washed away and now the tank is filled with water, the coffee turned with a large wooden paddle and then drained. This process is repeated a further 4 times to ensure the coffee is clean before being channelled through water (and further floaters removed) before being transported to raised beds for drying. Initial drainage drying is under shade as the coffee could be damaged at this point if the heat is too high. Then it is taken to the drying tables under full sun where an army of colourfully clad women sort the beans by hand, removing defects and turning it regularly. This can take between 15 to 20 days.
The parchment coffee then goes to storage to be held for two months while it conditions (the evening of moisture content) before being trucked to the mill in Kigali. Here the parchment is milled away and any further defects are removed using light sorting machines. Gravity sorting machines are also used to remove broken beans and foreign bodies before the coffee is finally packed into 60 KG bags (lined with Grain Pro) and containerised for export. The coffee is trucked to either Dar es Salaam in Tanzania or Mombasa in Kenya where it is shipped.