Coffee has never meant much to me. I drink it every day, but it’s been, to me, kind of like orange juice or water: consumed without much thought. Sometimes, if no one made coffee in the morning, I’d drink some of the leftover coffee from the day before. It just didn’t matter to me. I am not proud of this.
A recent visit to Rwanda, however, turned me around about coffee (and a lot of other matters). I brought back several kilos of Rwandan coffee in my suitcase. It’s fantastic.
How is it that Rwandan coffee so good? Nutrient-rich volcanic soil is good for growing coffee, and Rwanda is studded with volcanic mountains that spewed the lava that enriched the soil with many minerals that contribute to flavor. Rwanda also gets a lot of equatorial sunlight, accented with enough tropical rain, and a mist in the atmosphere conducive to growing great coffee. Remember Dian Fossey’s “Gorillas in the Mist?” The misty mountains where Rwandan gorillas live is also good for Rwandan coffee.
Rwanda’s coffee industry is powered by small producers, some 400,000, families who frequently live in small mud-brick houses and tend plots of maybe a few hundred coffee plants. These small coffee producers reflect the tendency of many Rwandans to go into business for themselves, making coffee and tea, making banana beer or growing vegetables that are sold along the roadside or at local markets. In a week of traveling around Rwanda, I don’t recall seeing a single large corporate farm; it was a lot of little guys, making a go of it, running their home-based businesses hands-on. Used to be that coffee growing was run by the state; after the 1994 genocide, coffee growing was privatized, and individual coffee farmers took over production.
Rwandan coffee helped me appreciate my morning coffee; it’s light on the tongue, usually with slight notes of chocolate, spice, sometimes citrus and berries. I chatted with Alana LeBeau, general manager at Buzz Café, and although her loyal preference is for Buzz Blend, she also likes Rwandan coffee, which they sometimes carry at the Buzz. It’s “not too acidic,” she says, and that’s a very good thing.
Oak Parker Jay Cunningham is Senior Business Development Manager and Green Coffee Buyer for Intelligentsia, which supplies Buzz Café. Cunningham explained that “In the last 15 years, Rwanda has gone from selling their coffee very cheaply for use in instant coffees, to being served at the world’s best cafes and coffeehouses. Because of the horrible genocide that took place there, the country was in a unique position to start over and build the coffee sector from the ground up to create systems and infrastructure that ensure an upward quality trend. It’s been an enormous success.”
Sometimes to appreciate a food or drink, you just have to pay more attention to it. Lately I’ve been paying much more attention to my morning cup of Rwandan coffee. It’s becoming a good reason to wake up, and now I always have it brewed fresh, in part because there’s usually none left from the day before. It’s that good.
National Coffee Day is September 29. I’m celebrating that day, as I now do every day, with Rwandan coffee.