The anticipation of the last couple of weeks came to a head four days ago when I boarded a plane flying to Bujumbura. I was nervously excited as I embarked on my first COE experience, so to keep myself calm and be as prepared as possible, I was reading up on Burundi.
As I’ve chatted to people over the last few weeks and mentioned my trip, it has become apparent that very few people know where Burundi is.
For those of you currently nodding in confusion, Burundi is in east Africa, next door to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a small country with a population of about 9 million people. It is one of the five poorest countries in the world with the lowest GDP on earth. Agriculture is their biggest industry, accounting for 58% of GDP. Coffee is Burundi’s largest source of revenue, making up 93% of exports. So coffee is a big deal here. I could continue quoting Wikipedia and giving you Google’s Burundi ‘Knowledge’, but let’s get down to business.
Monday was calibration day. The decisions and scores made by the 20 or so people in the room will have a profound effect on the lives of hundreds of people over the next five days. A few rounds of cupping, interspersed with discussion and presentations outlining what we were looking for, set the benchmark.
Throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, we cupped the 60 coffees that had made it through the pre-selection and national jury. By the end of the first round, that number was slashed in half. We had, without a doubt, tasted some phenomenal coffees, but had also faced the challenge of potato defects and inconsistencies amongst these top scoring lots. Burundi coffee production is primarily through small producers, with the average farm size being about 100 trees. By coffee farming standards, this is miniscule. All the lots entered into the competition were day lots from washing stations. This means that they were identified as being coffee submitted to a particular station on a particular day, so unlike the South American COE where individual farmers win, the winning lot in Burundi may be shared by 100 farmers (or more). While I’m a big fan of ‘sharing the love’, this situation makes it hard to trace great or defective coffee. Having said that, specialty coffee production in Burundi is still in its infancy and I expect time to change this. Unlike coffee from well-established origins, the ‘typical Burundi coffee character’ is hard to isolate.
The coffees I have tasted over the past three days have totally remolded my expectation of this region and left me excited for the future of Burundi.
Today was round two. A grand total of 30 coffees made it through round one and they were up on the table again. Never far from the action, that increasingly familiar flavour of potato crept to the fore again. Of the 30 coffees that had made it through four rounds in which 28 cups were tasted per round, (that’s 112 cups for the non-mathematical out there), 13 had noticeable potato defect. This really highlights the randomness of this issue and serves as a wake up call to the agriculture industries of Burundi. It is also an issue for Rwanda who held their COE competition about a week ago and potato defect again played a large role in whittling down winning lots there. So this is a very real issue.
For the coffees that did make it through, all but the top ten have their fates sealed; the scores and descriptors they received today are what will be communicated for the auction. For the top ten, however, there is one final table tomorrow. Although I am excited to have one last pass over the ten best coffees we’ve tasted this week, I am nervous on behalf of the cooperatives whose coffees are so good they get one last round of scrutiny. Personally, I have had enough potato this week to last me a while and I hope what greets me on that table tomorrow is every bit as clean, fruity, sweet and complex as I’ve now come to expect from Burundian coffee.