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EAST AFRICA: Kenya, Burundi, Malawi

Fact #1: I was home for 1 day from Colombia before heading across the pond and over the puddle to East Africa. Fact #2: I’d do it again tomorrow, the following week and the following week if I had an excuse.

East Africa has endless potential to produce outstanding coffee quality. It is, after all, the birthplace of the delicious nectar we pine for day after day. There are plenty of trials and tribulations; however that go along with that giant potential that make direct and transparent coffee trade in Africa a constant struggle. Bureaucratic trade mechanisms and timely shipping are the two major problems we encounter. I embarked on this journey to gauge this promise and work on finding remedies for the illnesses. It is and will always be a work in progress on this particular continent.

Kenya: Let the treasure hunt begin….

As a coffee buyer, the opportunity to go to C. Dorman’s offices in Nairobi and cup through the lots headed to the following day’s auction is as much a privilege as it is necessary. Dorman’s has a storied history for being at the head of the class when it comes to procuring top quality Kenyan coffees. As all of you coffee lovers out there know, top Kenyan coffees are just about as good as it gets in terms of intensity and complexity of flavor. Sweet, succulent citrus, bright berry, black currants, black tea and stewey, brothy texture are just a few of the descriptors we use when talking about this origin.

So naturally I am up at the crack of dawn Monday morning, raring to get to the cupping table. My plan for the day is to cup 30+ lots that are headed to auction the next day and discuss the infamous 2nd Window (which I’ll discuss here in a moment) with the folks at Dorman’s. We blew through the 1st table of samples and didn’t find anything quite up to our required quality level, so I waited patiently for the next table. OK, so round two is ready. But again, no dice! I’m beginning to get a little bit nervous. One of the folks at Dorman’s informs me that quality this year isn’t quite at the level it was last year and that we may need to lower our standards just a little bit. Clearly, I had to choose my words carefully when telling him that Stumptown lowering its standards just isn’t in the cards….ever. He understood. After finding nothing yet again on the 3rd and final table I realized that this really is going to be a difficult year in Kenya. Jim and I are going to need to cup through more samples than ever in hopes of securing a couple of lots that are going to meet all your expectations from us. Don’t worry, we’re on it.

After such dismal cupping results it would have been easy to get down in the dumps. Fortunately, I had a two pronged agenda for this particular trip to Kenya, the second prong being the 2nd Window. The 2nd Window is what many folks in the coffee industry have been waiting to see take place in Kenya for decades. Essentially, it is an opportunity for Kenyan coffee producers to by-pass the auction system and to sell their coffee in a more transparent manner. Instead of exporters bidding at an auction, and therefore controlling the price paid to producers, the producers themselves will be able to sell at a visible price via their cooperative system. I’ve been speaking continuously to friends throughout the industry about their take on the whole idea and opinions have ranged more than you may think. More people than I would have thought are against the concept of direct purchasing saying that quality varies so vastly at the coops from year to year that you may be stuck paying a gargantuan price for mediocre coffee. Others say that while Kenya has one of the lower auction price to farm gate price ratios in the coffee producing world, the actual price paid to the farmer can be upwards of two times more than what producers in other countries are being paid. Their thinking is that things may actually be ‘fair’ here and the auction system is as much a quality assurance system as it is a trade mechanism. Personally, I think it’s our duty to go direct and work with the producers ourselves. That is what we claim we do as coffee buyers anyway, right? We use our experience and expertise to influence the qualitative outcome of the coffee we buy, right? So why would we rely on an auction system to dictate the supply chain and/or quality when we can do it ourselves. I’m planning to dive in head first and take my best stab at it.

To make a long story short, look for Stumptown to be one of the first coffee companies in the world to bridge the gap in Kenya between producer and roaster.

Burundi: Pioneering a new origin

Cupping coffee may be my favorite pastime, but coffee processing is my passion. Burundi and Malawi are unchartered waters when it comes to top quality coffee. We have yet to see what these countries can actually produce, so the idea of being one of the first on the ground to impact the quality in these two countries is enough to make me salivate. So, after my quick stint in Nairobi, I met my old pal Jason Long, from Café Imports, and headed across Lake Victoria to Bujumbura, Burundi.

After seeing the great success Rwanda has had with coffee production over the course of the past 5 years, Burundi is now awakening to the realities that specialty coffee can bring an impoverished economy. Like Rwanda, Burundi was caught in the turmoil between the Hutus and Tutsis in the late 90’s. The country’s civil war continued with outbreaks of violence until a new constitution was formed in 2004. Burundi is now fighting to re-build itself both politically and economically. Like Rwanda the latter will be heavily influenced by the coffee trade. 70% of the country’s coffee production is the bourbon varietal and altitude can reach 1900 meters (6000 ft) in some of the countries northern coffee producing regions. THE POTENTIAL IS THERE! 133 washing stations, coffee processing facilities, are scattered throughout the country.

So, after meeting with the folks from the World Bank funded PAGE Project in Bujumbura, we got a good night’s sleep. Bright and early the following morning, we headed north to Kirundo and Ngozi. These two regions are located in a pocket of land nestled between Rwanda and Tanzania; seemingly perfect for coffee production. They are home to the Rugerero, Ngogomo, Rugabo, Kiryama and Gacokwe washing stations that we visited on this trip. Five hours later we arrive in Kirundo. The ride was full of lush, green jungle and rolling hills as far the eye could see. Banana trees and tiny hamlets filled with upbeat children and clay huts quickly became the theme. The African interior is all I thought it would be.

Our first stop was the Rugerero washing station for observations of their process. As the coffee buyer, I have a vision for each project we are working on in each origin. There are several different periods during which visits can be effective: before the harvest for planning, at the beginning of the harvest to observe and assist technically, in the peak of the harvest for evaluation and more technical assistance, and post-harvest to cup and reward the producers who produced top quality. In the case of Burundi, I wanted to be there at the beginning of the harvest for the reasons mentioned above. Witnessing the process firsthand is absolutely crucial.

What we did see were washing stations capable of processing great coffee. The process itself is a little strange though. After being depulped from the cherries, almost all of which are unripe, the coffee beans head directly to the fermentation tanks for an 8-12 hour “dry ferment”. Immediately afterwards the coffee undertakes a 12-16 hour “wet fermentation” period. It is washed and then soaked for 12 hours before heading to raised drying beds.

My suggestions to the mill managers were to skip this dry ferment altogether and to ferment traditionally, underwater, for variant periods of time instead. The fermentation process is directly dependent on air temperature, accelerating in warm weather and taking more time in colder climates. At altitudes ranging from roughly 1200 – 1700 meters (washing stations are usually below farm levels to make delivery easier) coffee could take anywhere from 12 – 48 hours to ferment. (Probably not so long in a country as close to the equator as Burundi, but I’ll play it safe.) The coffee will then be washed and sent to the soaking tanks for 12 hours ala Kenya in hopes of accelerating acidity levels. The challenges in Burundi will be picking perfectly ripe cherries and the desire to alter the process. But, if it’s done, the final product could prove to be spectacular. So that’s the FIRST obstacle.

Obstacle number 2 is getting OCIBU (the coffee board who, until very recently, controlled the trade of every single coffee bean in Burundi) to allow us to buy directly from the cooperatives. The idea of trading directly with the cooperatives is brand new in Burundi and we are watching from the periphery with clenched fists waiting to see if the board will allow this new system to continue. As y’all know, keeping the supply chain transparent is as much the goal as quality coffee is for the Stumptown. Directly correlating price to quality is the only way to accomplish this goal. As promised, we’re on top of it!

Malawi: The search for the elusive African geisha continues

I wasn’t done yet. Jason and I continued south from Bujumbura to Lilongwe, Malawi to meet our producer friends from Mzuzu Small Holder’s Coffee Farmer’s Trust. We hopped in their rig at the airport and jaunted off on a 5 hour journey north into the country’s Mzuzu Hills region. The car ride was spectacular. The dramatic differences between southern Malawi and the northern Malawi were enough to keep my tired and travel worn self awake. Southern Malawi is arid with rocky plateaus reminiscent of what you’d expect to see in Western Australia. It was adobe huts and tumbleweed for 100 clicks until we hit a quick thunderstorm and things quickly turned from red clay to darker, richer looking soil, green shrubbery and more mountainous, peaky terrain. Yeah, this was beginning to feel like coffee country.

Contrary to my green experience in Burundi, I had an idea of what to expect in Malawi. Duane had been here on an excursion last year on a hunt for the ever elusive geisha. Rumors of the Ethiopian varietal planted at 2000 meters will bring a coffee buyer halfway around the world in a snap. Only faint glimmers of promise were demonstrated in last year’s crop so we weren’t able to pick any up, but that didn’t mean we were ready to throw in the towel. The majority of the country’s coffee production is represented by two varietals at completely different ends of the quality spectrum: geisha and catimor. The Mzuzu Small Holder’s Coffee Farmer’s has made giant strides in the past couple of harvest seasons by offering more money for the lower-yielding geisha at the washing stations and processing and storing the varietal separately in the mills. Hopefully this reward will be recognized by producers and the push to eradicate the catimor will strengthen.

We woke up that next morning in the Mzuzu Hills to another stunning day in coffee country. Tons-o-sun, not a cloud in sight and the prospect of seeing some real live Ethiopian geisha trees out in the bush. To say I was stoked would be a complete understatement. After a two hour excursion off-road, we stumbled and bumbled our way into the Khanga region of northern Malawi. We pulled up right along side some geisha trees and I quickly jumped out of the rig with my camera. My initial thoughts were that this wasn’t like the geisha I know in Panama, but I wasn’t expecting it to be. These geisha trees had the same long, dangling branches, but without the height their Panamanian brethren have. Instead they were shorter, stockier and bushier in appearance rather than tree like. I couldn’t wait to get back to the cupping lab and start hitting the samples with my spoon.

We arrived back in Mzuzu town late in the afternoon. We had 40 coffees from the past year’s crop (representing 10+ washing stations) to cup through. These cuppings would provide a reference for what to expect and for what to target for the coming crop. It was like a broken record from Kenya at first- nothing worthwhile on the cupping table. That harsh catimor acidity was dominating the first couple rounds of cupping and things were beginning to look bleak. And then we hit the 1st coffee on the third table: ultra-clean, citric acidity, chocolaty mouthfeel, tropical fruit punch flavors like crazy. It tasted very similar to the cup profile I expect out of Ethiopian Yirgacheffes. It is African geisha and it’s delicious! It was the only coffee out of the 40 we cupped that showed promise. That’s all we needed though.

The following day, Jason and I embarked on the 2 day journey home. I felt like we made some progress in Burundi and Malawi. The potential is most certainly there. Now we just need to make it happen.

-Aleco