Burundi coffee has great potential. Because of its distinct terroir, it tastes more like a Latin American coffee than that of its African neighbors. Look for Burundian coffee from November to May from shops and roasters.
What is the flavor profile?
Burundi coffee is bright and sweet, with a balanced acidity and a complex layering of flavors. Good Burundi coffee tastes quite a lot like good Guatemalan coffee. Burundi coffee hits the markets just as Guatemalan is fading out, making it an easy switch if you want to prolong that flavor.
It tastes “wild” with citrus and blueberry flavors coming to the top. The higher the elevation it comes from, it strengthens the citrus flavor and adds in fruit, flowers, and honey. Lower altitude coffees taste of chocolate and hazelnuts. In some single-origin coffees, you can find tastes of pineapple and passionfruit.
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Smallholders grow the Bourbon varietal of Arabica, and almost 100% of it is exported. Most of the population are farmers who grow coffee. They grow most coffee at elevations between 1,250 meters and 2,000 meters above sea level in the Central Highlands. The small scale of exports means that most Burundi coffee you can find in the U.S. and Europe is single origin.
Burundi is a beautiful country, and its mountains make excellent growing zones for coffee. It has volcanic soil and plenty of rainfall. Farmers grow most of their coffee at high elevations and on tiny farms. The average farmer in Burundi has 250 trees, but many farms have as few as 50 trees grown among other crops for subsistence or cash. A year with lower coffee growth can hurt the country hard.
Most of the best Burundi coffees are wet processed at private processing centers. The best are double processed either with two wet (anaerobic) fermentation processes or with one dry (aerobic) and one wet. Some farmers still home-process their coffees the traditional way (dry). These coffees can be great or terrible depending on different farm-based factors.
Challenges for Burundi Coffee
Burundi coffee has faced quite a history of challenges. Coffee came to Burundi in the 1930’s, introduced by the Belgian Colonizers as an export cash crop.
Once, all farmers were required to grow 50 coffee trees and send all their coffee through state-owned wet processors. This was to build up a market and start an exporting program. The government did not want farmers to dry/traditional process their coffees because it led to an inferior cup. Now, coffee has liberalized and its modern markets work the same as in most other countries.
War and genocide tore Burundi apart, just like they did its neighbor Rwanda. Another neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo, also spills unrest over the border. This conflict has enhanced the poverty of the country.
Occasional defective coffees slip through the net, but farmers in Burundi have learned to pay great attention to all the details. Burundi coffee farmers and processors have faced a long learning curve. One insect pest makes the coffee taste like potatoes, but farmers have learned careful processes to keep the bug away. Once, green beans slipped through the processors and weakened the end coffee. However, processors pay for green beans in addition to the regular red beans, as long as farmers sort them out. This keeps the farmers honest and improves the quality of the coffee. They sell the green beans as “Ordinaire”.
Landlocked Burundi relies on good relations with its neighboring countries to export its coffee. The long trek out of Burundi and through Kenya or Tanzania means that the coffee may be older when it reaches the markets.
When drinking Burundi coffee, look for beans that are freshly roasted or even roast them yourself. Exporting coffee from this land-locked country is difficult, and some beans are older than normal by the time they reach export markets in Kenya or Tanzania.
A light to medium roast works best to bring out the delicate flavors in the coffee. Brewing it as a pour-over takes time and care to create the best coffee flavor.
Another option is a dark roast, which burns all the fruity notes away, leaving you with a malted chocolate caramel of a coffee. This is great in an espresso machine or a French press.
Burundi is shaped like a human heart, and its coffee-producing regions stretch straight down the middle. Most coffee comes from the central highlands of the country. Burundian single-origin coffee has its taste shaped by the region from which it came.
Buyenzi is the biggest coffee producing region in Burundi. It is in the north and borders on Rwanda. Coffees grown there are known for high acidity and sweet citrus notes. These compare most favorably to Guatemalan and Costa Rican coffees.
Kirimiro produces less coffee than Buyenzi, but it is better known around the world. It has complex notes of flowers and spices. Its farms are also highland small holdings.
Coffees from Mumirwa have a current-like acidity and a fruity taste.
Bweru’s coffees add a tea-like flavor to the sweet citrus shared by most coffees from Burundi.
Other regions that produce small amounts of coffee are Bugesera, Kirundo, Cibitoke, Bubanza, Kirundo, Karuzi, Krimiro, Mwaro, Muranmvya, Bururi, and Makamba. (Translating these names into English is tricky, so don’t be surprised if spelling varies widely.) Each farm has a slightly distinct flavor, so if you choose a single origin Burundian coffee, it is hard to go wrong.
Coffees to try
It is hard to find Burundi coffee in the U.S. Here are a few coffees to get you started. Check again seasonally to see what other roasters are doing.
Sweet citrus is the dominant flavor of this coffee, but bits of berry and floral tastes make this cup more complex. It’s bright acidity shines. This coffee displays the typical flavors of a Burundi bean. You can choose your roast levels from Smokin’ Beans Coffee, so you can get a very light cinnamon roast, or choose to go darker. (They recommend their French press roast for its rich flavor).
This brew is much like black tea, with flavors of peach and lemongrass twining through it. The roaster partners with a small group of farmers. This coffee comes from the Buhorwa Washing Station in the Muramvya region. This relationship is important to build a market for Burundian coffee.
If you want a real treat, try this peaberry. Peaberry coffee is the small percentage of beans that grow as singletons instead of pairs. All this coffee comes from the Heza Washing Station. This brew has a rich flavor along with the expected citrusy acidity.