Rwanda Coffee: What Sets It Apart?

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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Curious about Rwanda coffee beans? Amidst the land of a thousand hills, a story of Rwandan coffee emerges, one of dedication, hard work and unwavering resilience.

Curious about Rwanda coffee beans? Amidst the land of a thousand hills, a story of Rwandan coffee emerges, one of dedication, hard work and unwavering resilience.

Nestled in the heart of Africa, Rwanda has emerged as an African coffee powerhouse. Rwanda coffee is more than just exotic and delicious. It’s a symphony of flavors that have come to delight and fascinate discerning palates all over the world.

Why, you may ask? Especially if you’ve never brewed Rwandan coffee before?

Well, this landlocked country has ideal coffee-growing conditions. The rich volcanic soils, ample rainfall and high elevations are perfect for cultivating coffee.

So, join me as I explore the enchanting world of Rwandan coffee. I promise you that this coffee is a tribute to the land, the people and the hard work that turns modest beans into nothing short of liquid poetry.

A Brief History of Rwanda Coffee

Coffee didn’t become a thing in Rwanda until 1905 when German missionaries introduced the crop into German East Africa. After that, the Rwandan coffee industry stagnated, taking about three decades to pick up steam.

After World War I, the Belgians took over from the Germans when the Treaty of Versailles stripped Germany of all its colonies. The result? A policy of growing high-yield, low-grade coffees enforced on Rwandan coffee growers.

Rwanda coffee beans became a high-earning cash crop despite this low-grade coffee production. Sadly, coffee cultivation in Rwanda was rife with exploitation. One law encouraged Tutsi leaders to compel Hutu farmers to produce only coffee and nothing else on their lands.

At independence in 1962, the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) enhanced the Hutus’ dominance in the Rwanda coffee sector. The good news was, most Hutu farmers finally began to see profits from coffee cultivation.

Then came the Habyarimana regime of 1973-1994. At first, they regulated coffee pricing and paid what was due to small-scale coffee farmers to encourage coffee production.

But due to various geopolitical factors, a need for increased military spending began to emerge. The regime removed these unsustainable coffee price supports in 1992. This policy change brought untold hardship to both Hutu and Tutsi coffee growers.

It’s no wonder that all this culminated in the horrible events of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The country went into tribal turmoil, and the coffee industry virtually collapsed. Worst of all, over 800,000 people, mainly Tutsi, lost their lives.

Rwandan Coffee Production Today

Post-genocide, Rwanda’s coffee industry has been vital to rehabilitating the country’s economic sector and promoting social cohesion; birthing an exciting specialty coffee sector.

Coffee farmers implemented strict policies and high-quality cultivation techniques. These allowed them to meet Fair Trade certification standards and specialty coffee classifications.

Rwandan Coffee Production Today

The Rwandan government finally caught on in 2002. They launched a National Coffee Strategy to speed up the transition to high-grade coffee production.

One challenge that continued to plague farmers, though, was coffee processing. Still, investment in communal washing stations by cooperatives changed all that. It is one of the primary policies that made it easier for independent coffee growers to process harvested cherries.

These improvements proved worthwhile. As of 2009, 20 percent of Rwanda’s coffee growers were members of 150 cooperatives. Three years later, 14 cooperatives and communal washing stations had gained Fair Trade certification.

And there’s something to smile about in all this! Hutu and Tutsi women work together, repairing broken relationships while improving their livelihoods.

The Rwanda coffee industry continues to grow. The country exports approximately 22,000 metric tons of coffee to the United States, UK, Belgium, Switzerland and Singapore. Today, Rwanda’s green coffee beans account for an impressive 24 percent of all the country’s agricultural exports.

Why Does Coffee Grow Well in Rwanda?

Rwanda isn’t famous as being the land of a thousand hills for nothing! Its mountainous landscape is perfect for growing coffee varieties such as Catuai, Caturra and Bourbon Arabica.

The coffee-growing regions lie at 1,200-2,000 masl (meters above sea level). And the higher you go, the slower the cherries ripen due to the unique oxygen-deficient conditions. As a result, the harvested bean is dense and rich with a concentrated flavor and complex acidity.

Another reason coffee grows so well in Rwanda? Its mineral-rich and fertile volcanic soils, abundant from east to west. The volcanic ash and soil combine to form a potent growing medium that yields the best cherries and beans.

Rwanda is lucky to get abundant rainfall year-round, which is necessary for a good coffee harvest. The country gets an average of 1,170 mm of rainfall, with the bulk of it falling between September and May. Lots of sunshine keeps conditions humid – another reason Rwanda produces coffee to rave about.

Coffee plants flower from September to October, and harvests occur from March to July. After the harvest, growers deliver their coffee cherries to communal washing stations for wet processing.

Rwandan Coffee Growing Regions

This tiny landlocked East African country might not be the first you think about when it comes to coffee production. Yet, Rwanda produces some of the most sublime coffee beans and best-value specialty coffees around the world.

Rwandan Coffee Growing Regions

But where does coffee grow in this enchanting country? Here are the top five coffee-producing regions in Rwanda:

Lake Kivu

Lake Kivu is the most abundant of Rwanda’s five coffee-producing regions. It lies right on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo at a high elevation of 1,500 masl. The rich volcanic soils and rolling green hills of the Lake Kivu region yield earthy, chocolaty coffees perfect for a dark roast.

The coffee here grows in Gisenyi, Nyamasheke, Kibuye, Cyanungu and Butare, accounting for the bulk of Rwanda’s production – a whopping 5,000 metric tons yearly.

Virunga

Remember the film “Gorillas in the Mist” starring Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey and featuring Rwanda’s magnificent silverback mountain gorillas? Then you’ve a pretty good idea of Rwanda’s northernmost coffee-producing region.

Here, the cherry and bean ripen slowly due to the high altitude of 1,500-2,000 masl. A complex bean with lively acidity results thanks also to the volcanic, mineral-rich soils and cool low-oxygen environment. Coffee from this region shines as a light or medium roast.

Muhazi

Muhazi is in eastern Rwanda at 1,200-1,500 meters above sea level. The volcanic soils, abundant rainfall and pure lake waters from Lake Muhazi all go to create a one-of-a-kind coffee. Rwanda’s famous Bourbon Arabica coffee plant grows here, producing large, colorful fruit.

Akagera

Akagera lies in the southeast of the country, bordering Tanzania. At 1,200-1,500 meters, this region is famous for its fertile, rich soil and low mountains. Due to the lower elevation and rainfall patterns (compared to western Rwanda coffee regions), Akagera coffees are earthier and lower in acidity, ideal for the perfect cup of dark roast.

Kizi Rift

Kizi Rift lies at an elevation of 1,800-2,000 meters. It runs from the majestic volcanic Virunga mountains in the heart of the country to the abundant Nyungwe rainforest. The mineral-rich volcanic soils produce some of the best Rwanda coffees – balanced, smooth and clean with delicate floral aromas.

How Is Coffee Processed in Rwanda?

Most coffee growers are small-scale farmers and not into high-volume coffee production. They pool together harvests from their farms for communal processing. The most popular coffee type in Rwanda, Bourbon Arabica, matures after four years. Farmers harvest these cherries once a year and deliver them to get wet-processed at communal wet mills.

Coffee Processed in Rwanda

Once there, workers sift through the cherries, discarding any deemed defective. Then, they soak the good cherries in water and pass them through a pulping machine. This process strips cherries of skin and pulp, revealing the jewels within: green coffee beans!

Next comes fermentation. Workers soak the beans in a fermentation tank to enhance the beans’ flavor and further strip them of remaining skin and pulp. After fermentation, they remove the beans and place them on raised beds for drying. Hand-turning the beans helps with optimal sun exposure and moisture removal during this stage.

Once dry, workers package the parchment coffee in large gunny bags and ship them for quality control. At this stage, experts grade the best Rwanda coffee by size and weight. Then, they repack them and send them to a roaster within Rwanda or an export company which ships directly via the port of Mombasa, Kenya.

What Does Rwanda Coffee Taste Like?

One thing I love about Rwanda coffee is its unique and complex fruity flavor, with delightful floral notes. Seriously, no other bean can match it! The acidity is lively, the body is medium to light and the finish is crisp.

Roasted coffee beans from Rwanda’s five coffee-producing regions will differ noticeably in taste and aroma:

  • Lake Kivu coffee beans are full of sweet white chocolate notes, perfect for espresso. They exude the intoxicating smell of floral jasmine and clever hints of lime and orange blossom. The creamy body has a luscious mouthfeel and pleasant lingering acidity.

  • Virunga coffee displays intense fruit and sweet caramel flavors. In addition, you’ll pick up beautiful floral aromas and an unmatched brightness found nowhere else in the world. Think citrus fruit, sweet cherry, brown sugar and cocoa nibs with a luscious mouthfeel and well-balanced acidity.

  • Muhazi coffee offers a prominent earthy and spicy-sweet flavor, and aromas evocative of white chocolate, brown sugar, baking spice and dates. Despite these earthy flavors, the body is medium and the acidity delightful.

  • Akagera coffee beans are sweet, with a fruitier profile reminiscent of mango, lychee and granadilla. They also have noticeable floral notes and spicy, fruity undertones. Think black pepper, cinnamon, blackberry and cherry.

  • Kizi Rift coffee has enticing fruit notes of cherry, apricot and citrus fruit. It has a smooth body, citric acidity and playful hints of grape and blackberry.

How to Buy Rwandan Coffee

Rwandan beans are specialty coffees, difficult to get at your local grocery store. But if you still want to try them, all’s not lost.

Many independent roasters and coffee traders will likely stock these beans. Look out for Rwandan single-origin coffees or house blends on their websites when shopping.

Popping into your local coffee shop to look for these sublime beans is also worth a try. Good coffee shops will have Rwanda coffee as single-origin beans or incorporated in blends. Be sure to ask your barista the next time you visit.

However you choose to buy Rwanda coffee, there are a few essential things to keep in mind to ensure you get only the best:

  • Ensure the coffee is Rwandan by checking the origin on your coffee bean bag. No reputable coffee roaster would leave this information out.

  • Ensure you buy coffee beans as close as possible to the roasting date. Fresh-roasted coffee beans equal a better cup of joe!

  • Buy whole beans over ground coffee every time. You won’t know the roast date of ground coffee; worse, you can’t be sure what’s in your brew! Grinding your own beans is always the way to go.

  • As much as possible, buy Fair Trade coffee or coffee from reputable roasters who directly trade with the Rwandan coffee industry. This ensures you get the best beans for your money. It also prevents you from purchasing low-quality beans and those grown by exploited workers.

How to Brew Rwandan Coffee

Rwandan coffee beans generally benefit from gentler brewing methods like pour-over coffee.

Roasted Arabica coffee beans from Akagera and Kizi Rift regions are ideal as a medium roast. This roast profile brings out the bean’s well-rounded flavor profile and balanced body. It also gives you more control over the extraction process. Trust me, under- or over-extracted coffee is undrinkable.

You could also use a drip coffee maker that requires less manual work without compromising quality.

Making cold brew in a mason jar

Still, whatever you do, please don’t use a French press; it doesn’t suit these particular coffees. The larger grind size and longer steep time required would overshadow the delicate fruit and floral flavors.

Rwanda coffees from the Muhazi region are unique in that they do well with practically any brewing method, including espresso machines, drip coffee makers and cold brew coffee makers. Remember to use the right grind; extra-fine for espresso makers, medium for drip coffee and medium-coarse to coarse grinds for cold brew. Doing so will prevent you from under-extracting or over-extracting coffee into your cup.

In stark contrast, Virunga and Lake Kivu coffees are at the opposite end of the spectrum. These Rwanda coffees have pronounced dark chocolate and sweet caramel notes. These qualities make them perfect for making specialty coffee drinks, like an espresso macchiato, latte or cappuccino. You could also use these quality coffees as a coarse-grind dark roast with a French press; it’ll hit all the right notes!

Summing Up Rwandan Coffee: Final Thoughts

Even though the history of Rwandan coffee is sometimes tragic, the future looks bright and exciting! Whether you’re a coffee connoisseur or a budding coffee enthusiast fascinated by stories within a cup, Rwanda coffee has it all! It’s truly making its mark as a player in the specialty coffee sector.

As you savor Rwanda coffee, remember to look out for its unique coffee aromas and flavor profiles – the sweet and floral, fruit-forward notes of Ethiopian coffee mixed with the bright acidity of Kenya coffee. Every sip conveys a story of dedication, sustainability and a nation’s extraordinary resilience.

So, here’s to your next cup of Rwandan liquid poetry! And here’s to this tiny African country that’s big on coffee!

Have you ever tasted coffee from Rwanda? What did you think about this East African coffee’s flavor profile? I look forward to reading your opinions in the comments!

Rwanda Coffee FAQ

Rwanda coffee is famous around the world for its fruitier flavor profile and smooth, mellow, balanced acidity. This quality coffee also has a distinct floral taste. The creamy body is medium to light and the finish is clean and sharp.

Rwandan coffee has an exceptionally bright and vibrant taste with a stand-out aroma. It boasts sweet brown sugar, cherry and blackcurrant flavors. Rwanda coffee beans also have a buttery overtone and pronounced floral notes of orange blossom and lemon zest and spicy notes of cinnamon and baking spice.

Rwanda is gaining recognition worldwide for its excellent coffee. It is challenging the supremacy of the best coffees from Ethiopia and Kenya. Coffee comes from small-scale farms at a high altitude of 1,200-2,000 masl. The rich volcanic soils and regular rainfall also contribute to the high-quality coffee.

Rwanda’s best coffee comes from small farms around the Lake Kivu, Kizi Rift, Virunga, Muhazi and Akagera regions. Small-scale farms in these areas produce some of the best high-quality coffee sought out by specialty brew lovers all over the world.

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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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