Burundi Cup of Excellence Diaries: Part II

Our esteemed VP of Sales, Marketing, and seemingly everything else, John Moore, flew last week to Burundi’s first-ever Cup of Excellence competition. We at Dallis, and particularly John, have been proud to support and participate in Cup of Excellence competitions across the world, both for the benefit they bring to the industry by recognizing truly great coffees, and — more importantly — for the actual financial benefit this recognition can bring to farms, particularly those in economically troubled countries. Burundi’s first competition, and John’s first trip to Burundi, are momentous to us. We share here his second of several trip diaries.

Cupping at the first ever Burundi Cup of Excellence competition. Photo by John Moore.

Day 3

Holy Potato! Attack of the killer potatoes… attack of the killer potatoes!

Potato defect ran amuck in the first round of the Cup of Excellence here in Burundi this morning. During the first flight 4 of the 10 coffees were disqualified, and an additional cup was DQ’d for phenol. Paul said it was the first DQ for phenol he had seen in years. Imagine that 60 cups of each of these coffees have already gone through the national selection without incident. It was really something. Later flights were not as dramatic, but we did DQ multiple samples in every flight.

Fortunately many of the coffees left standing were really stellar coffees. I don’t know if it was Paul’s calibration or what, but the complexity and range of acidity types has been quite a surprise. All of the coffees here, as it was in Rwanda, are bourbon. The very first coffee we hit was a classic example of quinic acidity mixed with various fruit acidity, types and enough sweetness to make for an incredibly interesting cup. It was like a gooseberry kumquat martini made with Hendrick’s gin (juniper, cucumber essence, rose-petal essence, and botanicals) — but NOT the dry version. This one had a crazy bitter but sweet, floral, and structured thing happening that was intriguing as hell. Yum.

We are all learning that things here in Burundi can take a bit more time than they might in other places. In between rounds, Grant Rattray filled in some time with a meaningful explanation of how CoE is hoping to work in Burundi. Evidently this is actually still being finalized as we speak.

As I mentioned earlier, Burundi is a land of very small coffee farms. All CoE lots need to be 15 – 50 x 60 kg (132 lbs) bags. All growers will be specifically named, and paid according to the precise proportion of coffee contributed. It is up to the washing stations to submit what they consider to be their best lots, and each can enter up to 4 samples for competition. They have 68 of 175 washing stations in Burundi involved this year — over 30% of all the country’s facilities contributing over 300 samples total! This is pretty impressive considering it is the first year of the program. Their goal is to get all involved.

“How is the money going to get to the farmer?” you are probably asking yourselves at this point. The washing station managers are keeping very careful records of which coffees are in which lots submitted, and even what percentage per specific farm’s coffee. Right now it looks like CoE is planning on emulating the breakdown typcial for the industry here:: ~72% to the grower pool, ~16% to wet mill, ~5% to dry mill, rest to promotion, taxes, fees, etc. CoE / Alliance for Coffee Excellence is hoping that they might be able to get about 85% of the money to the growers, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about this soon, certainly before the

We had two more rounds of cupping once everything got back on track. Each of those rounds saw two samples eliminated for potato. In every cupping today we found potato on our table, and it is a very complicated issue.

So what is potato defect? The chemical is actually closer to snap peas than potato from the “Le Nez Du Cafe” aroma kit many of us calibrate with. The current dominant theory is that it is caused by the antestia insect. Microorganisms that infect the coffee fruit and seed, due to skin damage. This skin damage can happen in a variety of ways, but it is commonly thought that the distinct “potato defect” (which is common also in neighboring Rwanda and also occurs in Tanzania, Zambia, and Kenya) is due to damage from an insect
called Antestia.

It’s very difficult to sort out the “potato” defect, as it is largely invisible. Flotation of cherry before pulping helps, as does densimetric sorting of finished coffee. I am always amazed by the power of the internet, and within seconds I found this via Google and

“Antestiopsis is a genus of shield bug, commonly known as antestia and the variegated coffee bug. Several species in eastern Africa are pests of coffee plants, giving the coffee beans a distinctive ‘potato taste’, which is thought to be caused indirectly by bacteria entering through wounds created by the insects, leading to an increase in the
concentration of isopropyl methoxy pyrazine. They feed on flowers, berries and growing tips, injecting a toxic saliva that often contains the spores of the Ashbya fungus, and then suck juices out.”

I especially love that last bit — nice little critter eh?

The fact that Kenya has seen a few cases is extremely alarming, but might just be the kick in the butt that the whole region needs to take the issue seriously. Again, the results of this process may help to achieve that as well.

What to do? Kill the bugs would be my obvious answer. Easier said than done, obviously — just ask Byron!

In speaking with people here there seem to be a few measures that could be taken:

1. Attentive picking – looking for signs of insect damage, holes, or split skins

2. Attentive wet milling and sorting. You have all seen how we sort at our mill, and the somewhat damaged or deformed seeds will often end up notably less dense than fully matured and healthy seeds. As a result they float. If you skim the floaters you may remove a bunch of the possibly infected seeds.

3. Densimetric sorting — using the density differential we just talked about again after the wet mill process to further reduce the chances of potato showing up.

4. As Byron always says, healthy coffee trees produce better tasting coffee. I had a long chat with Benjamin Lentz who is the Director of the USAID Burundi agricultural initiatives, and it was interesting to see how much progress they have made in just a couple of years. They are investing a lot in creating model plots and have seen potato
numbers shrink from 30% to minimal amounts just by getting the right inputs into the soil.

5. Infrared light / UV light. Here I heard both terms thrown around but I believe it happens to be one or the other, not both. Today an old story I heard a few years back was confirmed. It seems Burundi had two color sorting machines like we have in Brazil outfitted with the appropriate light (UV or Infrared) and this would help them to
detect the potato. They were able to make significant gains vs. the potato, but then one broke down and someone simply decided not to use the other… alas, I am learning that this is sorta how things work here.

More on all of this tomorrow. A big day!