Burundi Cup of Excellence Diaries: Part I

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 first of several trip diaries.

Bujumbura rooftops. Photo by John Moore.

DAY 1

Landed safe and sound in Bujumbura, Burundi this afternoon after a few hours in Johannesburg. The approach was really something out of a film — Jurassic Park or some Arthurian legend. About 45 minutes before approaching Bujumbura we hit thick cloud cover and it was impossible to see through. After a rather interesting warning from the pilot we descended aggressively and managed to get just beneath the thick canopy of clouds.

Although beneath the billowy blanket above us a thick misty fog still clung to the air which made visibility minimal at best. In the last ten minutes or so it was as if we stepped out of a steam bath and into clear air. The fog parted and it was as if Burundi miraculously appeared right beneath us from a dream. We followed the Ruzuzi River valley as the ancient waterway connecting Lake Kivu and Tangyanika seemed to lazily wind and snake its way toward Bujumbura.

The first thing that struck me was just how different but similar the landscape seemed from its northern neighbor Rwanda. In Rwanda there was a meticulously executed land reform after the genocide that distributed plots more equitably between the Tutsi minority (formerly the aristocracy defined by in part by cattle and land) and the Hutu majority. Rwanda and Burundi are the two most densely populated countries on the African continent, and in Rwanda it often seemed like the whole country was a patchwork quilt of small farms. Some of the land that appeared to have wild flora or fauna I learned later was all carefully managed by specific owners.

In Burundi it would appear as though reform came about in a somewhat different manner. Yes, there are some areas that are clearly delineated farms, but much of the land that we flew over and that I’ve seen so far appears to be actually wild. Also, it would appear by what I saw that there are fewer paved roads and other contemporary conveniences than I saw in Rwanda. Burundi also remains one of the world’s most impoverished nations, regularly ranking in the top 3 poorest countries on earth, so that could explain the roads. Or lack thereof.

Also, although I knew Bujumbura was near Lake Tangyanika, I didn’t realize that the city
is literally on the lake. It was interesting in Rwanda to see just how profound an influence Lake Kivu had on the local coffee production. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I had to take a boat across the lake to visit the winning farm from Cup of Excellence when I was there. I’m curious to learn more about which coffees prove themselves on the table this week and where they come from. I also hope to learn more about work going on right now to better define regions both in Burundi and neighboring Rwanda.

A not-that-common paved road. Photo by John Moore.

The topography of Burundi is defined by tectonic and volcanic activity. This is the Albertine Rift and East African Rift. In flying over the mountains of Burundi I was instantly reminded of the blondish to brownish khaki soil coloration that I saw in Rwanda. I must have consumed a half lung’s worth of the stuff when driving the dirt roads with open windows on my farm trips and it looked familiar. The bad news is that if it is the same stuff I’ll be sneezing and coughing it up for a while. The good news is that it can produce great coffee!

At the airport I was quickly reminded of the not-too-distant conflicts here in Burundi. I
stopped to grab a quick photo of the airport as I was getting off the plane, to celebrate the fact that terra firma was once again under my feet. Unfortunately the security guy with the AK47 didn’t think it was such a funny idea, and immediately started busting my chops. Fortunately he quickly lost interest and after muttering something in French directed me to get off the tarmac and into the customs area.

DAY 2

The last rebel group didn’t sign a peace agreement here until 2009.There are some astonishing post-war stats: average life expectancy is 46, and 50% of the population is under 15 years old. 50%! The population of the entire country is about that of NYC, at about 8.5 million people. Almost 10% of that —- 800,000 —- live in Bujumbura.

The economy is devoted to agriculture; 90% of the population is dependent on subsistence farming for survival. The economic growth of Burundi is reliant on the development of the coffee and tea sectors, and 90% of the foreign exchange earnings are derived from coffee and tea exports! 90%! For many years the Tutsi minority dominated the coffee trade, and it was essentially controlled by the government. In 2005 the government liberalized and privatized the sector, and this has lead to investments by many private investors both Tutsi and Hutu.

Imagine the impact that a program like Cup of Excellence can have in this environment and
in this place. The average annual income here in the agricultural sector is about $200.00
per year. It will be amazing to see the kind of good that CoE can do for a farmer or collective of farmers that will suddenly see CoE auction earnings. The average coffee farm here is only about 150 trees, so CoE $/lb ratios could really make a difference.

Cup of Excellence Burundi begins! Photo by John Moore.

About that — today was Day 1. Our head judge here is Paul Songer, and this is my second time with Paul as a head judge, and third time that he has been involved in a competition that I’ve been part of. Paul’s Day 1 calibration sessions are the stuff of legend. He loves his statistics, his presentations, and his scientific experiments in coffee. He happens to be one of the foremost minds in coffee when it comes to sensory experience, in particular in the chemistry of coffee and how that is perceived by us humans. Paul didn’t disappoint, and it was actually very nice to see that he is constantly tweaking his intro and experiments with us as his guinea pigs.

After an intensive acid calibration (not what it sounds like), we jumped into the coffee calibration. Paul picked the coffee that was supposed to be the best, the middle, and the dud. This time around was kind of funny. Within seconds the ‘best’ was lost to potato defect, although the other two samples were what they were supposed to be. After these were revealed, we cupped a flight of coffees with these standards identified and sitting in the middle of the table as benchmarks to use as reference. Then we all cupped and compared our notes.

It was interesting to see how the ugly potato defect showed up so immediately and with such impact. Still, it was perhaps more interesting to see how vibrant the acidity is in some of these coffees, and how diverse the flavor profiles can be. Looking forward to getting this thing going for real tomorrow!