April 17, 2015

The History of Rwandan Coffee & The Story Behind Epiphanie Muhirwa


Prior to discussing the flavour notes, it’s important to acknowledge the story and sweat that’s been poured into harvesting each little Bourbon bean (hopefully no actual sweat has made it’s way into my cup). Why? So we can understand how the premium paid to the smallholder farmers is a reward for excellence and how this coffee is a relic of the nation’s troubled past.

The History of Rwandan Coffee

Rwanda has had a troubled history and coffee has been a part of that history since the 1930’s. At that time, coffee was a key driver of the economy and the Belgium colonial government forced farmers to grow coffee whilst controlling prices and imposing high export taxes. The result of this was that the farmers earned very little for their low-grade coffee, which served as a filler to higher quality beans used in commercial-grade coffee. This high volume and poor quality coffee exportation model persisted following Rwandan independence in 1962 with marginal, if any, improvements to the coffee quality or to the welfare of the farmers who grew it. Perhaps, this historical exploitation explains why many Rwandans today actually hate coffee and prefer tea.

The next major change was the 1990’s world coffee price drop crisis, which occurred as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda took place. These two events took a massive toll on Rwanda and its coffee industry and by the year 2000, the washing and processing infrastructure for coffee was completely devastated and this made growing coffee a near pointless endeavour.

It took about ten years for the industry to begin to recover, and now, in modern day Rwanda, there is a National Coffee Strategy to further recover, improve and expand the coffee industry. This aggressive economic strategy is geared towards the production of high quality coffee cherries and therefore high-quality beans, or as we know it – specialty coffee. Funding from both the Rwandan government and other countries as well as private investors has made all this possible. Farmers and their families now benefit from higher and more stable prices and exciting projects such as Buf Café continue to emerge.

Speaking from my own exposure to Rwandan coffee, it has become a considerable player in the third wave that’s exploded over the past few years within the UK and Europe. Roasters such as Drop Coffee Roasters and Has Bean have caught this wave and latched onto the revival of the coffee industry in Rwanda.

Market Lane Coffee visited the Nyamagabe station 5 months ago. Witness the revival in the video below.

The Story Behind Epiphanie Muhirwa

As the coffee industry in Rwanda began to blossom again and the coffee industry shifted from a domestic market to shipping coffee abroad, the roasters over at Drop Coffee Roasters pounced on the expanding opportunities. About a year ago they got their hands on their first Rwandan coffee and in their words they “were dazzled by how profound and pure the flavours of a Rwandan coffee could be.” This season they have began work on this washed coffee and have bought 24 bags of green coffee beans for roasting.

The coffee (composed of different kinds of traditional bourbons) is grown and farmed at an altitude between 17000 and 2000m by nearly one thousand smallholder farmers in Nyamagabe.  The coffee cherries are hand-picked and sorted and then transported to the Nyarusiza coffee washing station for washing and processing, which is located in the region of Ginkongoro in the south of Rwanda and ran by entrepreneur Epiphanie Muhirwa and her son Samuel.

Women handsorting coffee

Hand sorting for defects. See the hands in every cup. Credit: Intelligentsia

Epiphanie was widowed during the genocide in 1994 – but insisted on maintaining her family’s coffee farm. Motivated to rebuild and develop her business and funded by the Rwandan Development Bank and the USAID financed PEARL project, she opened Buf Café in 2003. Initially, Buf Café functioned as an intermediary – Epiphanie engaged and trained local farmers on better cherry selection who then supplied her with higher quality coffee cherries, which she then sold onto washing stations at premium prices.

Buf Café has since sourced credit to build two of its own washing stations – Nyarusiza and Remera and Epiphanie has inspired many businesswomen in the Rwandan coffee industry.

Women picking coffee cherries

Epiphanie (left, owner) and Eduine (right, station manager), Nyarusiza washing station.
Credit: Intelligentsia

How Is the Coffee Processed at Nyarusiza?

At the Nyarusiza station, the coffee cherries are de-pulped, to separate the beans from the fruit’s flesh and skin, and then dry fermented (in the cherry’s own remaining juices) to accentuate the coffees inherent sweetness. The beans are then graded into three categories in washing channels (A, B, C according to density), soaked in clean water tanks for 12 hours, before finally being shade-dried on African drying beds for 21 days. Samuel and Epiphanie care so much for their coffee that they even protect the farmer’s coffee with plastic sheets at midday and in the evening.

After all this processing, the highest quality grade A beans are sent to Drop Coffee Roaster’s in Stockholm to be lightly roasted. Drop Coffee Roasters functions as a micro-roaster, “focusing on taste, quality and sustainability”, which marries well with their involvement in the revival of Rwanda’s coffee industry. They actually seek out a higher priced bean to enforce sustainability and to ensure a high-quality product.

Drop Coffee Ephinany.

This coffee has a story to tell – so share it!

Implications of the Cup

During the peak harvest period (May to June/July) each year, the Nyarusiza washing station provides over 100 well-paid jobs to local people – a handful of which become permanent. Many of the 1,000 farmers that Epiphanie buys coffee from  have only around 300 coffee trees and use the rest of their land to grow other crops to feed their families. Their income comes mainly from the sale of coffee, and the premiums they earn are used to send their children to school, for medical expenses or to invest in livestock.

Womeb sorting coffee beans

Credit: Melbourne Coffee Merchants

Brew Method: the Ingredients

What method? Chemex (with paper filter)

How much? 39g

Brew time? 3:45-4:00 minutes

Grind? Medium-fine (this particular coffee required greater extraction to release it’s full potential)

Brew Method: The Recipe

Pre-warm and pre-wet both the Chemex and paper filter, then add and the ground coffee. Start the timer and simultaneously pour in 100g of 95°C water, in a circular motion, for the bloom stage. Stir for 2 seconds with a wooden stirrer to ensure the ground beans are appropriately wet. After this, pour in a further 420g of water, continuing in the circular motion. The extraction should take 3:45-4:00 minutes and produce enough coffee for a 6-cup Chemex.

At first sip, I detected its sweet fruity redcurrant flavour. Then came the rich and creamy mouthful, encompassed by a delicious berry-like acidity. The sweet redcurrant tones lingered momentarily before dissipating into a white chocolaty aftertaste.

This coffee is fighting for the top spot on my list of best tasting coffees from this season, but the background, effort and time that has been invested in it adds a whole new dimension. All that effort has resulted in a truly special cup. If this coffee interests you, you can order some directly from Drop Coffee.

chemex in beautiful scenery

Chemexin like a boss. Credit: William Gancsz

Article edited by N. Bhatt.

Feature Photo Credit: Coffee Hunter

Perfect Daily Grind.