It’s never easy to source coffee, but some coffees are admittedly a little harder than others.
Sometimes the difficulty is due to lack of supply, or in having access to what limited supply exists. Maybe the access is there but the paperwork is a disaster—which is almost worse. Then, of course, governments get the way, either directly or indirectly; disease, natural disaster, or human error can upset the coffee cart at a moment’s notice, too.
Burundi, the tiny arrowhead-shaped country in the heart of Africa, has certainly found itself at the junction of these complications throughout its relatively short speciality-coffee history—often several simultaneously. Yet, for all the degrees of difficulty related to working here, there is a pull back to the place and the promise that its coffee offers—not just in the cup.
Jason Long, Cafe Imports’ partner and head of sourcing, described sampling his first notable coffees from Burundi in 2006, as intrigue from the new speciality lots coming from Rwanda spread to this small southern neighbor. At the time, Rwanda was still a relatively unusual (and seemingly hard to pronounce) offering to see on a single-origin menu; most people recognized it from the desperately traumatic genocide that brought the country to international attention in the 1990s. While Burundi also struggled similar and similarly intense political and cultural strife, it was less well-known as a nation, and as such was a few years behind Rwanda when it came to putting the needle to the record of fine and fascinating coffees.
From the very first, Burundi didn’t come easy. “Our first buy was three containers of coffee,” Jason says. “And they promptly got stuck in Dar es Salaam, and didn’t ship until I think February, when they should have shipped in November.” Because Burundi (like Rwanda) is a landlocked country, coffees are traded as Free On Truck (FOT) rather than Free On Board (FOB), which means the transfer ownership—and accrue extra risk—once they are loaded into a land vehicle to be driven to the nearest shipping port in Tanzania, rather than simply when the container is loaded and put on the water.
Jason had already agreed to pay what were almost outrageously off-market prices for the lots: “They were asking minus $0.07 from the C-Market for the coffee, and even the exporter said, ‘Why don’t you just pay even?’ I said I want to be a good enough bid that I want people to know this around Burundi, so they will start doing better preparation and better whatever else.”
“It was like, well, we’ve got three containers of coffee I paid real money for from a country that no one knows, and it’s been stuck in Dar for months—this is going to go well. Nine hundred bags of a coffee that doesn’t taste good that no one wants. For whatever reason, those things did not die, they were really good.”
The coffees are still really good, year after year, though of course it still isn’t remotely a cinch: Our primary relationships are with the network of washing stations that make up Sogestal Kayanza, and while the coffee is phenomenal year after year, communication can be a challenge. The government-run Sogestal system itself is under threat of becoming completely outmoded by privatization, if it’s not undone by internal conflict and confusion first.
With the recent addition of Claudia Bellinzoni as an Africa-focused member of our green-coffee buying team, however, Jason says confidently that, “Next year will be a 180-degree difference. My goal is that we’ll find two or three private washing stations, pay a premium at the washing station and have it all be uber-traceable.” That way, as we continue to work with and support Sogestal Kayanza and the local farmers who rely on it for their livelihoods, we can also continue to pursue other avenues and opportunities for growth, development, and, ok, maybe make things just a little simpler.
One thing that will always be effortless about Burundi coffee, thankfully, is enjoying the delicious rewards that come with all the risks: Our microlots are about to hit the water, and they have been positively sparkling on the cupping table. Tart fruit, cane sugar, chamomile, grapefruit, lime, cherry cola, green grape, apple, caramel, big florals, creamy mouthfeel—lots of razzle dazzle (and, for the record, almost no potato defect).
See? Now wasn’t that easy?