Located in Africa’s Western Rift Valley, Rwanda is a small and highly-hilly country. Its elevation and consistent rainfall mean ideal conditions for growing coffee. In the face of a genocide that is one of the most shocking travesties of the 20th Century, Rwandan farmers have used coffee to rebuild their lives and their communities.
During the 1930s, Rwanda’s colonial government mandated coffee farming programs as a way to capitalize on the country’s ideal climate and terrain. Coffee quickly became Rwanda’s largest export commodity. Well into the 80s, when specialty coffee started to appear on worldwide gastronomic radar, Rwandan coffee was simply not meeting specialty coffee cupping standards. This was due to 1) the lack of coffee culture in most of tropical Africa, so producers didn’t understand what to taste for, and 2)a severely limited coffee processing infrastructure.
In 1994, a coup d’état in Rwanda sparked a conflict between two major ethnic groups in the country. In an unfair attempt at making a long story very short, easily more than 750,000 people were murdered in 90 days and the country was in shambles. It was a genocide of unforeseen intensity, and left an already impoverished nation with heavier financial and social issues.
So in the wake of that tragedy, Rwandan coffee farmers began revising production strategies to not simply produce a lot of coffee, but to produce coffees that meet higher standards and sell for higher prices. COOPAC (Cooperative for the Promotion of Coffee Activities) was founded in 2001 as a collective of 110 farmers who were empowered to improve their financial standings. In 2003 COOPAC came to meet Fair Trade standards, and since then farmers have used those additional funds to improve roads and to rebuild bridges in Rutsiro and Rubavu districts. Over time the co-op has grown to include 2,200 members, and has expanded the scope of their social programs, notably starting a livestock distribution program. Fair Trade funds were used to purchase breeding cattle, and the offspring were raised, in time bred, and their offspring distributed among farmer members for farm labor and dairy production.
Over the past decade there’s been considerable improvement in the quality of Rwandan coffee, which I’ll hope and wager manifests in our Organic Lake Kivu Rwanda. The beans smell spicy and syrupy; I get some cloves and thick blackberry liqueur. The acid in the brew is an uplifting sweet lime, which is balanced out by a gentle blueberry fruitiness. These aspects coalesce to remind me distinctly of the zing in wild Pine Barrens blueberries. And the sip ends with more cloves, a bit of black pepper, and dutch cocoa.
As far as coffees at Black River go, this one must fall into our ‘dessert’ or ‘coffees-that-don’t-taste-like-coffee’ categories. To that end, I really like this coffee hot with a half-and-half and sugar. Or completely, completely cooled down, since it preserves so much fruitiness that it gets to tasting like a tropical summertime blueberry limeade. Pretty cool, even if that’s not the right way to do it. Break the rules and see what you think!
See you at the bar,