Origin story: Rwanda / by Bryan Hibbard

Throughout the year, I plan to write a series highlighting major coffee growing countries. I have decided to start with Rwanda, as it is one of my very favorite origins.

The story of Rwandan coffee starts with German missionaries, who brought the plant with them around 1904. The Belgians took control of Rwanda during World War 1. By the 1930s the Belgian government had created a commercial coffee growing structure. The relationship was good for the Belgians, but not so great for the average Rwandan coffee farmer. At this time, and up until the last 15-20 years, Rwanda was only producing cheap, filler coffee that went into commercial coffee blends. When the coffee market fell in the 1980s, Rwanda was hit hard. Then came the Rwandan Civil War and Genocide of the 1990s. By 2000 there was little coffee infrastructure left.

Musasa Mill in Rwanda. Photo from InterAmerican Coffee.

Musasa Mill in Rwanda. Photo from InterAmerican Coffee.

From the ashes of civil war, the Rwandan government has made specialty coffee a main focus for the country's rehabilitation. Since the coffee infrastructure had to be rebuilt from the ground up, they were able to start new. Sadly, when Belgian government was producing cheap, high-volume coffee in the mid 20th century in Rwanda, they were wasting a great natural resource. Rwanda has a great coffee climate, good soil, and many high-elevation growing regions. With Rwanda's new focus on specialty coffee, they have been able to become a major player in the specialty coffee world. In 2012, coffee was their #1 export, bringing in $24 million.

Almost all of Rwanda's specialty coffee is from the Bourbon variety of coffee tree. This is one of the original coffee cultivars and is still considered to be one of the very best. Great Rwandan coffee is very sweet and balanced without the bright intensity of neighboring Kenya, or the wild fruityness of Ethiopia. I find many Rwandan coffee lots remind me of a really good Central American coffee (like from Guatemala) but with a little something extra that makes it unique.

Even with this promising future, I feel that Rwandan coffee is still undervalued compared to its African coffee neighbors, Ethiopia and Kenya. That is why I am happy to pay a premium for high quality Rwandan coffee.

Nova washing station. Coffee is drying on African raised beds.

Nova washing station. Coffee is drying on African raised beds.

One of the major organizations in the Rwanda coffee economy is the Rwanda Trading Company. My importer, InterAmerican Coffee, works directly with them to bring in new lots each year. Many of you got to try my Rwanda: Intore, which is a blend of eight different washing stations maintained by the Rwanda Trading Company. Next month, I will be bringing in a new lot from the Nova washing station from the Gicumbi District in northern Rwanda. If you have never tried coffee from Rwanda, I encourage you to do so!