Coffee's short history in Burundi reflects the country's recent turbulent history, as production has moved from privately owned to government-controlled, and now back in private hands again.
Private ownership allowed small lots from individual farmers and picking dates to be processed and sold separately, so an individual lot of very high quality can be sold at a premium price to the specialty coffee market, rather than mixed with lesser-quality.
This lot comes from smallholders around the Mbirizi Washing Station, started in 2014 and the second washing station established by Salum Ramadhan. Salum also runs a transport business: helpful in a landlocked country with such varied terrain.
Salum’s detail oriented and spends a lot of time to train local staff: something that’s earned him a loyal team.
Salum Ramadhan (pic: Nordic Approach)
He’s unusual in that he owns a transport business, which helps Mbrizi receive harvests at collection points around the region close to farmers rather than requiring them to transport their crops all the way to the washing station themselves. It's also useful as the final product makes its way from the washing station to a port for export quickly and safely: one of the main challenges in a land-locked country like Burundi.
What happens at Mbrizi Washing Station
Mbirizi is a communal station in the high altitudes in Kayanza. They mainly produce fully washed lots, but are also experimenting with natural processed coffee, and shade drying.
Coffee farms in Burundi are small, often below one hectare each with some hundred trees. This means that a daily lot of e.g. 25 bags of greens can consist of coffee from some hundred growers.
pic: Nordic Approach
Salum and his team works to keep coffees separate based on where they are grown, and by the date of processing. They generally collect cherries from a range of areas with different altitudes, growing conditions etc, and the flavor range is pretty wide spread according to that.
He’s also investing in social and environmental projects such as education in the local areas, and reed ponds to filter waste water.
Harvesting and collecting
The main harvest will normally start very slowly in March, peak around May (depending on altitude and weather) and end in July. The family members on the small farms are working the land, picking the coffee cherries themselves in the afternoon or on Saturdays.
They will then either deliver the cherries to Mbirizi washing station by foot or bicycle, or to the closest collection points where there’s a representative from Mbirizi washing station.
These collection points are strategically placed in remote areas to buy cherries. The farmers are free to deliver their cherries to anyone offering the highest price, and for the best coffees competition can be fierce.
Salum and his collectors communicate with the local farmers on selective picking and sorting (which increases the value of their harvest) and competition for the best crops from farmers means Mbrizi pays premiums above the market prices for the best crops.
Bringing in cherries from the different collection points is expensive as the cost of transport in Burundi is high. Still, it has been good for quality as he has well trained staff, good capacity at the station and infrastructure to produce micro lots.
Mbirizi washing station has strict routines for the delivery of coffee cherry from farmers.
The coffees are sorted by the farmers at the receiving stations on raised tables, or they even have small floatation tank system for each farmer at delivery. They also have workers dedicated to sort out unripe and over-ripe coffees for their special preparation of micro lots. The pre-processing flotation process shown in the Instagram photo above involves skimming off any cherries (which float) and giving them back to the farmer before the coffees are hand sorted to separate out unripe/half-ripe.
Improving on traditions
The washing station is at a high elevation and climate is cool, making it easier to control the fermentation time. The traditional fermentation and washing process in Burundi is a lengthy procedure with double fermentation (dry and wet fermentation) before soaking. This double fermentation is a labor-intensive process that requires a lot of water and creates more waste water.
pic: Nordic Approach
Mbrizi has changed their process to reduce water usage and manual labour, while also increasing capacity and avoiding over-fermentation.
They generally do a 12 hour dry fermentation, followed by grading in washing channels down to 3-4 grades based on density, before a final 12-18 hours soaking in clean water.
Raised drying beds, covered due to rain. (pic: Nordic Approach)
From there it goes to pre-drying under shade with handpicking of wet parchment before entering the elevated and sun exposed drying tables. Drying normally takes 15 – 20 days depending on the weather and rainfall. Rain isn't unusual during drying, and they have to be quick to cover up the coffee when they see the clouds are building up so the drying isn't interrupted.
Thought to originate on the Island of Bourbon (now Réunion Island) off Madagascar, bourbon grew out of mutations of Ethiopian and Yemeni arabica plants.
These plants were then further cultivated in Brazil, before they were transported back to East Africa. Bourbon is now most often associated with coffee crops in Rwanda and Burundi.
The video below tells the entertaining journey of how bourbon came to be, from James Hoffman’s talk at the 2014 UK Barista Championships.
If you haven’t already picked up a copy of his book The World Atlas of Coffee, trust us when we say it’s worth your time. James is managing director of the UK roaster Square Mile, a former world barista champion and also blogs and tweets his thoughts on coffee.