Burundi, sometimes known as the Heart of Africa, is a small landlocked country divided by a narrow mountain range separating the Congo and Nile river basins. The majority of coffee is grown in five regions located along this range, mostly in the north, northeast, and center of the country: Kayanza, Kirimiro, Kirundo, Muyinga and Ngozi. Burundi’s rich volcanic soil, abundant rainfall, and high-altitude, along with moderate temperatures ranging from 12 °C to 18 °C, create the perfect conditions for growing high-quality coffee. During its time as a Belgian colony, Burundi’s coffee production surged to meet the demands of a growing European market, but quickly declined after gaining independence in the 1960s. Years of exploitation and colonization left farmers looking for new opportunities, and levels of coffee quality, along with production, fell drastically. In the years to come, civil-war and a struggling economy would continue to plague any efforts to revitalize the coffee sector. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Burundi began its post-war recovery, which led to large government investments in the sector, due in large part to seeing the success of coffee in their neighbor to the north, Rwanda. Despite a difficult history and the challenges of being one of the poorest countries in the world, coffee now makes up 90% of Burundi’s GDP. Even more importantly, high-quality coffee is quickly sprouting up across the country and providing much needed stability to smallholder farmers and their communities.
The majority of the 800,000 Burundi coffee farmers are smallholders--with only 200-250 trees per farm--who produce coffee alongside other crops and livestock, primarily to be consumed at the household level or sold in local markets. Coffee is a family business, with everyone involved in cultivating, maintaining and picking coffee, including many women and youth. The lack of infrastructure, limited access to capital, and low coffee prices make it difficult for farmers to earn a living income. In recent years, some have been forced to abandon coffee farming in favor of more lucrative cash crops or pursued other, potentially more profitable, uses of their land. Despite these challenges, many continue to persevere and produce exceptional coffee, creating hope for a sustainable coffee future.
Burundi coffees are marked by their complexity, with rare and distinct flavor profiles surfacing in microlots across growing regions. Bright acidity with citric notes are balanced elegantly with a lingering honey sweetness. At its best, notes of berry, dried fruit and flowers alongside a smooth, clean body, are getting the coffee industry’s attention in an often overlooked country.
Similar to other coffee-producing nations in East Africa, the majority of farmers deliver their coffee cherries to centralized mills and washing stations for processing. Microlots are generally a reflection of a specific washing station, which might include coffee from hundreds of farmers within a region. While washed coffees are the most common processing method, there are some quality naturals to be found as well. Though it’s fairly rare, the regional “potato defect” can also be found in Burundi coffees, resulting in a raw potato-like aroma and taste in roasted coffee.