A roaster’s guide to Rwandan coffee

Karmen Yoong
April 29, 2022
A roasters guide to Rwandan coffee

Only two decades ago, Rwanda was ravaged by civil war and genocide. Today, it has emerged as a world-class coffee producer. 

While still relatively new to the specialty sector, Rwandan coffee offers remarkable cup potential that rivals other top coffee-producing regions.

The country has optimal growing conditions to cultivate high-quality arabica coffee due to its rich volcanic soil, high altitudes, and abundant rainfall.

About 95% of Rwandan coffee comes from Bourbon – a highly respected arabica variety known for its excellent cup quality. As a result, Rwandan coffees typically have bright, clean flavours, with sweet, floral characteristics and a tea-like finish. 

Read on to learn more about Rwandan coffee and how it should be roasted to unlock its full potential.

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African hands picking red ripe coffee cherries from a branch.

Rwanda as a coffee origin

Coffee is not native to Rwanda. Its cultivation in the country dates back to the early 20th century, when German missionaries introduced the first coffee plants. 

However, production only took off three decades later, when Belgium gained colonial control over Rwanda at the end of World War I.

Under Belgian colonial rule, coffee cultivation was made mandatory for farmers across the country. As coffee was considered as a cash crop, production was heavily focused on low-grade coffee beans.

Until the tragic genocide in 1994, coffee contributed significantly to Rwanda’s global trade, accounting for more than 50% of the country’s total agricultural export. 

Rwanda is a landlocked nation, surrounded by mountainous terrain. As a result, it is often referred to as the Land of Thousand Hills. Most coffee farms are located at an elevation of 1,200 to 1,800 metres above sea level, with the bulk of coffee production coming from over 400,000 small farms.

In the late 1990s, Rwanda’s coffee industry was on the verge of collapse as a result of the political unrest. Coupled with the decline in global coffee prices, the industry suffered tremendously.

Fortunately, when foreign aid flowed into the country to aid its recovery, there was a strong focus on the coffee sector. In particular, a National Coffee Strategy was developed to reposition the country as a specialty coffee producer.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) helped build washing stations throughout the country. As a result, between 55% and 60% of the country’s current production is fully washed specialty coffee. 

Black rwandan coffee sitting in a clear glass coffee cup on brown coaster placed on white background.

What are the characteristics of Rwandan coffees?

Rwanda is a well sought-after coffee origin, as it produces some of the best specialty coffees – many of which have gone on to win international awards

Rwandan coffee has bright acidity and tends to be both savoury and savoury. It has a silky texture and creamy body, followed by a rich caramel or chocolate aftertaste. Its aroma carries hints of orange blossom and lemon.

It is well-known that a coffee’s flavour profile can vary depending on various factors, such as its growing region, farming technique, and processing method. 

As Rwandan coffee is grown at high altitudes, it has a slower crop maturation rate, allowing more nutrients to be delivered to the coffee bean. Additionally, it provides more time for complex sugars to form, which may result in a sweet and complex flavour profile of the final cup.

Furthermore, Rwandan coffees have distinct floral, fruity, and citrus flavours. In his book titled The World Atlas of Coffee, James Hoffman explains red apple, red grape, or berry fruit are some of the common flavour notes. 

Some may even find traces of clove, spice, or cinnamon flavours in a cup of Rwandan coffee. 

Due to the washed processing method practised in most coffee farms, it is also often described as clean and crisp. With its delicate and tea-like characteristics, Rwandan coffees share similarities with other East African coffees such as Ethiopia or Kenya.

Caucasian hand scoops roasted  rwandan coffee beans out of cast-iron pot sitting on countertop.

What to consider when roasting Rwandan coffees

When planning to roast Rwandan coffees, roasters will have to consider various elements, including batch size, bean size, and moisture content. 

That said, roasters must pay close attention to the density of Rwandan beans. As it is cultivated at elevations greater than 1,200 metres, Rwandan coffee qualifies as strictly high grown or strictly hard beans.

This means the beans tend to be denser and their structure is more compact. To account for this, it is advised that roasters apply more heat at the beginning of the roast

As hard beans tend to transfer heat well, a relatively high charge temperature and rate of rise will benefit the roast. Conversely, applying too little heat may result in baked coffee.

Notably, stretching out the development time may also help accentuate the coffee’s body and mouthfeel.

Another aspect that is unique, but threatening to Rwandan beans is the potato defect. This refers to an unusual coffee defect that is prevalent in East African countries. It is commonly caused by antestia bugs that feed on the cherry and produce an unpleasant raw potato taste. 

This defect is often undetectable once post-harvesting processing is complete. This means roasters cannot detect it before roasting, and the defect may only be discovered once the coffee has been ground. 

Consequently, roasters will have to be mindful of this when conducting quality control on Rwandan beans. 

Generally speaking, Rwandan beans are versatile and are suited to any roast profile. For instance, a lighter roast may produce a more acidic, fruity cup. A medium to dark roast may result in a smooth, sweet, and heavy-bodied coffee. 

Once roasters have highlighted the best flavours of Rwandan coffee, the next step is to ensure freshness so consumers can enjoy its unique characteristics. 

At MtPak Coffee, we provide specialty coffee roasters with a range of sustainable coffee bags. Made with eco-friendly materials such as kraft and rice paper, our high quality coffee packaging will keep your coffee fresh for as long as possible. 

Our coffee pouches can also be fully customised with designs that highlight the best story of your coffee. Furthermore, they can be fitted with resealable zippers and degassing valves to provide extra convenience to consumers.

For more information on our sustainable coffee bags, contact the team

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