This summer, I was honoured to be invited to participate as an international juror in the Cup of Excellence competition in Burundi, East Africa.
The Cup of Excellence is an offshoot of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE), a member led organisation incorporating coffee professionals from across the world committed to upholding and pushing standards in specialty coffee to empower coffee farmers. The Cup of Excellence is the most prestigious competition and award available for high quality coffee and was established in 1999 – it is currently hosted in Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Guatemala, Burundi is the only African participant.
Throughout the harvest, farmers and washing stations tend to separate out the lots that they have high hopes for to submit them to the COE for judging. Each year, thousands of lots are entered to be judged by a panel of international cuppers. The level of scrutiny that COE coffees go through is unmatched anywhere else in the specialty coffee industry. The competition is rigorous, with cupping evaluations conducted over a three-week process by industry experts: first by a National Jury of about a dozen qualified jurors from the origin country, and then by an International Jury, comprised of approximately 20-25 experienced jurors from around the world. A competition with 300 entries yields an average of 9,000 analysed cups, with each “Top 10” coffee being cupped at least 120 times! The winning coffees are then sold in a global auction at premium prices that reflect the very high standard of the lot, the vast majority of auction proceeds go directly to the farmers or washing stations. It is only when the winning coffees have been chosen that the identity is revealed meaning all samples are analysed blindly and therefore fairly.
I landed in the capital ‘city’ of Bujumbura before catching a ride early the next morning three hours North to Ngozi Province, an area known for the production of high quality coffee. Here I was introduced to the rest of the International Jury with whom I would be spending the next five days intensively cupping and analysing this year’s entrants. This group was made up of experienced coffee buyers and tasters from no less than 17 different countries, many of whom were fellow Q Grader tasters. The first day was spent calibrating our palates to ensure we were all on the same page with how we were assessing the coffees. This is often a tricky exercise as it is dependent on our role within the industry and previous experience. To be a member of the international jury you have to have been professionally tasting coffee for no less than three years consecutively – this helps you to keep up with the intensity of the competition which often sees you analysing up to 150 coffees per day, all of which are from the same country, have been processed in the same way and in the case of Burundi, are the same varietal! This was a challenge indeed in comparison to other COE competitions which generally have a higher variance in the flavour profiles of the coffees submitted helping you to find some points of reference as a taster.
After a successful calibration, we set about the job we were there to do carefully assessing each lot of coffee and deciding which ones should progress onto the next stage of the competition. To be a COE winning coffee, the lot must achieve a score higher than 86 out of 100 based on attributes such as acidity, body, sweetness, aroma, mouthfeel, clean cup, balance and flavour. Given Burundi’s natural high altitudes, good soils and abundance of Bourbon, this task was made even harder given that most of the coffees submitted easily achieved this base score. The standard overall was outstanding with a tight range for the final 23 winning coffees – just two lots achieved the ‘Presidential Award’ having scored over 90. The tasting notes recorded ranged from milk chocolate, brown sugar and honey to juicy blackcurrant, jasmine, cherry and orange.
During the trip we had the chance to visit one of the washing stations that had entered a lot into the competition. This was an incredible experience walking around the wet mill and coop headquarters with close to 500 smallholder farmers and their families accompanying us. Like many coffee producing countries in Africa, Burundi primarily has a smallholder model whereby farmers own on average half a hectare to two hectares of land to plant with coffee. Together with their families, they harvest the ripe coffee every year and deliver it to a nearby washing station which pays them a price based on the weight of cherry delivered. The washing station then processes the cherries to parchment stage before they are taken to a dry mill for export. This ultimately means that a smallholder famer is unable to access the higher prices achieved further along the supply chain when the coffee has been processed and is therefore of a higher value. As a group of buyers we were shocked to learn that on average a smallholder farmer producing specialty coffee in Burundi makes just $50 a year. This is an unimaginably low amount and it is difficult to see how things will improve going forwards unless Burundi coffee is valued at a higher price.
The coffee industry in this country has hit major obstacles over the last few years what with the political instability that has held back the industry and has failed to attract foreign buyers. Rwanda, on the other hand, is a picture of success despite the horrendous genocide of 1994 which did much to damage the industry. Thankfully, coffee was identified by the government there as a real vehicle for change and opportunity and has since received great investment with improved infrastructure and consistently high quality. As such, Rwandan coffee is now in great demand and can achieve prices that match those of the infamous origins of Kenya and Ethiopia that have long established specialty industries. Burundi is just a few years behind and we have a lot of work to do to grow the demand and raise its value.
Overall the competition felt like a huge success demonstrating the incredible quality on offer in Burundi, the competition ended with celebrations unlike anything I have ever witnessed before, all of which were attended by the Minister for Agriculture and other government officials which highlighted the huge importance of the event for the country. As the fifth poorest country in the world, there is no doubting the potential impact that something like the Cup of Excellence can have – global buyers of these award winning coffees have the option to reward hard working farmers with unprecedented premiums that can help massively with improving the quality of life for coffee farmers. In the recent auction, the top two lots went for $50.32/lb – a staggering £85.54/kg for the green coffee alone! This is a huge triumph for the victorious Kibingo washing station that placed first with the lot they entered and the opportunity they now have to redistribute that profit is hugely positive.
Here at North Star we’re determined to buy as much Burundi coffee as we possibly can to showcase its incredible character to our customers and help advance the industry there allowing smallholder farmers access to higher prices. As the country’s largest export, coffee holds an immense opportunity to contribute to the overall social and economic development of Burundi, helping to change the lives of millions if we can grow the industry responsibly and without exploitation. The next few months will see a Burundi takeover here at North Star as we showcase some of the Cup of Excellence winning coffees that I managed to successfully bid on alongside a feature on different processing techniques from the fantastic Gahahe washing station in Kayanza province. We really hope you enjoy getting to know this fantastic country and its coffee and can’t wait to hear your feedback – we would be really grateful if you can help us spread the message far and wide that Burundi really is the one to watch!