In August last year I had the pleasure of serving as a juror in the 2nd Rwanda Cup of Excellence, to help select the best Rwandan coffees out of the 154 submitted lots that the National jury had already evaluated. It’s been a long time but I wanted to wait with this trip report till any coffee we bought was actually here, and now it is, so here we go.
After nearly missing my connection through Nairobi I arrived in Kigali to no bags, but thankfully local Technoserve rep and fellow juror Matt Daks knew how to work the Rwandan lost luggage system and got my bags sent in on the afternoon flight. While waiting for that, I tagged along to a cupping at the Rwanda Trading Company, hoping to find some gems to take home even if I lost out in the COE auction. It was a nice warm up to the week of cupping ahead and it had been a while since I’d had a great Rwandan table and in spite of the infamous potato defect I have fond memories of the Nyamagabe we used in the WBC 2008. Rwandan coffees in my head were all like that; soft, light and sweet, with some floral notes and a delicate acidity, so I was hoping to have that profile broadened a bit.
After meeting up with my lost luggage and the rest of the judges, we boarded a bus to Rwamagana where we would be staying for the week, each day making a roundtrip to the cupping lab in Kayonza. The beautiful rolling hills of Rwanda covered in lush greenery, the brick red soil and the trucks carrying loads of vibrant yellow bananas had everyone bringing out their cameras and snapping away from the bus windows. I suddenly felt very much like a tourist. However, a placement on a COE jury is anything but a leisurely week away from the office, so after a restless night of being kept awake by the mosquitoes buzzing around on the other side of the netting, the first day of coffees saw us straight into calibration.
Jurors spend their first day cupping test tables of varying qualities to discuss flavours and align scores as much as possible, a great way of warming up and get an overview of what the week will bring. Potato reared its ugly head almost immediately, and I was hoping it’d be the first and last time we encountered it as it’s an immediate grounds for disqualification. During lunch I had a nice chat with Tharcisse and Eliane from Burundi who were observing the competition in preparation for the COE expanding into their country in the next couple of years. I know very little about Burundian coffees so I’m very excited to see how that goes!
That evening we had a cocktail party back at the hotel where the Mayor of Rwamagana, the head of OCIR and my old colleague Grant, now Managing Director for the COE, gave a few speeches that reminded us of the importance of what we were there to do, the notion that behind every cup is a community, families and high stakes should they be cut out of the running or make it to auction. One of the things you can never forget judging these competitions is to be humble and do your very best to score fairly and appropriately. It’s an honour to be there to give a final verdict on the coffees that have already been scrutinized by the National Jury, and we had 45 of the finest coffees in Rwanda to evaluate in the next few days.
The morning alarm clock proved unnecessary as monkeys clambering across the rooftops, cockerels greeting the sun and calls to prayer had me awake, if not widely so, at dawn. This first day of Round 1 presented three tables of eight coffees. Two of the coffees were cut for potato, but a couple of them scored up towards the 90 mark for me and I was pleased about the range of flavours I’d got to see. Apart from being a bit starstruck to be cupping with people like Jason, Tom, Yuko, Addy and Sunalini, I felt able to focus and score sensibly despite the heat. The backroom team who do a mountain of work roasting, weighing and grinding were doing a stellar job and water was being poured with military precision from kettles so big I probably wouldn’t have been able to lift them!
As exciting as cupping is it’s also exhausting, so we decided to take a quick trip to the Jambo Beach bar & restaurant that evening, and courtesy of Jason we managed to squeeze in a quick game of frizbee before dark.
I hoped jetlag and exercise would provide me with some good rest before the monkeys kicked off in morning and it must have worked as I woke up rested and early enough for there to still be some hot water left in the shower! A cup of African tea with boiled milk and ginger was just the ticket to set me up for cupping the remaining lots of Round One. There were no outright potatoes on the table on day 2, but fewer outstanding coffees as well, so through to Round 2 (and potentially auction) went 25 coffees out of the initial 45.
After the cupping was over we journeyed to the Rwacof Washing station in the Akagera region of the Eastern Province. Playing bus-tag with the national jurors the trip took us into stunning countryside, people popping up along the road everywhere and kids smiling and waiving to us as we passed. One of the things that struck me about Rwanda was how clean and tidy everything was, even in busy Kigali. People seemed to take a real pride in their surroundings, and besides their genius ban on plastic bags in the country, there is also a mandatory 4 hour clean-up session every 4th Saturday, where even the president takes to the streets to spruce up anything in need of a tidy! Brilliant. Try instating that in the UK!
The Rwacof mill overlooks Lake Mugesera and is run by the Rwanda Milled Coffee Cooperative, with 600 farmers averaging 100-1000kg each bringing their cherries there to be processed. Nearly all coffee in Rwanda is of old Bourbon varietal stock from Reunion, the average farm having about 150 trees. Out of season the mill was quiet but still beautiful, and it’s one of those places I’d have loved to see in full operation during harvest time. Coffee in Rwanda has gone through a huge development in the last 10 years, from having only 2 washing stations in the country in 2003/4 they now have 168, and there are some concerns that that is now too many.
Day 3 and Round 2 of cupping had us review the 25 coffees that had scored 84+ in the two first days and were potentially making it through to auction. In the end we lost three coffees that day and only 22 were put through, the top 10 of which were to be cupped again and ranked in Round 3 on the following day. On the way back to the hotel we stopped off in Kayonza for a bit of sightseeing, being sightseen (?) as much by Kayonza ourselves as we saw of them!
The evening had us return to Lake Jambo for dinner, more frizbee and some dancing, our last night in Rwamagana before returning to Kigali once the top 10 had been cupped in the morning.
The top 10 left me with two favourite coffees who eventually ranked 3rd and 4th overall in the auction. With Paul Songer as your head judge it’s always going to be ‘fun with statistics’-time one it’s all over and done with, and it was interesting to learn how we all cupped compared to each other and the average. As usual for me I cupped with a fairly wide range, not being afraid to score low or high as I saw fit. I think a good jury will have a mix of people who score wide and narrow, both experienced and newer cuppers, and cuppers from world wide markets. Turns out I cupped very similar to Addy from Iceland, Jen from Australia and John from the US, which I can’t be anything other than pleased with!
The bus trip back to Kigali was a blur of red dust, but at the hotel a quick dip in the pool had me feeling refreshed enough to indulge in a bit of market retail therapy with Marilyn, picking up some touristy local crafts (in among those imported from Tanzania and Kenya!). It actually felt a bit like being in London, you go to one stall in Spitalfields and they’re selling the exact same things as three stalls elsewhere in the market, and the stall down on Brick Lane, and the stall at Broadway! Nevertheless I’m a sucker for brightly coloured woven baskets (although not as much as Marilyn is!)
At the official OCIR dinner that evening we were treated to some fantastic music and dancing from a local troupe, speeches from Alex Kanyankole the Director General of OCIR, and Agnes Kalibata the Minister of Agriculture. She had visited us in Kayonza on one of the cupping days and was grateful and impressed with how focused and dedicated our work was, to the point that she barely dared say hello in case she interrrupted us. She also spoke of how the 100 million Rwandan Francs that the 2008 COE brought in had been used to improve the situation for the farmers, providing them with livestock, better infrastructure and social developments. There was a real pride coming through from the organizers in how they were the only country in Africa to be represented in the COE, and that the country as a whole were able to use coffee as one of the driving forces to progress away from a difficult history and improve the path ahead for their young population.
In fact, out of the 16 national cuppers that initially screened the submitted lots, 7 performed well enough to be considered for a place in the International jury, which has never happened before. They were all young and driven and and I was pleased to see that the majority of them were girls too! In the end, Emmertha and Laeticia were the two selected to cup with us, but the others were all part of the backroom crew running the show during the cupping days, and Agnes encouraged the industry at large to really make use of the fact that their national cuppers are among the best in the world. As the award ceremony took place and we had the prizes from 22nd to 1st place handed out, the room full of people had an excited energy about it that I’ve never felt in previous COE’s. As the day came to a close I got to shake hands with the Prime Minister of Rwanda (!), and I couldn’t wait to see how the auction was going to pan out for these coffees that I’d got to know over the past few days.
We’ve now finally taken delivery of our 8 boxes of MIG/Buremera, from the Maraba sector of Huye in the South Province. They wet process the Bourbon cherries and dry the parchment on tables in full sun at 1800 masl, and we shared the 37 box lot with friends from Poland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Czech Republic, Germany and Switzerland! It will launch in the webshop soon and be around for a limited time only!