I’ve just returned from Bujumbura where I’ve again had the pleasure of serving on the International jury for their COE. This was my second time on the Burundi jury, I was also at their first competition in 2012 and I was excited to go back and see how the coffees have evolved.
The Burundian coffee industry as a whole is going through a lot of changes. All washing stations in the country used to be government owned, but more and more private companies have moved into the market, buying old factories and building new ones. In the past, Burundi has had a lot of machinery and equipment for processing at their disposal, but have lacked the training and infrastructure to fully take advantage of it. The potato defect that has plagued the coffees has been an obstacle for buyers in the specialty market, and at the risk of a high frequency of defect cups it has been a challenge for the Burundian farmers to get better prices for their top quality selections. When I cupped the COE lots in 2012, every table of 10 coffees would have 3-5 of them disqualified for potato, a devastating situation. Last year, some 60% of the coffees were lost, a catastrophic result. But somehow, this year we’d cup table after table without any potato. In fact, of the 60 coffees that were passed through to the international jury by the national jury, only 5 were cut for potato, an incredible reduction and a great springboard to identify the root of the problem and how to eradicate it even further.
It’s still unclear as to what has caused the great reduction in potato this year, but interestingly Rwanda has seem a similar decrease, and between the two countries researchers will have far more useful data to analyze. One theory is that the farmers have been spraying more and in different patterns, synchronizing their efforts to collectively combat the antestia bug. When hundreds or even thousands of farmers deliver to the same washing station, it doesn’t help if just some of them spray, they all have to pull together to create a consistently high scoring, defect free cup.
Another is that the drought they had this year has led to a drier, less bacteria and fungus friendly environment. It’s not uncommon to smell the potato in the air as you walk around the countryside, especially after a rainfall. The rise in numbers of washing stations might also have helped, spreading the harvest across more facilities have given the producers more time to focus on sorting and grading. The producers themselves report that in on-cycle years (high crop) there is less potato, while in the off-cycle year (low crop) there is more potato. They suspect that after a high yielding year the trees are fatigued and less able to resist the causes of the potato, and that perhaps a bi-cyclical strategy in fertilizing could help balance out the nutrients and make the trees healthier and stronger in consecutive years. The ACE are actively engaged in funding research for combating potato and other issues in coffee, through initiatives like their Potato Taste Challenge Prize.
After a week of cupping the award ceremony was held at the Arfic warehouse in Bujumbura. We got a chance to meet many of the companies involved in the Burundian coffee industry, chat to farmers, millers and exporters, drink coffee and enjoy the drummers and dancers. Congratulations to all the winners, good luck in the auction, and thanks for a great week!