Today is the opening of the Burundi Cup of Excellence competition.  We met for a casual breakfast before heading over to the venue down the road.  It is a relatively new building compared to what I have seen so far in Burundi, two storeys with tinted blue glass windows.  Upstairs we can hear the hustle and bustle of dozens of staff frantically preparing the cupping room while downstairs we are met by numerous delegates from Burundi, East Africa and Japan.  After going through the formalities of meeting the right people and shaking hands we were led into a meeting room adjacent to the cupping room.  Paul gave us a thorough run through the CoE procedures and Susie officially welcomed us.  It is such a great learning experience to see how meticulously everything is done here, from finding the perfect roasting profile to getting the water poured in just the right way at just the right time.

Before any major cupping event, all cuppers must take part in a calibration so as to assure that nobody is scoring significantly higher or lower than the majority of the group.  We ran through exactly what each score represents to every aspect of the cupping score sheet (clean cup, sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel, etc.). There is a huge amount of detail in the score sheets and it is a little daunting at first. The first round of calibration we taste three samples marked only with a three digit code to identify them.  As we step into the sealed up cupping room we are immediately hit with a waft of freshly ground Burundi coffee.  We are in for a good day.

First we smell the dry coffee grounds and make our notes while the staff, carefully pour the water with these huge stainless steel kettles that sound like a train’s whistle when they’re boiling.  As the crust begins to form on top of the cups the lively citrus and caramel fragrance changes to a deep and chocolatey, toffee-like aroma.  After the allotted brewing time we begin our tasting experience.  The first coffee is so-so.  It has a pleasant body and sweetness with chocolate and peanut notes but lacks a distinctive level of acidity and is not particularly clean.  The second coffee fairs better.  This one has the familiar chocolate of the first but also displays a brightness that harkens back to the citrus fruit from the dry grounds.  The third coffee however is a ‘next level’ coffee.  It is ultra clean and very complex, I detected notes of candied lime, stone fruit, red currants, all capped off with a caramel finish.  The acidity was lively and the mouthfeel juicy and thick – I later learned that this is what is referred to as a presidential coffee (scoring 90+ from a jury).  It quickly became apparent to me that these three levels of coffee were not chosen randomly; rather, they were chosen specifically to calibrate our palates and prepare us for the competition to come.

We returned to the meeting room to discuss our results.  Overall I was a little soft on the coffees and scored them relatively high (although I was one of the few to give the presidential coffee the score it warranted). But this is the point of calibration because I now know that I need to be a bit more scrutinising with my assessment of the coffees, whereas others may need to be more forgiving.

The second calibration involved six coffees (sadly none of presidential quality).  In this round I had my first encounter with the potato defect.  One of the greatest challenge that farmers in Burundi and Rwanda face is this strange taint in much of their coffee that gives it an overwhelmingly starchy (or potato) taste.  Just one cup of this defect is enough to dissuade any buyer from purchasing a certain lot, even if the coffee is particularly good otherwise. The cause of this defect is still unknown but it is believed to be related to unkempt trees, soil quality and insect infestations.  Part of the purpose for Cup of Excellence in this part of the world is to help identify this problem and convince farmers that it is a major issue for their country’s economic future.

After this second calibration everyone’s scores were brought much more into line with each other.  The calibration was successful.  With our first day over a few of us headed over to the bar for a well-earned drink.  Tomorrow we cup thirty samples – and I can’t wait!

20/08/2013
Burundi travel diary #4

Today was the first round of competition and, although (as an observer) my score doesn’t count, I am still extremely excited.  We have a short briefing with Paul in regards to the correct procedure should we find potato defect in the cup. Everyone is divided up into groups with ten samples on each table.  If all jury members on your table detect the potato taint then Paul will taste it and confirm it with a national jury member. If the taint is confirmed then the entire coffee is disqualified from the competition. It is a harsh measure, but a necessary one to protect the buyers and Burundi’s reputation.

In the first round five of the ten samples were eliminated due to potato – this did not bode well.  There were some very pleasant coffees amongst the remaining five, but in my opinion, nothing completely amazing.  The second however shone like a beacon of hope over the cupping room.  Only three coffees eliminated and two outstanding coffees.  My personal favourite I scored a 90.5! It had a sparkling clarity, super sweetness, bold acidity, syrupy mouthfeel and notes of mandarin, white peach and jasmine.  Another coffee that truly stood out (I scored it an 88) was a bit of a dark horse until it had cooled right down, at which point it just screamed apricot, honey and coffee blossom.  Needless to say, I will be watching these two coffees as they progress through the next rounds.

The final round saw in two more fine examples of Burundi coffee.  There would have been three but unfortunately one that I was particularly enjoying was eliminated about halfway through by another group.  The two coffees in this round were truly excellent, however neither seemed to ‘pop’ the way the others did in the previous round.  Both had a silky mouthfeel, good acidity and tropical fruit notes; clean, well-balanced coffees.

After lunch we were done with cupping for the day and were asked to assemble in the lobby for a field trip to the Congo border.  I was a little nervous because every travel website you visit regarding Burundi says that you should not go within 1 km of the Congo under any circumstances; however we were assured it is safe so at 3pm we departed.  The ride to the border was a real eye-opener for me.  The level of poverty here is pretty much exactly as you would imagine; small shanty towns line the road, street vendors peddle their wares (which include beer and cigarettes) cattle walking down the street are commonplace and little kids hold out their hands expectantly as we drive by.  The Congo border is a bustling hub of people going back and forth.  Pushbikes stacked high with beer crates cross the small bridge that separates the two countries frequently.  Women in bright clothes carry baskets of supplies on their heads, and stern border guards eyeball anyone looking suspicious.  We stayed long enough to take a few photos but not longer than we had to.  You get a strong impression that things could ‘kick off’ at a moment’s notice and a bus load of tourists wouldn’t fare well in that situation.

On our way back we stopped at a small shop where women weave baskets to sell.  A big tourist trap but it was quite interesting.  We also got to go out onto the river in a small motorboat to see the local wildlife.  This was an amazing experience.  We must have seen about twenty hippos yawning away as the sun went down in a perfect African sunset.  It was a very satisfying end to a long day.  Tomorrow is round two of the competition.  Hopefully more stunning coffees await.

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