I was proud and honored to receive an invitation to judge the Cup of Excellence Burundi 2017. This was my most exhilarating origin trip. I thank our host Augustin Manirakiza from InterCafe Burundi for his coordination of the program from pre-travel help and advice, and in country arrangements which included personally taking me to the airport.
While I had participated in seven previous Cup of Excellence (COE) competitions throughout Central and South America, this was my first trip to Africa. Pre-planning was essential with new vaccines to be taken and visa application. My thirty-four hour journey to Burundi took me to Ethiopia and Rwanda. I first noticed the happy disposition of the Africans upon checking in to Ethiopian Airlines in Washington DC. Throughout the trip I was amazed at how happy and kind the Africans were, especially in Burundi. This judging experience was unlike any other I had participated in.
The Cup of Excellence was founded after the Brazil Gourmet project auction. Over the years the COE expanded the program from Brazil to today with programs in 10 different countries. The program has the highest and most transparent protocols in the industry. The highest price paid for the Brazil Auction in 1999 was $2.60 per pound. Today the average auction price is over $10.00 a pound with some coffees selling for over $100.00 per pound. As of earlier this year the COE auctions have generated over $50 million in sales for farmers. Not only has the COE coffees earned higher prices but coffees from participating countries over all quality and prices have improved. Direct trade and micro lots which were unheard of in 1999 are now common purchasing methods of specialty coffee.
Flying into Burundi I was able to see how fertile the land is. Burundi is a lush green agricultural country. The mountains surround fertile valleys that are thriving with an abundance of agricultural products. We saw plantings of bananas, rice, tea, corn, beans, tomatoes, onions, eucalyptus (grown for charcoal), cabbage, sweet potato, potato, wheat and sugar cane. Most of these crops are for local consumption while providing food and additional income for the coffee farmers.
Coffee which accounts for 40% of Burundi’s export is grown on small mountain side farms alongside bananas and other crops. Farms are less than 10 acres with most being less than 5 acres. With the size of the farms it is necessary for centralized washing stations. Traditionally the government operated the washing stations and dry mills. In 2008 government began the privatization of the washing stations and dry mills. While there are still some government owned washing stations, the privately member driven washing stations are making tremendous progress in improving the quality of coffee. Along with privatization, the Cup of Excellence and InterCafe Burundi have been an important part of improving Burundi coffee and bringing the coffee to the international market.
On a personal side, I have always loved Burundi coffee since my first introduction to the coffee in 1999 from the USAID Gourmet Project. Burundi was one of five countries studied during the USAID Gourmet Project which began in 1997 and ended in 1999 with the culmination of the Brazil’s Gourmet project coffee being sold during an online auction. The Gourmet Project was a study in identifying a countries top quality coffee(s) and finding a way to market the coffee with a value added price for the coffee outside of the “C” market pricing structure. This was well before the days of direct trade and an internet auctions. I purchased the coffee from Burundi and it immediately was loved by my customers and staff. This was the start of consumers truly appreciating quality coffee and paying a premium for the quality. My disappointment after the coffee was sold was that I could not find more as Burundi a landlocked country struggled to export their coffee. The Cup of Excellence program has been influential in getting buyers connected to Burundi coffee so finding Burundi coffee in the USA has vastly improved since 2011.
The competition was held in Ngoze, the capital of the Ngoze province located in northern Burundi at an altitude of 5,740 feet close to the Rwanda border. This was the first time the COE competition was held outside of the capital of Bujumbura. Even though the competition was held three hours away from Bujumbura and we represented 14 different countries Augustin and Sherri Johns did an excellent job of running the event. It was a time of seeing old friends and meeting new friends with 4 days of intense coffee cupping.
The COE events have been shortened from 5 days to 4 days. Last year the COE conducted some score testing in Brazil and they discovered some inconsistencies in scores when the first round was split into two days. By shortening a day and improving the consistencies the schedule means that jurors do not lose two weekends with travel.
The first day is jury calibration. There is always an adjustment to the COE form when one is used to cupping on a different form. The COE does an excellent calibration seminar and cupping. Overall I do however prefer the COE form over other industry score sheets. Along with calibration we did acid taste testing.
Normally the host country does an introductory program in the morning with a presentation on the countries coffee industry. In Burundi our host chose to do the introductory presentation in the evening thereby allowing more dignitaries to be present. We had a wonderful dinner, learned about Burundi and how the World Bank is helping the Burundi coffee industry work towards improving quality and production.
Day 2 is the official start of the cupping with round one. This was our intense day of cupping with 40 coffees. While it was an intense day of cupping it was enjoyable with all of the amazing coffees. Normally the 4th day was the most intense with the cupping all of round two coffees. Now round two is less intense and held on day three.
The final day is the cupping of the top 10 side by side for a final ranking and the awards ceremony. This is the fun WOW day when one cups side by side the 10 best coffees of the country’s harvest season. We ended up cupping 11 coffees as number 10 and number 11 had a tie score. The session was simply amazing.
We had a surprise before the awards ceremony. We were given an opportunity to cup coffees from the national jury that had scored 86 points but were lower than the top forty that went on to the international jury. Once the coffees were cupped we were allowed to request samples and producer information so we could purchase these coffees. Three of these coffees in my opinion were exceptional. Alias I was too slow in getting samples and information on the coffees. They are more than likely on their way to Asia by now.
The awards ceremony was special and unlike any awards ceremony I had participated in before. Most of the awards ceremonies are held in the late afternoon or evening with varying degrees of pomp and circumstance. This awards ceremony began in the early afternoon with dignitaries’ arrival and the Burundi Drum Harvest Celebration. The road around the hotel was blocked off and a fair was set up with representatives of the competing washing stations and dry mills along with three different drum and dancing groups. After wandering around the fair we were ask to take our seats at the awards tents before the minister and the rest of the dignitaries took their seat at the head table. The drummers and dancers performed various times before and during the awards ceremony.
In all 23 coffees earned the Cup of Excellence award including two winning the prestigious Presidential Award. The flavor profiles we found in the coffees were distinct different types of citrus, stone fruit, berries, apple, cream flavors like toffee, caramel, vanilla and floral notes of jasmine, lavender, rose. Overall the coffees were well structured and balanced. Each winner truly deserved to be recognized for their quality coffees.
In closing I would like to thank Ace (Alliance for Coffee Excellence), InterCafe Burundi, World Bank, Cup of Excellence, Augustin Manirakiza, Sherri Johns, Darrin Daniel and most importantly all of the producers, washing stations, dry mills that helped the Cup of Excellence Burundi 2017 become successful event.