Tasting coffee in Africa: Judging ‘Cup of Excellence’ in Burundi

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The logo for the first ever Cup of Excellence Burundi contains the ‘Kayenda’ -the Sacred Drum as part of the logo

It was an honour and indeed a real privilege to be invited to be part of the International Jury in the first ever Cup of Excellence in Burundi, in Central Africa:

The Cup of Excellence is the most esteemed award given out for top coffees. These awards come from a strict competition that selects the very best coffee produced in that country for that particular year. These winning coffees are chosen by a select group of national and international cuppers and are cupped at least five different times during the competition process. Only coffees that continuously score high enough are allowed to move forward in the competition. The final winners are awarded the prestigious Cup of Excellence® and sold to the highest bidder during an internet auction.

This was my 5th time on a CoE Jury;  the previous Countries being Honduras in 2008, Bolivia in 2009, El Salvador in 2010 and Nicaragua in 2011. To taste up to 60 different single origin coffees together with coffee professionals from all parts of the World is an experience, allowing me to dive into the amazing diversity within one single country in the course of a week.

This time it’s Africa, and it is the first time the Cup of Excellence Program is arranged in Burundi! We, the Farmers, the International Judges and all involved were all pretty excited: 228 samples came in for pre-selection. Unfortunately, 32% of the samples had at least 1 cup (of 20 tested) disqualified for potato defect or inconsistencies. Head Judge Paul Songer and a great team of 13 national Burundi cuppers  were busy cupping the 150 coffees that scored high enough to move forward. This is the maximum number ‘allowed’ and Paul  noted that ‘The samples selected are quite East African in flavor, with plenty of acidity and exotic floral/fruit aromatics.’  The International Jury arrived the days prior to August 20th, and we were informed that 60 of the 150 different coffees passed the national jury and would be for us to evaluate.  The roasters and the team of brewers and helpers had been working hard for weeks: now it was our turn to taste!

The International Jury gathered on Monday 20th for a day of calibration, and on the Tuesday we had the first three sessions of cupping: the best of the 2012 Burundi coffee harvest. Although most of us knew burundian coffee from before, the excitement of cupping at tables with virtually all red bourbons from one single origin was great!

Bujumbura; here I am 🙂

The International Jury invited to Burundi consisted of judges from Australia, Japan, Norway, United Kingdom, Taiwan, USA, Bolivia, South Korea, Germany  -and me, norwegian, but signing up as austrian :).  Through the thirteen years Cup of Excellence has excisted, the ‘pool’ of Judges has grown to become an experienced body of coffee professionals; some have participated in up to 40-50 competitons!

Some are old friends, like Robert Thoresen, whom I competed against in the very first norwegian barista championship way back in 1998 (I always joke about that I actually did beat him in the semi finals  -but then he took revenge in the final, and won the whole thing. And, yes, two years later, Robert became the 1st World Barista Champion!). Robert is behind ‘Java‘, ‘Kaffa‘ and ‘Mocca‘ in Oslo, as well as The Collaborative Coffee Source‘. Anette Moldvær I remember from Dromedar coffee shop in Trondheim some ten years ago  -she later won the World Cuptasting Championship and is currently roasting at Square Mile in London, UK.  (The 2012 World Cuptasting Champion from Vienna, australian Matt Perger was -as observer judge-  also part of the Burundi Jury).   Other old friends were Nicolai Orskaug, whom I worked next to for many years in Kaffebrenneriet in Norway, Wendy de Jong from the US West Coast coffee scene  -now working in Australia, Kentaro Maruyama from Japan -not only supporting CoE, but also coaching baristi for the World Barista Championship!  Joe Hsu from Taiwan was certified World Barista Championship Judge together with me, and we judged sensorics together this year in Vienna, Sarah Kluth from Intelligentia was judging with me way back in Honduras in 2008.  Germany was represented by none less than three coffee houses, ‘Coffee Star‘ in Berlin, ‘24grad Kaffeerösterei‘ from Hanover, and ‘KaffeeReich-Milds‘ in Düsseldorf  -but then the german coffee scene is waking up, offering more and more single origins of higher quality: (now we’re only waiting for Switzerland, Italy, France and the Be-Ne-Lux countries to wake up 🙂


Head Judge in Burundi was Paul Songer, who works as technical director for Cup of Excellence and as an independent consultant specializing in application of sensory analysis techniques to the coffee business, product development, and sensory panel training. Songer has been involved with Cup of Excellence almost since the start in 1999, and is an inspiring and demanding Head Judge.

Head Judge Paul Songer preparing for a cupping session

My first meeting with Head Judge Paul Songer was after some lectures and cuppings he executed at the Nordic Barista Cup  in 2010; -we had a fun and amicable discussion on washed vs natural/honey processed coffees: Mr Songer is not particularly fond of ‘tainted’ coffees (green coffee which takes up additional sweetness and flavors during the processing and drying (or say, to the worst: ageing or monsooning or even kopi-luwak’ing!) : he favors clean, washed sans defect arabicas. I admire this man, and, although I do enjoy a clean honey processed or ‘natural’ processed coffee, I sincerely agree in his opinion on these processes, that they more often hide defects in mediocre coffee lots.

The first cupping session in Burundi were however shadowed by a disappointing presence of defects in several cups. For those who had not yet experienced the ‘potato defect’ in coffee, here it was, jumping at us from the tables!

“Potato” ?

Yep, the green coffee seed is infected by a micro organisms, but how is not certain. One theory is that the skin of the coffee fruit (cherry) is damaged by a certain insect (out of many), and that the specific bacteria that produces this compound is carried by the insect (the chemical is 2-methoxy-3-isopropyl-pyrazine). This compound is secreted by a number of bacteria which infect fruits, and presumably these bacteria are more prominent in the microflora of East Africa, and that’s why this problem is more present there.

these are not the insects mentioned 🙂

So, the green coffee seed (which we traditionally and wrongly call a ‘bean’) is tainted by this bacteria, and this defect is hard to detect through the different stages of picking, processing, sorting and screening. You might get a hint of defect aroma during roasting, but that single bean or two which is damaged only releases the stinking potato odor when ground and ready to be cupped: and what a smell: raw potato skin  -intense!

And, although it may be that there was only one stinking, defect bean in the whole lot, in Cup of Excellence that coffee is  -if spotted in one cup alone-  -as with any other sign of defect-  -removed from the tables and out of competition. Unfortunately, it is like a russian roulette;  there might well be infected beans in any of the bags of the winning coffees from Burundi this year. The potato defect is a huge problem for Burundi as for Rwanda and other East African countries; let us hope all the effort put into fighting it by trying to detect it while picking and in early stages of processing at the wet mills will see a reduction in this in the years coming.

spoons ready, cups ready...

Apart from being reminded about the potato defect, when these cups were removed from the tables, there was no doubt we were cupping the best from Burundi.

The coffees on the cupping tables were to us judges without information; just session number, table number, cup number. And we were told all coffees were bourbon. Red bourbon, even, from the Mibirizi and Jackson cultivars, both variants of the heirloom Bourbon variety.  Mibirizi is the name of a mission in Rwanda where Bourbon trees from Guatemala were first planted in 1905.  These plants were introduced to Burundi in 1930, and have adapted well.

To enter the competition, in Cup of Excellence the amount of coffee in each lot need to be minimum 15 and maximum 50 bags à 60 kgs. As Burundi is -as neighbouring Rwanda-   a land of very small coffee growers, no farmer alone is able to provide such volumes, so it is the Washing Stations that register and participate.  Out of 175 washing stations in Burundi, 68  managed to participate in this the first year ! Each washing station could enter with a maximum of four lots, and an impressive 228 different lots came  to pre-selection for the national jury!

Map of Burundi with washing stations.

Tasting these coffees was a journey in surprises:  so much gentle fruit flavours and different characters of acidity;  not the same full bodied bourbons as I know them from Honduras and El Salvador: more faceted and lighter in fruit sweetness. I also felt more of the cups had a ‘blend’ like body to them: there was more going on in every sample.  With all coffees being the very same variety, and seemingly all washed, it was a tough job to judge these elegant coffees.

Ten coffees on the table, four cups of each coffee.

Just a comment on the cupping methods:  the standard cupping procedure developed during the last century  –and which is used everywhere coffee is evaluated, being it by roasters, coffee importers, at washing stations, dry mills  or coffee trading offices–   is to measure 12 gram ground coffee (filter grind), evaluate it by aroma, and then pour hot water onto it ( 92-96 degrees Celsius),  let it steep for three to four minutes, then break the surface crust in the cup with a cupping spoon and sniff the aromas released. Now, you use two cupping spoons and scoop off the ground coffee still floating in the cup. Usually, the brew is now slightly too hot for the palate, so you wait a couple of minutes before you start tasting –slurping the brew with air, spraying your tongue, thus getting the flavors all over your palate. And then, spit it out (or else you get coffeinated quite fast).

The roast used for evaluating coffee is a standard cupping roast:

A set of samples with their individual roasts, set against the standard cupping roast color at the top.

In evaluating each of these coffees, each individual judge knows and follows protocol seriously: there is a lot of work behind every single sample in these competitions!  We examine the roast and the grind, we check the temperature of the water and we follow the steep time at every table.  The judges try not to talk during cupping;  – if, then only concerning a possible defect.

Me during cupping (photo by John Moore)

The Cup of Excellence score sheet, now the standard coffee evaluation form world wide, even the basis for World

A cupping session goes by fast;  ten coffees in less than an hour, and temperatures in the cups falling as the clocks are ticking: this particular coffee has only this chance  -unless the Head Judge lures a coffee back in a different session for a second evaluation to check on the judges.

After each cupping session follows a discussion: our scores are given, but we evaluate and describe in plenum each coffee.

After each cupping follows a discussion while the tables are getting set for the next session: each judge has handed in their score sheets, but the table is being evaluated in plenum. Sometimes a special term or description is being discussed, sometimes protocol or a certain defect. These discussions are incredibly valuable for me personally: this panel of excellent cuppers with such diverse backgrounds, experiences and different approaches  -I love rubbing shoulders with such clever people!

The cupping sessions enpass 5 days:

On the first day there is the extensive calibration. On day 2 and 3 the international jury cups the coffees which have been approved and passed by the national jury in ‘Round One’, sessions one, two, three, four, five and maximum six, ten coffees in each session.

On the 4th day ‘Round Two’ begins and is the most intense cupping day. The jury will cup about 45 coffees in sessions of ten coffees, all of which have passed the first round. Coffees scoring an 85 or above during this round are awarded the prestigious Cup of Excellence.

On the 5th day, the top ten scoring coffees are cupped one more time to rank them and discover the first place winner of the competition.

We, the Jury, were lucky and priviliged to be invited to see parts of Burundi in the afternoon excursions:  tucked into buses and guided by our national coordinator Lyse Kanesa, we were taken to see a Tea farm in the highlands:

Part of the International Jury in a tea field.

As a devoted tea drinker, it was my first visit to a tea farm: here was camelia sinensis as far as the eye could see, beautiful fields of emerald green!

Me and the beauty of green tea leaves.

A second and all too short excursion was a visit to see Hippos in the Rusizi National Park just outside Bujumbura:

Yawning hippos: amazing sight!

Friday came with the cupping of the coffees with the highest scores from the day before: would there be a clear #1?

Syncronized water pourers and table leader Ms Lee (Yun Son Lee).

Anette Moldvær of

Immediately following the cupping and positioning of Top Ten CoE Burundi 2012 was the meeting with coffee farmers and washing station workers: we had some nice conversations and got hands-on information on the booming coffee scene in Burundi as well as some info on the situation on fighting the potato defect.

Then it was time for The Award Ceremony: backstage, scores had been summed up and the winners of the first Cup of Excellence in Burundi could be announced! A spectacular evening began with an impressive performance of The Royal Drummers of Burundi jumping gracefully while beating their hearts out: I’ll never forget the beating of drums after my stay in Burundi! The day after the Award Ceremony, we went for a visit to the Village of the Drummers to another performance by these amazing artists, in the midst of the african night  -but that’s another story…

Too impressed by drumming and dancing, my photos does not do justice to the grace and beauty of the Royal Drummers and dancers during the Award Ceremony!

The room was filled with coffee people; farmers, washing station staff and everyone involved in the coffee scene in Burundi  -and there was enthusiasm in the air; there is a lot to be said about coffee in Burundi, and at the Award Ceremony there were several speeches telling us in detail about the current situation and the future hopes and plans for Speciality Coffee in this tiny country. This, their first Cup of Excellence  -being the second african country after Rwanda (since 2008) to arrange the Contest-   -will open the possibilities for the Speciality Coffee Scene world wide to discover burundian coffee!

There were 17 coffees that finally received 85 or higher scores from the International Jury this first year, and there should have been so many more…  -Even when re-cupping the Top Ten Friday, two coffees revealed  -on several tables-  clear and awful flavor of potato defect,  and thus had to be disqualified. But: among the remaining eight, there were no less than three ‘Presidential Awards’;  coffees achieving a score of 90 or higher!

Farmers and representatives from these 17 winning coffees came upstage to receive their diplomas and awards  -and man was there joy for the to three!

Representatives from the winning Washing Stations Businde, Yandaro, Mahonde and Kibungere receiveing their diplomas to amazing applause!

The World Coffee Map has a new star shining: next to the outer extremes Ethipia and Kenya, Africa has unveiled Rwanda and now Burundi, recognized now alongside the best coffees of Brasil and Colombia, next to the sweet bourbons of El Salvador and Honduras and the rest of Latin America.

Cup of Excellence is of strong importance to the present Speciality Coffee Scene: I’d like to quote Ricardo Espitia – Executive Director of the Salvadoran Coffee Council after CoE was arranged there the 1st time in 2003:

Thanks to Cup Of Excellence we were again able to showcase our heirloom and boutiques varieties which are helping us regain our reputation as a top quality origin

One of the first coffee growers I got to know by name was Yolanda Lurdes Condori in Bolivia. My old colleague Synøve Nesøen from my many years in Kaffebrenneriet in Oslo was judging CoE in Bolivia in 2005, and met this remarkable woman as she picked up her price at the Award Ceremony. Yolanda experienced to be recognized outside her own country through Cup of Excellence. She said:

Our lives as growers has changed so much. Before the Cup of Excellence we did not take much interest in our coffee…we just sold it in the domestic market….but now it is a dream to be able to sell it in the export market and we take this seriously so we now take very good care of our coffee.”

The Cup of Excellence cupping score sheet, now the standard for most coffee evaluation world wide.

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