Monday, November 21, 2011

Coffee from the shores of Lake Kivu, Rwanda

When I was recently in Rwanda, I paid a visit to the Simba Supermarket in Kigali city centre (just north of the main Kigali roundabout) that purveyor of fine local foods and produce, to pick up my usual stash of Rwandan leaf tea and, of course, a large supply of Akabanga chilli oil for friends and family.  Many expats prefer 24 hour Kenyan supermarket chain Nakumatt just down the road, because of its "Western" style bright lighting, shiny floors and displays, but I can't go past Simba, which is more down to earth and keeps it real.

As I wandered through the aisles, I spotted this extremely rare thing by African supermarket standards - a bag of whole coffee beans!  Almost all bags of coffee I've seen in African supermarkets are pre-ground, which is great if you have a plunger or percolator, but disappointing if you have your own grinder and quality coffee machine, be it a manual or automatic model.  So I decided to take a chance, for the princely sum of around RWF 3,000 (around AUD 5), even though the packet didn't tell you when it had been roasted - just a use-by date of Aug 2012.

What also got me was that this coffee was harvested, roasted and packaged by COOPAC, a Rwandan collective of over 2,000 individual small farms in the mountainous regions overlooking the shores of Lake Kivu (which also happens to be near where the famous silverback gorillas live, in the Volcanoes National Park)!

Are you lookin' at me?!!
Well, I'm finally back home and have had the chance to check it out.  Put simply, this coffee is amazing.  It was probably roasted as early as 3 months ago in August, but might as well have been roasted the week before I picked it up off the supermarket shelf.

The liquor that poured out of the group handle's twin fonts was thick, incredibly dark, and slow running.  Because I use a 14g double basket, it took me 3 tries to get it right.  The first two times, I either put in too much coffee or tamped it too hard, and only got a slow drip, albeit after the requisite 5-6 seconds.  On the third try, I stopped the coffee level just a smidge below the lip, and only tamped it gently, relying mostly on the weight of my solid steel Rancilio tamper to tamp it down.  I only pulled it for 20 seconds instead of the more conventional 25 seconds, because I like a fresher taste.

As you can see, it still looks fresh and bubbly in the cup, with a rich, thick, dark crema.  Here's what I got:

  • First sniff - hints of licorice in the nose.
  • First sip - a complex blend of layers.  Big citrus notes, dark chocolate (but not bitter), with a hint of something that was really hard to pick - probably closer to cardamon than licorice?
  • With the rest of the drink, more fresh citrus, backed up by a deep choco-coffee flavour and nose.
  • And wow - this flavour has some length.  I'm still tasting choc-coffee as I write this review, 5-6 minutes after I've finished the cup.

And there you have it - next time you're in a supermarket in Rwanda, and see a bag of coffee beans on the shelf, buy it!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

More coffee musings – Valentin Choquehuanca Bolivia and 5 senses Colombian Blend

A couple of months ago, I ran out of coffee on Friday and didn’t get a chance to head into the city to purchase a special care package from Ristretto in Howard Street.

So in desperation, I took a chance and went to the local deli to try to find something.  And find something I did.  While I am naturally suspicious of the coffee found on supermarket or deli shelves (because you never know how long they've spent there), the 5 Sense Colombian Roast caught my eye, described on the vacuum sealed pack as “Smooth, Sweet & Complex”.  This on its own wouldn’t impress me, but what did is that the back of the bag had a date stamp – not of the “expiry date” (which is a misnomer for coffee lovers, since it’s usually a year longer than the 4-6 weeks maximum before all the good flavours start to fall flat), but the date of roasting, which was less than two weeks ago.  Now that did impress me!

At $12 a pack, it wasn’t cheap, but I decided to take a chance (and had no choice anyway if I was to drink home-made coffee that weekend).

After ...
5 Senses Colombian
Wow, this is a nice coffee!  It was indeed smooth and sweet, and perhaps not as complex as the single estate stuff I’ve been spoiling myself with (for example, no bright, citrusy undertones), but still sporting creamy cocoa flavours with hints of caramel.  I drank it over the course of two and a half weeks, and the flavours did develop, which is what I love about good coffee.  In this case, the cocoa became more pronounced and the flavours more robust as time passed.

Now this doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop trying special beans from far flung parts of the world, but it’s certainly no poor cousin.  5 Senses is good stuff indeed.

Speaking of exotic beans, just the other day, as I was running out of my bag of 5 Senses, I did manage to make a run into Ristretto in Howard Street and procured myself a bag of freshly roasted stuff from the farm of Valentin Choquehuanca in Bolivia – a 3-time Cup of Excellence finalist.
Bolivian single estate

This particular bag o’ beans didn’t make the Cup of Excellence cut-off, but it was still amazing.  Straight out the gates in a thick, bubbly froth, and it was thick crema in the cup all the way to the bottom  Ahhhh.  Bright, bold citrus notes, dark chocolate and sweet caramel.  And caramel on the nose even at the finish.  Wow.  Check out the thickness in the picture, complete with rough bubbles showing the freshness of the roast.  If you can bag one of these babies at Ristretto, make sure you do!  They might already all be gone, but you never know if you never try.  And even if it’s sold out, they are sure to have some equally delightful, freshly roasted, single estate treasure to sell you.