Friday, July 18, 2008

interlude for an apértif

I haven’t yet developed a taste for Rwanda’s two domestic lagers, Mutzig and Primus, nor can I stomach the banana beer sold in yellow jugs along the country roads. One glass of the Drostdy-Hof South African merlot sold here gave me a 2am headache. Rwanda claims no cocktail of their own, though maybe the ubiquitous Guinness and Coke poured simultaneously into a dark, foamy mess will make its way around the world like the Cuban’s mojito. But hopefully not.

Never fear: a bottle of Pimm’s No. 1 survived unbroken in my carry-on from Nairobi’s duty-free airport shop and for a moment, during the last days of Wimbledon, pouring a Pimm’s Cup for the afternoon was completely apropos. A liquor derived from gin and herbs, reddish in color and British in origin, it’s been the basis for many evening sundowners. When the sun sets at 6pm, every day of the summer, happy hour is pretty much requisite. And at only 18% alcohol, you can take two and still act functional. Croquet, anyone?

The Pimm’s Cup recipe printed on the bottle includes ginger ale or lemon, sometimes cucumber as a garnish. Ginger ale has yet to make it to these parts; Frist tonic water, cold as can be, adds the sparkle instead. Cucumber and lemon are fine, but African fruits are more fun. My favorite juice has become one made from the tree tomato, also called Japanese plum. It’s a tropical fruit native to South America with ruby seeds and an inside flesh that, indeed, resembles a tomato. Eaten plain it can be a bit pithy, but the unsweetened juice concentrate is opaquely purple, a touch tangy and perfectly sweet, reminiscent of peach and pineapple, and pomegranate. We buy ours from an American missionary named Debbie, who makes it in her house in Kigali. She is probably not, however, making the following recipe for her Sunday church gathering.

Rwandan Sunset:

If you have ice (we don’t) toss some in and pour:
One part tree tomato juice concentrate
One part Pimm’s No. 1

Fill with tonic water
Garnish with lemon or pineapple wedge
Stir it all together in a wine glass, tea cup, or yellow plastic jug, and repeat before dinner.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

old world italia meets new world rwanda

I took a break from coffee cupping one day last week to spend some time at Serge’s dairy farm because, well, I like my coffee with milk.

Serge is the tall tattooed fellow, often decked in orange linen and silver necklaces, who owns one of three restaurants in Kigali I’ve actually been keen to eat at more than once. His Italian place, Papyrus (pronounced around here as papy-rus), is up a curvy cobblestone road in the hills and has a romantically colonial feel, with twinkle lights strung around a thatched-roof veranda, lots of dark hardwood and plants with expansive tropical leaves. The first time I saw the menu, pages of pastas, pizzas, and tilapia prepared seven ways, I instantly created some high expectations that dinner might actually have more flavor than my white bread-boiled egg lunch, but I was also a little disappointed. Can you really be on the other side of the world and find a restaurant that might as well be in Berkeley, with references to a specific farm name bolded and sprinkled throughout the menu? So the farmer-as-god gimmick has made it all the way to Rwanda, I probably smirked in my head right then.

But of course I gleefully ordered two dishes, so I could try two different Masaka Farms cheeses, and then I got Serge’s number and called him later that week. Because finding good cheese in Rwanda, especially one produced on a local farm and not imported from a Ugandan factory, is a big deal.

Serge didn’t really seem to care how or why I got his number, just genuinely surprised by my interest in visiting his farm. There’s a small shop attached to Papyrus that sells all seven of the dairy products made at Masaka Farms, also owned by Serge, along with bread and fresh pasta made in the restaurant kitchen. A bonafide boulangerie and fromagerie, in a country that prefers its milk powdered rather than fresh. His response when I told him I had already been to the shop and wanted to go to the farm itself? “Ahh… wow.” Not wanting to inconvenience him on a workday, I asked if I might tag along one morning when he had plans to be at the farm, not having any idea of where this farm was exactly. The better part of Rwanda is agricultural land, after all.

I was expecting typical mid-morning restaurant chaos and only a brief acknowledgement from Serge when I got to Papyrus at 10am; what I got instead was an invitation to sit down for coffee and croissants and have a chat. Sure, the coffee still came with powdered milk and for a few seconds I wished I were back in San Francisco having croissant at Tartine rather than crescent-shaped white bread. And Serge was still confused as to why I was interested in his dairy operation, not that I had a compelling reason to give him.

With English as his fifth language (Swahili and Italian being among the first four), Serge told me that he opened a cheese shop three years ago because an Italian man he met in Kigali had pointed him towards “the way.” This man, “so funny and so, so fat,” had been sleeping at a bar in Kigali when Serge found him, divorced and having spent his life savings on some fun in Brazil. Serge invited the man to stay at his place for a little while. Italian man stayed three years, in the midst of which he had obviously introduced Serge to the virtues of Italian cheese, among other foodstuffs. Serge ended up marrying an Italian woman and spending six months in the Veneto learning the intricacies of cow’s milk cheese (I don’t blame him for the faux-croissant though, no one goes to Italy for croissants).

When the chance came along to take over a small handicraft shop back in Kigali, Serge and Italian man opened Papyrus with a ‘school’ for Serge to teach baking and cheese-making during the day. Most remarkably, he decided to only hire young people who had been orphaned by the genocide. He trained 22 18-25 year olds that first year, instructing them to knead and stir the milk curds and bake wood-fired pizzas, and eventually to be waiters in the restaurant. He pointed to one skinny guy during our coffee, “That boy is so special to me, so special,” he said. That guy had fled to Congo during the genocide in early 1994, walking 1000 kilometers on foot without his family. When Serge found him a few years later, he was living on the streets in Kigali without shoes. Now, he works six days a week at Papyrus as a waiter and Serge is training him to make cheese at Masaka Farms. “If you give them a chance, they will succeed,” Serge says, “I don’t like to demand too much or they will not trust me.” I must have an incredulous look on my face at this point, realizing that Papyrus probably has the best service of any restaurant in Rwanda. That’s not saying much by American standards, but to take a crop of mostly young men who had never even eaten cheese or bread, Italian style, or visited a restaurant and turn them into the waiters I was watching tidy the dining room… well, Serge must be a lot of things, faithful among them.

Riding on the success of Papyrus, Serge received grant money to begin a similar project just outside Kigali, this one employing ex-child soldiers from the war. From two different enemy groups. Forty young men now working side by side to make pizza, boys who had once aimed to kill each other with machetes during a war that they were probably too young to even understand.

But what about Masaka Farms, I asked him, who’s working there? This dairy project has only been up and running for the past two months, though Serge started clearing his land for pasture two years ago. Over 100 people worked to do that for six months, cutting brush and planting grasses. Some young people kept showing up to work, even though he couldn’t pay them (he was already paying everyone else $1 per day, a small fortune for Serge). They kept coming back though, hoping for a paying job, and eventually Serge was able to give many of them permanent employment. Last month, he doubled the salary of everyone working for him; one girl had been cleaning Papyrus every day for the past two years, for around $30 per month. “She had the courage to keep coming back,” Serge shook his head in disbelief, “and now I can pay her $60 every month.”

We drove out to Masaka Farm in the bright yellow Masaka Farm van, with decals of cheese wheels on the side. Ten minutes from the city center along a heavily pedestrian-ed road lined with mud huts, we pulled up to a gently sloping pasture bordered by a white log fence. Without the banana trees scattered around, it might as well have been summer in Vermont. A few men have been building a brick stable to house his 12 cows, black and white imports from Germany (when I asked him about the variety of cow, having only seen horned African brown cows or Holsteins in Rwanda, the only part of the answer I understood was “German seminal, do you know seminal?”). He feeds his cows chopped up fresh grass from an abutting piece of property when they aren’t out to pasture, though the grass looked more like palm fronds. Tropical grass, native to Cameroon, Serge said. It looked like East Coast grass on steroids. All 12 cows were munching on their colossal grass pieces when I visited them, except for the one-week old calf that was being fed milk from a bottle by a stick-wielding herder (there’s plenty of beef in Rwanda, but veal isn’t on any menus yet).

Over in the dairy house, three men in rubber boots were making mozzarella. One stirred a three-foot wide basin with his hand, swirling the curds. With the other two silent and slim guys, he scooped the curds into large cheese-drainage baskets, letting the water splash on the tiled floor (that explained the rubber boots, but not the lack of floor drains in the building). As the curds dripped, Serge showed me his cheese-aging room-in-progress, where he’s been working with montazio, a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese that he tosses on pizza. A dozen moldy wheels were stacked in his aging room, the air much warmer than cellar temperature; he said one French ex-pat family had ordered an entire wheel from him. He was asking 6,000 francs for the wheel, he told me. About $12.

He also makes a few hundred cups of yogurt each week, flavored with vanilla and fresh strawberry as a thick and silky alternative to Rwanda’s watery Nyungwe brand, and he makes ice cream. Serge stuck his finger in the crème fraîche dripping from a filter bucket while we waited for the mozzarella to drain, apologizing for not having any yogurt or ice cream there for me to taste. But ah, he said, “we will make some ice cream fresh for tonight!” And with hardly a word spoken, one of his workers filled an empty water bottle with the flowing crème fraîche, which he tossed on the dashboard as we left the pastures in the yellow van.

Serge insisted I come over to Papyrus for a pizza before heading home, though he’s forgotten to bring the fresh mozzarella back to the restaurant. I had watched him twirl elastic sheets of warm mozza into 28 fist-sized balls, plunking them then into a bucket of cold water. He was planning to stock the shop with containers of the stuff, and of course use the rest for pizza that night. But as we sat back at the restaurant, cutting up our nearly-Neopolitan pizza with montazio cheese and smoked ham, his cell rang three times with orders. One for yogurt, the next two for fresh mozzarella. “Eh,” Serge sighed and shook his head as he hung up on Solé Luna, another Italian restaurant in Kigali, “they bought all the mozzarella we made today.” So much for stocking the shop.

Later that night, ending my third meal at Papyrus for the day, another skinny waiter brought my English friend James and I goblets with vanilla ice cream. “Please,” he said. “For you.” Dense and silky, it was proper, old-fashioned ice cream, and James nodded sideways with approval. For many Rwandese though, to whom owning one cow is a luxury to aspire to, Serge’s dairy is not proper but exotic, and Serge himself the lord of the land.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


There’s nothing quite like waking up to a fresh brewed mug wafting with the aroma of… raw potato. Now, few of us would run the other direction when faced with a diced Russet, but in your coffee cup? You might euphemistically call such a scent ‘unique’ the first time you encounter it but for the most part, it’s gross.

This “potato taste,” caused by a toxin-creating bacteria eating a hole in the cellular walls of the coffee cherry, is not only a bizarre addition to the flavor profiles found in coffees from the Great Lakes region of Africa (Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania) but it might just be the downfall of Rwanda’s entire specialty coffee industry. One bad bean can ruin an entire batch, even one otherwise considered the cream of the crop. I flung open the door of the cupping laboratory the other morning to find three cuppers hovered over nine glass cups, frowning. Leticia hands me a stainless spoon, wide brimmed with a steep handle, made specially for coffee cupping. “Taste that,” she points with her chin to the cup on the right. I take a slurp from the spoon. It’s tepid, acidic, and vegetal. I nearly gag.

It’s been a consistent routine with my friends over in Kigali’s coffee cupping laboratory that they have me taste the defects. I suppose they consider it instructive, although when the first sip of a coffee you have at 8am lingers with asparagus and potato, well, you might start craving a vanilla-mocha frappuccino. This particular round of samples was destined for Intelligentsia Coffee, based in Chicago and Los Angeles, but Intelligentsia would not be shipped one of their three coffees until further sorting and cupping determined the lot to be potato-free.

While there are pesticides that combat the potato taste-causing bacteria at the root of the problem on the plant itself, distributing pesticides to Rwanda’s thousands of coffee farmers is not the method chosen by the country thus far to prevent potato contamination. Rather, plentiful and cheap labor means over 300 women, and the occasional man, are employed full-time in Kigali’s coffee warehouses sorting out the defective beans from piles on the ground. The country’s fully-washed high-grade coffees, those that have undergone the most sophisticated type of processing from cherry to bean (about 3,000 tons of Rwanda’s total annual production of 40,000 tons), have already been picked over up to three times at the washing station for cherry that is under-ripe, over-ripe, or split open by bacteria. So understandably there is some frustration on the part of the cuppers when they roast samples that emanate aromas of raw potato, or when the often-subtle but unmistakable potato flavor coats their tongues. It’s a problem keeping the specialty coffee industry here on its toes, and creating sorting jobs for those who might otherwise have few employment options.

Misplaced vegetables aside, the cuppers have introduced me to a plethora of aromas and flavors in our mornings’ sampled coffees that have been challenging to detect and also brilliant when identified. During one round this week, a selection of samples from the Kayumbu washing station, found in Gitarama province just west of Kigali, was separated not only by the day of harvest but also by sorted grade: a single day’s harvest separated into grade A and grade B. Over 100 farmers might have contributed to any given day’s harvest making it impossible to identify the location of the coffee beyond the washing station, presuming that the cherry was grown within a ten-kilometer radius or so. Cherry ripening occurs later at higher altitudes; the higher the contrast between daytime and nighttime temperature (as occurs at higher altitudes), the more concentrated the sugars of the coffee plant become and thus produce, at least in theory, more flavor development. Harvesting cherry later in the season also presumes the sugars have had more time to develop, but as with all stages of coffee processing, a few under-ripe or diseased beans could throw off an otherwise fully-ripened, late-harvest batch.

I’ve learned the protocol for cupping well enough to know that when slurping from the spoon, you must do it loudly. Still though, I’m repeatedly corrected on my poor technique of breaking the crust of the grounds, which allows the aromas to escape. Properly, it involves a circular motion of the spoon reminiscent of the elegantly deliberate way a Japanese tea master cleans his utensils. My way, it involves pushing some of the grounds aside furtively with the back of a spoon and leaning in close enough for the steam to burn my nose. Before the crust of the grounds is broken, the cups look murky enough to be holding a foamy Guinness, or maybe brownie batter. The foam is spooned off after four minutes, un-precisely, and the brew cools down to warm before the cuppers slurp their spoonfuls. Flavors change somewhat dramatically as coffee cools and the hotter it is the more imperfections can be masked. This is a reasonable excuse for the bottomless coffee cup served at diners, which are always in need of hot refreshment.

But in the cupping lab, all of coffee’s possible imperfections must be unveiled. In today’s line of two dozen samples (with three cups of each sample brewed to taste for consistency), I cup a Kayumbu harvested on May 30th that tastes harsh and tangy on my tongue, lingering like lemon pith. Another Kayumbu from June 9th is chalky and watery, full of tannin and lacking in body… but this I only perceive when I slurp a spoonful of a Kayumbu from May 22nd that is by comparison full-bodied and tastes wholly like, well, coffee.

I wonder, though, after a personal revelation that the variation in coffee samples are perceptible only through extensive side-by-side tasting, if taste is ever absolute. A recent article in Gourmet magazine reported on this topic, explaining how flavor chemists are disproving years of scientific theory that understood the four basic ‘tastes,’ sweet, bitter, salty, and sour, perceived reliably on each individual’s tongue in the same place. This is the flavor equivalent of every human seeing the ocean as the same shade of blue, but the most recent theory in flavor chemistry? It’s that everyone tastes differently. Your shade of blue is not my shade of blue. In the specialty coffee industry, where three cuppers’ scoring a coffee sample above 88, let’s say, translates into a dollar more per pound than that coffee would get if it scored an 82 (or at least this gets the attention of buyers who are willing to pay more per pound), this new understanding of flavor means money. My observation of the cuppers thus far is that they all score samples reliably close to one another. While Leticia might give a sample her highest score of the day at 87, Claire might give the same coffee an 88. In other words, they’re all perceiving samples within the same ranges.

Even more interesting, this Gourmet article touched on the fact that taste might fall along cultural lines, with certain cultural groups tasting things differently from others. Now anyone who has traveled beyond Western Europe would nod in agreement, but how do you teach someone to taste the “heavy body, citric, honey and phosphorus in the mouth,” as Uzziel did while cupping a coffee from the Lake Kivu region of Kibuye? He scored this particular sample an 88, by the way, solid but short of exceptionaire.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

the coffee clinic

Down a dusty hill from Kigali's coffee offices, inside a cavernous warehouse emblazoned with faded Red Crosses, past rows and rows of fertilizer bags stacked two stories high and printed with ConAgra USA, and through an unmarked doorway at the end is where you’ll find the coffee clinic. Should your beans be defective, diseased, or in need of transformation, this is where you come.

When I arrived yesterday at 8:30am, Leticia was already consulting Antoine Urimubemshi, director of the Muyongwe coffee cooperative on his recently sampled beans. Symptom: lack of body in mouth feel. Diagnosis: green coffee beans exposed to too much afternoon sun on the drying racks. “These beans were good, very good,” says Leticia. “They are sweet, citrus… but they lack body. It’s because of the drying process.” She sends Antoine out with a list of all of the day-lots harvested in April and May and processed at the Muyongwe washing station, and a corresponding list of scores. Explaining to me after he leaves that “if the beans aren’t dry enough, they can be sent back. If they are too dry, it’s too late… There is no tool to measure moisture content,” Leticia says with a hint of remorse. “The farmers, they just taste the beans!”

Last year, the Muyongwe washing station claimed the number one coffee in Rwanda’s Golden Cup competition, a national award ceremony and auction. During this year’s upcoming Cup of Excellence, an internationally-recognized domestic event showcasing the crème de la crème of Rwandan coffee, Muyongwe is hoping to win big again and get scooped up at the international buying auction for upwards of $25 per pound. But fix their drying problem they must.

There is no dictionary definition for ‘cupping’ that references coffee even though those in the business drop the word to mean ‘coffee tasting’ with simple regularity. Here at coffee’s source, in-country cupping is more than a matter of gustatory effete. Rwanda’s 30 cuppers are highly trained coffee professionals, many of whom work five days a week at one of four national cupping laboratories. Like Leticia, they are the coffee doctors, offering advice to washing station owners or cooperative directors who come seeking quality quantification and tips on how to improve their beans. They are also the referees, as Leticia said, “like in football,” providing a crucial link between processing and exportation and ultimately, between producers and consumers (or as one unruly dairyman once corrected me, between “farmers and citizens!”).

“If you don’t know, if you don’t cup,” explained Leticia, “you can’t improve. You can’t change the processing,” referring to the fact that few farmers or washing station owners taste their own coffee. Without tasting, there is no way of knowing a coffee’s value; without knowing the value, quality improvement and the increased income it brings with it, is meaningless. Flavor becomes quantifiable under the cuppers’ noses, and on their taste buds. While not all coffee undergoes such scrutiny as it does in this coffee clinic, this quantifiable flavor is worth paying attention to when you're tasting the second-most valuable traded commodity in the world. Oil is the first.

Leticia, and her boyfriend Abdul, a long-time cupper who started his own cupping consulting business, seemed incredulous that some of the washing station owners have yet to really believe in cupping. “They have to know the value of the cuppers,” Leticia said vigorously with Abdul nodding at her side, “because we make the value.” All coffee is given a grade based on size and density when it leaves the washing stations of A1, A2, or A3. A1 is the most homogeneous in size and has the greatest density (those beans sunk in water tanks). Any coffee buyer looking to get their hands on some decent beans won't consider anything but A1 (Starbucks is in this category as well); the rest is generally fed into blends made by the largest coffee conglomerates like Nestle and Proctor & Gamble for your gas station variety. But among the A1 beans, the producing-country cuppers determine scores out of a 100-point system based on cleanliness, sweetness, acidity, mouth feel, flavor, after taste, and balance. A total score of 80 and above is good, you'd probably taste those and think they taste like, well, a fine cuppa joe. Above 86 is what the smaller roasting companies are after; they will usually highlight these coffees through origin-based labeling. Above 90 is what the cuppers, and buyers, consider exceptionaire, full of unique characteristics and certainly worth a significant price. Whether or not you and me can detect a difference between an 86 and a 92 is a matter for later.

It occurs to me some time before we’ve even begun tasting (cupping, I mean) coffee this week that there is so much room for error between when the coffee cherry is harvested and the time it hits the palate. Though similarities to wine are easily drawn, wine is basically complete when it goes into the bottle. Perhaps every now and again a bottle spoils through poor storage, but when the wine leaves the winemaker’s (or more realistically, the cellar manager’s) hands it’s more or less a finished product, left only then to the hands of time for aging. With coffee, by contrast, there are so many more hands to pass through, and no guarantees can be made about quality until it’s poured into the cup. Even after the beans leave the washing station, myriad ways to sort, grade, roast, and brew can bring a coffee bean’s latent flavors and aromas (imagine honey, chocolate and citrus) to life. Or, something can go terribly wrong and cupping will uncover scents and tastes of burnt popcorn, medicinal tar, or the most dreaded, raw potato.

I can’t think of another fruit, besides the olive, that requires so much human intervention to make it palatable. Up close, the papery skin surrounding the green coffee bean, also known as parchment, slips off like a cicada’s shell, the kind you might find still clinging to a tree trunk but devoid of its inhabitant. The green bean inside is a vaguely translucent grayish-green, a rustic and dwarfed version of its previous life as a bright red, smooth cherry. A tiny seam down the middle contains a bronzy paper remnant of the parchment that remains in tact through roasting; ground, it emerges as the little white specks sometimes visible if the grounds are left coarse. I can’t crack the little pea of a bean with my nail, or my teeth. It doesn’t have much of a flavor when I suck on a few, but a pile of green beans does give off a fragrance that somewhat resembles corn. The real transformation, the alchemy into coffee, occurs during roasting.

Below, some photos of the coffee sorters and roasting machinery. More on that to follow soon.

the coffee clinic: photographs