I spent the past week on the North American West Coast -- Los Angeles and Vancouver to be specific. I visited roasters in both cities and the Swiss Water Decaffeination Coffee Co. in Burnaby. My plan was to promote interest in the Rwandan Ejo Heza coffee that Artisan Coffee Imports is bringing in to Oakland in January. I got a clear reminder of just how serious the potato taste defect (PTD) "fall-out" is among specialty coffee buyers. Too many have been "stung" too many times. Many told me "we just stopped buying it."
This is difficult but probably not "new" news for stakeholders in Rwanda's coffee industry. Many producers and exporters in Kigali and its environs have expressed to me frustration with an inability to increase volumes with specialty buyers. I suspect a few know they have lost buyers due to potato taste, but probably many do not realize that this is the reason a small specialty buyer did not return. Therefore in a recent survey of the 16 washing stations in the AGLC project, 56% said they had at least one problem with potato taste in the past year, but only one said a customer had rejected a load due to PTD. (The survey did not ask how many customers the Producer Organization thought they had lost, only how many had rejected a shipment.)
Meanwhile, ICO data shows the following downward trend for Rwanda's production. The causes for the production declines are more complex than "just" PTD, of course. The AGLC research team has written papers on issues related to productivity, motivation and capacity (link here). All of these "root" causes affect PTD also, we just don't have numbers yet to say exactly how.
Figure: Rwanda’s Arabica green coffee production trend is downward. Source: ICO
"[On potato taste] I'm at the point of withdrawl. I'm so tired of it. I get a great Burundi or Rwanda and then 'bam!' the potato smell hits you as you brew. I've trained my staff to notice it, but I just don't want the hassle." ~ small, micro-roaster with retail outlet in Culver City, CA (Los Angeles neighborhood).
"We are focusing on providing micro-lot, specialty decaffeinated coffee, but we cannot take out defects -- only the caffeine. We can't buy Rwandan, Burundian or Congo coffee and decaffeinate because if even one of those beans gets into the system it could ruin the entire batch and more than 7,000 lbs of coffee." ~ executive at Swiss Water Process
"We stopped buying Rwanda a couple years ago. Too many incidents of potato defect. We pride ourselves on great tasting coffee, so it's just too risky." ~ green buyer for Vancouver roaster buying ~ 20 containers/year
"We have to train the baristas very carefully to detect PTD and throw away the batch. Seems like every Rwanda or Burundi has a few, but with the very high quality ones (like Gaharo from Long Miles Coffee Project), the incidents have been very, very few." ~ high-end roaster in Costa Mesa, CA (Los Angeles neighborhood)