Article: Conflict Coffee

The Most Dangerous Cup of Coffee in the World

Artisanal roasters seeking the next great specialty coffee have descended on Congo despite Kalashnikovs and corruption; ‘good body and unthreatening complexity’. 

Author: Alexandra Wexler at Wall Street Journal / Photography by Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi

BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo—A dozen artisanal coffee aficionados from around the world hovered their noses above cups of steaming grounds and inhaled deeply. Then they tasted the coffee, swishing or chewing it, spit out the leftovers and used calculators on their smartphones to tally a final score for each sample of beans.

Congo is one of the last frontiers in a global scramble for the world’s best-tasting coffee. The rise in demand for specialty coffee, which accounts for one of every two cups sold in the U.S., has encouraged exporters, roasters and retailers to go places where the potential is huge—and so are the risks.

The jungle-clad, coffee-rich provinces of eastern Congo are home to militants still locked in a war that has claimed more than five million lives in the past 20 years. The nation’s fragile stability has been threatened anew by deadly clashes over the possibility that President Joseph Kabila will extend his 15-year rule by delaying until 2018 elections that had been scheduled for November.

The many challenges of doing business in Congo include death threats, kidnapping and extortion. Government officials often concoct new taxes on the spot or forge documents to demand more money than what is owed. Last year, at least 175 foreigners and Congolese, many working for aid organizations, were abducted and held for ransom, according to Human Rights Watch.

Most of the kidnappings happened in areas near where specialty coffee is grown, though no Western coffee prospectors have been abducted. They usually travel with people who are trusted to know the lay of the land and keep the local military general on speed dial.

“I just talked with my team 15 minutes ago, and in Butembo, there is gunfire,” said Yves-Pascal Suter, a manager in the Swiss office of Schluter SA, a coffee trader specializing in African beans. He visits eastern Congo often and tries to troubleshoot for a 50-person local affiliate office that works with 2,000 coffee farmers near Butembo, a city in the province of North Kivu.

In August, more than 60 people were hacked to death with machetes about 35 miles from Schluter’s local office. “When do we say: ‘Stop working,’ and when do we decide it’s a normal risk?” said Mr. Suter.

Despite the danger, Congo is attracting some of the biggest names in coffee. Starbucks Corp., based in Seattle, is investing $1 million over three years through its foundation. In March, Starbucks sold its first single-origin Congolese coffee online and at 1,500 stores in the U.S. and Canada.

Blue Bottle Coffee Co. sometimes blends Congolese and two types of Ethiopian beans into its Three Africas coffee, described by the Oakland, Calif., company as having “a very easy-to-like personality with good body and unthreatening complexity.”

Small coffee roasters across the U.S., Europe and South Africa are forming partnerships with middlemen in Congo who can help open doors with small-scale farmers.

Specialty coffee is a fast-growing segment of the approximately $175 billion-a-year world-wide coffee market. Specialty coffee is made from the highest-quality arabica beans, sells at a premium and has gone from the fringe to mainstream. In the U.S., 31% of adults drink specialty coffee every day, up from 16% in 2006, the National Coffee Association trade group estimates.

Congo’s specialty-coffee production has surged to as much as 960 tons a year from almost nothing in 2008, according to the Eastern Congo Initiative, a nonprofit group that focuses on rejuvenating local agriculture.

The North Kivu and South Kivu provinces have 94 coffee-washing stations, up from seven about five years ago, according to the Université Chrétienne Bilingue du Congo. Washing stations are crucial to the specialty-coffee infrastructure because they enable farmers to separate coffee seeds from the fruit that surrounds them. The crop is then washed, fermented and dried to retain its premium value.

Jonathan Robinson, managing director of South African coffee roaster Bean There Coffee Co. heard just before his first trip to Congo in 2013 that a business partner had gotten death threats from a former local employee.

Mr. Robinson was undeterred. About 6% of the company’s sales now are Congolese coffee brews, up from zero before his first trip to Congo.

African coffee, with just 12% of the global market, is among the most sought-after and is often used to add flavor to blends from multiple origins that would otherwise be one-noted or bland. Arabica coffee is more than half of Congo’s output, up from about 20% a decade ago, according to industry estimates.

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