Congo “Kivu”

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A Rediscovered Name

In May of this year rebels ousted Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko, after nearly 32 years of increasingly corupt and despotic rule. Mobutu, who died in September in exile, is said to have amassed a personal fortune of up to $8 billion. In 1971 he changed the name of his country to Zaire, as part of a program of cultural nationalism. One of the rebels’ first acts was to ditch the name Zaire, and restore the name Mobutu had discarded: Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Congo/Zaire reaches the Atlantic Ocean in a 25-mile-wide strip at the mouth of the Congo River. The land widens inland to include most of the huge Congo River basin in the interior of central Africa. Traversed by the Equator, Congo/Zaire lies partially in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The central depression of the Congo basin has an altitude of about 300 m (1,000 ft), and is suited best for growing the inferior Coffea Robusta varieties. The basin gradually rises through a series of rolling plateaus to more than 1,525 m (5,000 ft) to the northeast and southeast and to more than 5,000 m (16,400 ft) in the mountains and active volcanoes on the edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley in the extreme east. It is here, near Lake Kivu {kee’-voo}, at 1,460 m (4,790 ft) above sea level, on the border between Zaire and Rwanda, that this month’s selection is produced.

The mile-high tropical plateau around Lake Kivu enjoys mild (average 66° F) temperatures and a climate and topography similar to outstanding Arabica coffee production regions in nearby Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania. In his 1935 industry classic, All About Coffee, William Ukers rated coffee from the Kivu district of the then-Belgian Congo as comparable to those of Kenya.

Unfortunately under Mobutu, production of coffee, as with all other agricultural export products, suffered. The USDA estimates Zaire will produce a combined total of 1 million 60-kilo sacks of mostly Robusta coffee in 1997, or less than 1% of total world coffee production of 104 million sacks. Congo/Zaire does not even appear on the list of the leading 35 country suppliers to the United States.

zaireSo off-the-radar-screen was the Congo for quality specialty coffee that we accepted a sample of Kivu only after repeated urgings from our highly reliable importer. As it happened, we cupped the offer alongside a much anticipated sample of Celebes Kalosi. To our surprise the Congo Kivu outshined the higher-pedigree Indonesian in every way. Against typical expectations the Kivu possessed a rich dynamic balance of intense flavors, stylistically reminiscent of an oak-tinged, fruity Cabernet. Compared with flat, heavy bodied coffees, this lively dry fruitiness gives Kivu a flavor glow that tingles in the mouth.

This holiday season we invite you to join us in celebrating the promise of rebirth of democracy in central Africa’s largest nation by getting acquainted with the fresh surprise of Congo Kivu. A rediscovered name in the heritage of East African Milds.