Harvest Report: Tanzania 2019

Posted on October 31st, 2019

Every green-coffee buyer and every coffee traveler has their own reasons for the places that feel particularly special to them. For some it’s the thrill of a new location, for others it’s the comfort of returning somewhere familiar. For others, it’s all about flavor. Occasionally, when you’re really lucky, it’s a combination of all three: That’s what Cafe Imports’ green-coffee buyer for Africa, Claudia Bellinzoni, gets to experience whenever she goes to Tanzania, a place where she once lived to work in coffee, and where she is constantly exploring new possibilities along with re-connecting with old friends, colleagues, and cup profiles.

This fall, Claudia made her annual trip back to Tanzania to source coffees, keep in touch with export partners and friends, and to report back about the harvest this year. “It was a similar trip to last year—almost three weeks, from the north to the south,” she says. “I lived in the south and my friends are in the south, but the north is amazing. It may be even more beautiful, when you go to the Kilimanjaro. But my favorite park is in the south.” Thankfully, we don’t ask her to choose favorite regions, just favorite coffees.

The north and the south of Tanzania are not only different geographically, but also in terms of the coffee landscape. Larger estates still dominate in the north, many owned through the generations by European-descent colonial families, or, lately, operated through investment by coffee-holding groups or new management.

Claudia visited several farms in the north in search of new relationships, particularly with family-owned estates, where she sees the most opportunity. “They have a lot of potential,” she says of many of the farms she saw. “They are developing more and more, and the farms are really good, really beautiful. The altitude is really high.” While coffee estates are often known for being somewhat risk averse—“why fix what ain’t broken,” in other words—Claudia learned from several about interesting new processes and experiments they’re trying out. One family described the “carbonic maceration” they’re trying out during the fermentation process on their coffee, while she describes another that’s “doing some sort of anaerobic process” that involves fermentation inside of wine barrels. “They put some coffees in a wine barrel and then they flip it over. There’s one individual who pushes the wine barrel up and down, up and down,” Claudia says. “It’s very clean but very fruity. Like a very fruity Washed coffee, really like a fruit bomb.”

Our historical partner in the northern part of the country, and the estate from which we can expect another year of fantastic arrivals, is Ngila Estate, a 250-hectare farm in Karatu near the Ngorongoro crater. (Farms near the crater and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area have unique difficulties with their four-legged neighbors: Elephants and buffalo in the area routinely trample the coffee fields and need to be kept away—but just try to tell that to the elephants!) The farm has been Rainforest Alliance/Utz certified for over a decade, and focuses on traditional methods of pest and disease control rather than commercially manufactured chemicals.

“They have a small house on the coffee farm, it’s really beautiful,” Claudia says. They have all these new technologies, with drip irrigation and water-saving coffee processing equipment. They have great staff, and they’re doing a really good job. I cupped all day, visited the mill, and visited the farm.” The coffees Claudia describes from Ngila this year are worth looking forward to: citrus, cinnamon, plum, honey, walnuts. “Very smooth,” she adds. “The body is really nice.”

In the country’s south, Cafe Imports’ primary relationships are with the AMCOS, or Agricultural Marketing Cooperative Societies, democratically run groups of growers who share processing facilities and sell their coffee as blended lots. Most of the AMCOS are centered around a mill or receiving station, typically within walking distance (though for many people in the area, “walking distance” could very well be several kilometers, rather than simply a few blocks). While some of the producers deliver in cherry, others depulp on their own property and haul sacks of mucilage-covered or partially fermented parchment to the group: It’s important to find partners who encourage producers to deliver fresh cherry, for uniformity and quality’s sake.

Like Farmer Cooperative Societies in Kenya, the AMCOS might have anywhere from several hundred to a thousand or more members, which makes traceability down to the individual farmers per lot impossible; this also means that rewarding or incentivizing quality with premium prices isn’t feasible, either, which can also Having a strong and trustworthy relationship on the ground is incredibly important—otherwise, it can be hard to guarantee that the sales price is getting to the right hands.

While it can be difficult to find counterparties who are committed both to the producers as well as the cup, Claudia has developed a relationship with a group that works with 21 AMCOS, and which shows its care through tangible action and integrity. “They have an amazing mill,” she says, “and they offer interest-free pre-harvest finance, assist with building washing stations, and they allow the AMCOS to learn the entire process of coffee. They’re really invested in working and cooperating with these groups. To be honest, it’s tone of the best relationships I’ve had in Africa.”

Several of the affiliated AMCOS are also actively encouraging the younger generation to stay in coffee, and is using a school project to teach them how they can earn better prices and make a good living by focusing on quality. “There are something like 50 teenagers who have decided they want to work in coffee,” Claudia explains. “In school, they receive coffee training one or two days a week, and each of the students receives 50 to 100 coffee trees to take care of during the school year. I went to meet the students and to see what they do. They were really enthusiastic! Happy to work in coffee and looking forward to grow.”

Our offerings from the south this year are also showing some real promise on the cupping table: Claudia says that the profile is less reminiscent of the Kenyan characteristics that the northern lots typically have. “In the south it’s super citrus, all kinds. Mandarins, lemon, and also this apricot. Sometimes this floral. The peaberry is particularly good in the south as well.”

As for the season, it ended sooner than expected as the harvest was lower across the country—during Claudia’s visit, southern Tanzania’s farms had all been picked clean already. The main problem in Tz is CBD, or Coffee Berry Disease: a fungus that thrives in high humidity and warm temperatures, and which causes coffee cherries to turn black and rot, or to snap off the branches while they’re still underripe. The nonprofit, stakeholder-owned Tanzanian Coffee Research Institute (TaCRI) is actively focused on combating CBD, in part through new cultivars and resistant hybrids. “The institute has developed 19 different resistant varieties from Bourbon and Kent,” Claudia says. “They’re known as compact hybrids, because they take only  18 months to start producing cherries, versus the standard three years. They’re easier to prune, and to take shoots from the mother plant in order to propagate seeds.” These coffees are being distributed by TaCRI, but Claudia says, “many are reluctant to take them” for reasons of quality, tradition, temporary yield loss, skepticism—any number of factors. It is incredibly difficult and labor-intensive to renovate farms with new coffee trees, whether on the very small farms typically found in the south (from 1/8th a hectare to 2 hectares total) or the larger northern estates.

With the push to renovate at the farm level and to innovate in processing, however, we still see a great future for building and maintaining relationships in Tanzania, well beyond the peaberry. “It’s a huge country,” Claudia says. “There’s so much to explore.” She gets just a little wistful for a moment, then continues. “I love Tanzania. I miss the nature and the silence, waking up with the birds around me. The sunset, the animals, everything related to nature and the people are amazing. I have good memories.”

We think you’ll be able to taste them in the cup.