“We love a challenge” might just be a cliché for some, but when it comes to sourcing coffee in Africa, it’s definitely true that some of our very favorite growing regions are also hands down the most complicated. One of the countries in which we’re just starting to have a more engaged buying presence is in Tanzania, an East African coastal country that shares borders with Kenya to the northeast, and Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda in the northwest.
Despite its proximity to some of the most famous specialty-coffee origins in the world, and its relatively long history with coffee as a crop, Tanzania is often something of an afterthought when it comes to African producers, and most familiar perhaps for its seemingly ubiquitous peaberries.
Generic “Tanzanian peaberries” don’t tell half the story, however, and they certainly don’t account for the fantastic estate, cooperative, and microlot coffees that are hidden in plain sight here. We happen to think that with hard work and a bit more attention in Tanzania’s direction, however, it’s totally possible to overcome obstacles, discover exceptional quality, and build relationships in this beautiful, diverse, and complex coffee country.
“That’s not an easy question, what I like about Tanzania,” says Cafe Imports green-coffee buyer Claudia Bellinzoni, who happened to live in Tanzania for a year when she was working with an export company before joining our Europe team in their Berlin office. “I went once for holiday actually—I missed it!” The Tanzania that she describes is a beautiful place, with striking landscapes, incredibly friendly and positive people, and of course, an interesting and dynamic coffee culture with heaps of potential.
Claudia’s green-coffee buying for Cafe Imports focuses on Africa, and in addition to trips through Burundi, Rwanda, and Ethiopia to visit and strengthen existing relationships with producers, she has also made it her mission to rediscover the coffees of Tanzania, and to build that portion of Cafe Imports’ menu for the coming year.
“Tanzania is very different from the north to the south,” she says, describing both the coffee and beyond. “It’s an extremely multicultural country,” which of course is one of the things that also create challenges with the work. In recent years, government regulations on the coffee market have also created complications for both producers and buyers by giving an impression of instability and unpredictability, which has impacted producers’ desire and ability to bring samples to the newer specialty market.
In fact, one of our top-cupping Tanzanian lots from last season will likely suffer complete destruction after the market fiasco. “Many companies closed completely, and the coffee—that amazing coffee, yes—is drying on the trees now, with nobody picking it,” Claudia said in an e-mail during her last visit.
Despite that heartbreaking setback, Claudia did visit and cup samples with nearly 15 different producers, in search of a few potential new long-term relationships that will not only help the growers stabilize their income and invest in quality, but that will also light up what has been a dimmed corner of our offerings sheet.
“In general the coffee from the north is maybe brighter acidity, more similar to Kenyan coffee,” Claudia says as she describes the beginning of her end-of-harvest visit in September. “Very tropical, very sweet.” This is precisely what we taste in the coffees we’ve been bringing in from the Ngorongoro Group in Karatu, an association of estates that have banded together for marketing and resource-sharing purposes. There are currently four (and soon to be five) farms in the group—including Acacia Hills, which is owned and operated in part by Mark Stell of Portland Roasting Coffee in Portland, Ore.—and though they operate independently they have found that there is power in numbers when producing specialty coffee in such a complicated commercial climate.
Acacia Hills impressed Claudia, just as it’s impressed our cupping team in the lab year after year. “They’re investing a lot in the farm,” she says. “One of the main problems for them in the beginning was elephants coming through and destroying everything—like 60 percent of the farm was gone! They put up a fence, so everything is safe: They invested a lot of money in the fence, and it’s really amazing.” (Editor’s note: We imagine a fence that can keep out an elephant must be pretty amazing!)
The farm also features 11 different blocks of land, each planted with a different variety—many of them unusual to Tanzania. “Piero [Cristiani, senior green-coffee buyer for Cafe Imports] brought Pacamara seeds to them years ago, and they’re loving the coffee and are really taking so much care of it—it’s cupping really well! They also have some Gesha that they really believe in. They’re doing a lot of experiments.”
Another of the farms associated with Ngorongoro is called Shangri-La, which is owned by a Danish couple who have focused their investments into the drying tables and the wet mill. “Everything was super clean and the coffees were nice, and I see potential in the future,” Claudia says. Same with Ngila Farm, which has primarily sold to European markets in the past. “They do a really nice Honey,” Claudia says, while also explaining that Ngila also suffers from elephants—certainly a problem unique from those that farmers in Latin America face.
Aside from the network of estates that make up Ngorongoro, Claudia visited several other farms as well, including Finagro Plantations and Edelweiss Estate, which are bought doing very interesting off-beat experiments with things like Honey process and fermenting in an anaerobic environment. “I think there’s potential with their fermentation experiments,” Claudia reports back. “Very sweet and cinnamon notes and dried fruit, raisins, in both the Honey and the anaerobic. I see potential for the next years.”
From there, Claudia journeyed into the eastern part of the country, to Moshi and Arusha, “which is basically at Kilimanjaro,” she says. She met with two different cooperatives in the shadow of that famous mountain: Mamsera and Ushiri, both of which buy from smallholder producers—“sometimes there are hundreds of producers, sometimes there are thousands”—and sell to exporters through the CPU, or Central Processing Unit, which does the depulping, fermentation, drying, and arranges the final sale for export. “Mamsera and Ushiri are really well known to have amazing coffee,” she says. Another set of producers with great potential for the harvests to come.
For the duration of her trip, Claudia focused on the producers she knew in the south, including the company called City Coffee—a connection she’d made and kept up since her days living in-country. One of the most exciting projects she saw was a collaboration between City Coffee and 10 schools in the district of Mbozi, a region where most of the local population has worked in coffee for generations. To improve quality and incentivize young people to continue farming with a focus on specialty grades, each student is given 50 coffee trees of a compact hybrid that is resistant to the major blight here, Coffee Berry Disease (CBD).
“Each school is directly linked to a cooperative, so the nursery and the farm belongs to the school but they process their coffee through the Amcos cooperatives in the CPU [Coffee Processing Unit] that is supporting the school.” This long-game vision of sustaining the coffee sector of Tanzania rings significant, especially in light of the issues longstanding producers have come up against, and the hard-fought temptation to turn from coffee to something else.
All in all, however, Claudia says she cupped an extraordinary amount of coffees in just three days in south Tanzania—something like 300 samples. “Some of them were really nice,” she says. “The coffees in the south are more stone fruit, and they can have more complexities from the peaberries.”
Peaberries are a natural mutation that occurs in roughly 10 percent of the world’s coffee, where the fruit forms a single small, rounded seed rather than two curved seeds with flat sides that sit touching. Tanzania’s peaberries are famous almost by “accident”: For a long portion of the country’s coffee history, its major exports have gone to European or Asian markets where seed-size uniformity is prized for roasting consistently. The smaller average size of a peaberry then has long been unappealing in those markets, and exporters will sort them out and blend them into a PB (peaberry) grade. The peaberries, then, are more commonly found in the U.S. market, where they have actually become something of a delicacy—what’s that they say about one man’s garbage?
In any event, this trip for Claudia was as much exploratory as anything, and she looks forward to cementing several relationships for future options on solid regional and microlot coffees. “This trip was for both relationships in general and for what we’ll see in the cup, and I think that the investments are right and the conditions are right, Tanzania is showing that it has really amazing coffees, too.”