Fruit and Flowers: Coffees of Central and Southern Africa
The eastern half of the African continent produces some of the world's most dazzlingly distinctive coffees, distinctive meaning identifiably different in flavor from the rest of the world's production. However, most aficionados' African experience is limited to coffees from the continent's two most celebrated origins, Kenya and Ethiopia, both in East Africa. What about the eight or ten other African countries that grow arabica coffee?
Today, some of the coffee growing countries of central and southern Africa are making a run at the high-end specialty market. Although the details of their stories differ, all share a common potential for producing exceptional arabica coffees.
In the case of Rwanda efforts to enter the specialty market are spearheaded by development agencies, which see specialty coffee as a way of bringing a little cash and positive recognition to a region that has experienced little of either recently. With Zambia the initiatives come mainly from the governments and the growers themselves. Tanzania long has had a place, albeit a minor one, on American specialty coffee menus, but after going into eclipse for some years it is again sending us some consistently fine coffees.
The Kenya and Ethiopia Match up
This month we cupped coffees from six such contenders: Tanzania (nine samples), Zimbabwe (five), Zambia (three), Rwanda (two), Uganda (two) and Cameroon (one). We also sourced one blend that combined coffees selected from the entire eastern half of the continent. Appearing here are reviews of the top-rated eleven of those twenty-three coffees.
How did coffees from these less celebrated origins match up in quality and character to the better-known production of Ethiopia and Kenya?
Diverse and Outstanding
The good news is that the best of these samples from south of the equator were outstanding, and outstanding in various and arresting ways. The not-so-good news is that about an equal number were faded or partially ruined by processing and drying taints, especially mildew. If there is a lesson here for green coffee buyers, it may be that these origins offer high points equal in quality and excitement to the best offerings of Kenya and Ethiopia, but with less consistency across the origin.
Based on this very limited sampling, and at this particular time of year, Rwanda and Tanzania came out looking the best. Although I cupped only two Rwandas, both samples from this terribly torn and now recovering country were exceptional and exceptionally interesting coffees, and sensitively roasted. Of the nine Tanzanias, I would characterize two as outstanding, two as very mildly flawed, and the other five as very solid, pleasing coffees. Taken together, this is an excellent showing.
Zambia and Zimbabwe
I can assure readers that Zambia produces some exceptional coffees, although few seem to reach roasters in the United States. The three Zambias I cupped for this article were pleasant coffees, but only one came close to revealing the potential of this origin. Possibly some of this month's Zambias were from last year's crop rather than the current crop, and a little faded.
Zimbabwe, the southernmost coffee growing country in Africa, is a special case, and a sad one. Once among most respected coffee producers in Africa, Zimbabwe's economic and social life has fallen into disarray owing to the disruptions caused by President Robert Mugabe's aggressively populist policies and international and internal reactions to those policies. Nevertheless, one of the Zimbabwes in this month's cupping was outstanding. The other four were not, displaying hints of the mildewed taste cuppers call baggy. I suspect that these four coffees were from last year's crop and simply faded from age. However, even here one senses a fine Africa coffee trying to emerge from under the restraints of a faded mustiness.
Several Good Ones and More to Come
Nevertheless, for the coffee lover the high points here are quite high, and as coffee leaders and development agencies refine and expand their efforts to develop fine coffees from these origins, we should see more such successes.