Alternative Africas: Rwanda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe

Most specialty Africa coffees sold in North America are from Ethiopia and Kenya, the two most distinctive coffee origins in the region and arguably in the world. However, coffee is grown in substantial quantities all along the string of mountains and plateaus extending south from Ethiopia and Kenya. Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe all produce interesting, at times exceptional, coffees.

We contacted around twenty North American specialty companies to discover which coffees from these “alternative” Africa origins they roasted and felt were worthy of review. Almost all of the samples we received were coffees produced in Rwanda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. A single Malawi showed up, and nothing whatsoever from the significant productions of Zambia and Uganda. Some reasons for this imbalance later.

Rwandas Transcend

In terms of basic flavor profile, these “alternative Africas” have long carried a reputation as less intense versions of Kenya and Ethiopia: softer than Kenya, less floral than Ethiopia, attractive coffees but not dramatic.

This month’s cupping simultaneously both supported that generalization yet spectacularly contradicted it. For example, the three 92-rated Rwandas reviewed here, one from New Harvest Coffee Roasters and two from Counter Culture Coffee, all leaned in an Ethiopia direction, with their quietly extravagant flowers, chocolate and cherryish fruit, but their gentle floral juiciness ultimately differed in nuance from any Ethiopia type. And, though they shared commonalities, they differed from one another as well, varying in weight and mouthfeel, in intensity of their acidity, and in the detail of their attractive aromatics.

The two 90-rated Tanzanias from Stockton Graham and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters with their “black currant” or dry berry notes and red wine nuance clearly pointed more toward neighboring Kenya than Ethiopia in style, but offered engaging variations on the type. Finally, the coffees that made it to us through the economic and political turmoil of contemporary Zimbabwe (Leopard Forest Pinnacle 90, Coffee Klatch La Lucie 89, Leopard Forest Zimbabwe Peaberry 88) were more intensely (though sweetly) acidy than either the Rwandas or the Tanzanias, with less floral or berry character, but considerable power.

USAID Success Story

That we even have coffees from these three origins is a tribute to the tenacious vitality of specialty coffee institutions and people. Impediments of history, civil strife, poverty, and difficult geography all needed to be overcome to bring these coffees to the larger world. The story is slightly different with each origin.

In Rwanda, aid agencies have sensibly supported specialty coffee as a prime tool for fueling recovery from the ravages of genocide and civil war. Rwanda offers ideal growing conditions for Coffea arabica together with widespread existing plantings of respected traditional varieties. In the past five years the USAID (United States Agency for International Development) through its SPREAD project (Sustaining Partnership to Enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development) has spent $10,000,000 to support development of specialty coffee in Rwanda. Judging by this month’s modest sampling, this generous effort and the contributions of its volunteer supporters appears to have produced impressive results: Of this month’s twelve highest-rated coffees, six originated in Rwanda. And by all accounts, the success of the SPREAD project in achieving quality coffee has been matched by success in stabilizing and improving life for those thousands of families engaged in producing it.

Persistence in Tanzania

In Tanzania coffee production never stopped as it did in Rwanda, though development projects and roasting company initiatives have helped create “new” coffees like this month’s Green Mountain Gombe Special Reserve (90), the refined result of a collaborative project of The Jane Goodall Institute and Green Mountain aimed at providing stable income for farmers of the Kalinzi cooperative who live close to the boundaries of the Gombe National Park and its threatened population of chimpanzees.

However, the more anonymous but durable supply chain of the old-fashioned specialty coffee world appears to be responsible for most of the other Tanzania samples we received for this month’s cupping. Aside from the Green Mountain Tanzania, only one of the nine other Tanzanias that appeared for this month’s cupping displayed even the name of a coffee-growing region, much less cooperative or farm. Revealingly perhaps, the two most specifically named Tanzanias also were the two highest rated. The other eight Tanzanias were sturdy, respectable coffees, a tribute to continuity and the quiet struggles of largely anonymous farmers and exporters to overcome what are doubtless significant obstacles.

Six of the ten Tanzania samples we received consisted of the peaberry grade. I have written before (The Tanzanian Peaberry Mystery) about the peculiar, tenacious association of Tanzania and peaberry in the North American specialty industry. All coffee growing regions produce peaberry, a single oval bean that typically makes up around 5% of a given coffee crop. Anywhere coffee is grown the grader has the option of separating out one or more sizes of peaberry and selling them separately or allowing them to remain mixed with the normal flat-sized beans. Thus the specialty coffee industry’s insistence on associating Tanzania in particular with the peaberry grade has always appeared a bit arbitrary.

True, peaberries often provide a livelier and arguably better version of a given coffee profile than do conventional beans from the same crop. Nevertheless, the very sketchy evidence of this month?s cupping results does not bear out that assumption. The Tanzania peaberries from Texas Roast (89) and Batdorf & Bronson (88) were quite attractive coffees, but did not offer quite the distinctive aromatic edge of the two 90-rated flat-bean Tanzanias from Stockton Graham and Green Mountain.

Beating the Odds in Zimbabwe

Like Tanzania Peaberry, Zimbabwe is another Africa origin with a long history in American specialty coffee. When I first came into coffee many years ago most specialty coffee shops routinely featured a Zimbabwe along with a Kenya AA and a Tanzania Peaberry on their menus. Today, however, the Zimbabwe coffee industry is under tremendous stress owing to the erosion of Zimbabwe’s economic and civil institutions, and Zimbabwe makes only rare appearances on North American specialty lists.

However, two very well-run Zimbabwe farms beat the odds and provided coffee for this month’s cupping: The famous La Lucie Estate put in an appearance courtesy of Coffee Klatch (89), and three samples arrived from a farm associated with the Leopard Forest Coffee Company, including a 90-rated Zimbabwe Pinnacle and an 88-rated Zimbabwe Peaberry. Leopard Forest, interestingly, is vertically integrated, importing coffee directly from its Zimbabwe farm to its roastery in South Carolina.

Two Sides of Quality

One of the many reasons I give for my continued fascination with coffee over a career of some forty years is the unusual opportunity it affords to fuse the quest for refined pleasure with a quest for a better world. This paradox is finely expressed in the work of two green coffee buyers represented in this month’s review: Peter Giuliano of Counter Culture Coffee and Lindsey Bolger of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. Peter, the coffee buyer who helped develop both of this month’s superb 92-rated Fair-Trade Rwandas from Karaba cooperative, has traveled to that cooperative three times over the last two years to cup coffee lots and teach cupping. Lindsay Bolger, the Director of Coffee Sourcing and Relationships at Green Mountain and one of my favorite cuppers for her cosmopolitan palate and striking turn of phrase, performed a similar leadership role in the development of the 90-rated Special Reserve Gombe Tanzania.

Doubtless there are similar stories behind other coffees reviewed here, as well as behind many of the high-rated coffees that have been praised at Coffee Review over the years. Truly distinguished coffees ultimately develop from a shared obsession between coffee grower and coffee buyer.

Waiting for a Break

Perhaps the absence of such partnerships is what has hindered the establishment on the North American coffee scene of coffees from the Africa origins not represented in this month’s review: Malawi, Zambia, Uganda. Certainly there are growers and terroirs in those countries capable of fine and distinctive coffees. I have cupped interesting coffees from all three origins. Perhaps the Peters and Lindseys of the coffee world and their allies in the development community will manage to bring some of them into the specialty limelight in future years.

2007 The Coffee Review. All rights reserved.

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About the Author:

Kenneth Davids is a coffee expert, author and co-founder of Coffee Review. He has been involved with coffee since the early 1970s and has published three books on coffee, including the influential Home Roasting: Romance and Revival, now in its second edition, and Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, which has sold nearly 250,000 copies over five editions. His workshops and seminars on coffee sourcing, evaluation and communication have been featured at professional coffee meetings on six continents.

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