Courtesy of Kenneth Davids, 21st Century Coffee: A Guide
Tanzania is a promising contender that has never quite broken into the specialty coffee big time. It is blessed with a variety of excellent coffee terroirs and large plantings of traditional, subtly distinctive Bourbon varieties of Arabica. It also benefits from a peculiar marketing advantage (or perhaps limitation) bestowed on it by coffee tradition. “Tanzania peaberry” is an arbitrary sort of specialty coffee “brand.”
Peaberries are a grade of coffee produced everywhere that coffee is grown, yet for reasons that are not entirely clear, Tanzania is particularly associated with its peaberry grades. In other words, all coffee origins produce peaberries, but of all coffee-producing countries of the world only Tanzania seems to be particularly identified with them. In the early days of specialty coffee, “Tanzania peaberry” was a standard, almost requisite offering in specialty stores, and it continues to appear on specialty coffee menus and websites, though with less frequency than it once did.
Stop-and-Start Government Coffee Policy
At any rate, despite its excellent terroirs and distinctive traditional tree varieties, Tanzania has remained in the second tier of African specialty coffee origins, while buyers and aficionados busily celebrate its northern neighbors, Ethiopia and Kenya.
The reasons for Tanzania’s failure to live up to its coffee-star potential almost certainly are related to an inconsistent, stop-and-start government coffee policy. The socialist government that ruled from 1964 to 1992 broke up traditional colonial coffee estates but failed to assist the small holders who took over to achieve the organization and discipline that the great cooperatives of Ethiopia and Kenya were able to develop. In fact, the Tanzanian government flat out outlawed cooperatives in 1976, apparently in an effort to encourage traditional village populism.
And the government auction system that worked so well with regard to encouraging quality in Kenya never managed parallel success in Tanzania.
Finally, the association of Tanzania specialty coffee exclusively with the peaberry grade probably hasn’t helped either, given that peaberry usually only constitutes about 3% to 30% of total production from a given farm or crop.
Success Despite It All
Nevertheless, small holders, cooperatives and a handful of revived estates in Tanzania have continued to produce interesting, often distinctive, occasionally brilliant coffees, despite facing sudden rule changes instigated by a government that can’t seem to make up its mind about whether to regulate coffee production and, if so, how. As I write the situation faced by producers continues in a sort of bureaucratic haze.
The Traditional Tanzania Cup
Typical Global Descriptors (top specialty lots, all wet processed).
Similar to the typical best Kenya cup, though usually less intense and arguably more balanced. Deep and rich, sometime delicately so; almost always sweetly tart. Peaberry lots are often (though not always) lighter-bodied and more delicate in the cup than flat-bean or mixed-bean lots.
Common Aroma/Flavor Notes (top specialty lots, all wet processed).
Honey, orangy citrus, roasted cacao nib, dark fruit (plum, black cherry), hints of flowers, often a backgrounded savory herb or pine.
It appears that most high-end Tanzania coffee to reach specialty markets is produced from trees that represent variations of the great Bourbon variety. Those familiar with Bourbon types may detect in the best Tanzanias a tendency to plump berryish sweetness balanced by dry, pungent vivacity, a combination characteristic of many Bourbon-related varieties.
Newly Introduced Varieties.
Not an important factor at this writing, though apparently the Tanzania Coffee Research Institute (TaCRI) has been working on disease-resistant hybrids.
Tanzania Processing Methods
Processing of Arabica coffees in Tanzania is almost always performed by the traditional ferment-and-wash method, either carried out by small-holding producers on their farms or by centralized wet mills run by cooperatives, exporters or larger farms. It appears that the best Tanzanias are processed by centralized wet mills using Kenya-style procedures, often with ferment and washing followed by a second soak and washing, with drying carried out on raised tables.
Newer Non-Traditional Methods.
Tanzania, like Kenya, appears to be sticking with traditional processing methods, although this may be changing. Some interesting processing experiments from at least one large Tanzania farm are turning up.
Tanzania Growing Regions
Very broadly, there are four main growing areas for Arabica in Tanzania.
- The northern regions on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru (market names Kilimanjaro, Arusha, Moshi), producing cup profiles that are generally on the brighter, sweeter and relatively more intense end of the Tanzania profile sketched earlier. Coffee production in this general region stretches northwest toward Lake Victoria and the town of Tarime, where a mill operated by a Kenyan company is producing particularly fine coffees at this writing.
- The southwestern region near the town of Mbeya. Coffee from this region is usually marketed as Mbeya, and is by reputation a bit softer, perhaps more floral than the northern coffees.
- The far southwestern corner of the country between Lake Nyasa and the town of Songea, usually marketed as Mbinga or Ruvuma, after the river of that name, also by reputation a bit softer and perhaps more floral than the northern coffees.
- Some very interesting high-end Arabica coffees are also produced near the town of Kigoma near Lake Tanganyika and the border with Burundi, although production in this area historically has been hampered by poor access to transportation.
The great Tanzanias we have cupped over recent years at Coffee Review have been produced mainly in the north, near the border with Kenya, or in the southwestern Mbeya region.
Tanzania coffee, like Kenya, is graded mainly by size of the beans. AA is the highest grade with the largest and most uniform beans, A the next highest, A/B the next and, yes, PB is Tanzania’s celebrated peaberry grade.
Environment and Sustainability
About 90% of Tanzania’s coffee is produced by small holders, and it is difficult to obtain statistics on the typical conditions in which they grow it. However, it does appear that when coffee in Tanzania is grown in shade, that shade is provided by intercropping with bananas, a supplemental cash crop for farmers. Unfortunately, the broad leaves of banana trees are accused of trapping heat and contributing to soil drying.
Information on use of pesticides and chemicals is also difficult to come by. What has surfaced with considerable force are testimonies to a recent major drop in volume of Tanzania coffee production owing to higher temperatures and drier weather prompted by global warming, which, as elsewhere, has been devastating for Tanzania’s small-holding farmers.
Again, approximately 90% of Tanzania’s coffee is produced by small-holding farmers. Some are organized into successful cooperatives, including a few that are organic and fair trade certified. But generally the cooperative movement has not achieved the relative success it has attained in Kenya and Ethiopia, despite the fact that the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union (KNCU), founded in 1924, was Africa’s earliest-established cooperative. After having suffered along with the rest of the Tanzanian industry from the shifting, distracting impact of government coffee policy, the KNCU recently has revived with considerable success, bringing together approximately 135,000 members from 90 local, primary cooperatives.
Tanzania Coffee Ratings and Reviews
Click here to see reviews of coffees from Tanzania.