This week our coffee origins in focus series takes us to Tanzania which is a part of a cluster of prominent origins in East Africa. It is also one of the largest growers in the continent. Let’s learn more about coffee production in Tanzania and its roots together!
East Africa is a region that is rich in coffee heritage. There is, of course, Ethiopia where coffee cultivation was born. Then there is Kenya, renowned for its exceptionally high quality coffee that tastes like no other coffee anywhere else in the world. The Republic of Congo is the one with the largest land mass, stretching from the east all the way to the Atlantic coast in the west.
Other coffee growing countries in Africa may be more famous for various different reasons, but Tanzania has been and remains a formidable player in speciality coffee from the continent.
Tanzania is Africa’s thirteenth largest nation by area, but sits in third among the major coffee origins. Its expansive eastern coastline borders the Indian Ocean, with Kenya and Uganda to the north, and Burundi and Rwanda to the west. These make up the eastern block of notorious African coffee producers.
It is mountainous, the highest free-standing mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro is here (5,149 masl). It is also densely packed with rainforests, which are fed by water supplies from the mountains and the region’s Great Lakes, three of which are partly in Tanzania.
Its climate is essentially split between the highlands and the lowlands, almost as if they were two different worlds. Average temperatures in the lowlands can be 25-35℃ throughout the year, with tropical conditions owing to its location between the Equator to the north and the Tropic of Capricorn to the south.
In the highlands, where coffee is mostly grown, the average temperature can be as much as 15-20℃ lower depending on the seasons. There are also two distinct wet seasons in the higher north-eastern region throughout the year. Short rains occur in October to December and the long rains from March to May. Whereas in the south, they experience just one wet season from October to April.
The country’s economy is heavily dependent on agriculture which makes up a quarter of its output and employs more than half of its workforce. Coffee is a big deal in Tanzania for sure, but it is dwarfed by Tanzania’s largest export, maize. Sweet potatoes, beans, rice and sugar are also predominantly produced here.
Coffee production in Tanzania
Tanzania is in the top twenty of the world’s largest coffee producers, at number eighteen. Approximately 48,000 metric tonnes of coffee are produced here each year, making it also the fifth most prolific grower in Africa. It is strangely eclipsed by its much smaller neighbour to the west, Uganda which produces six-times more coffee each year. This could be explained by the facts we have already discussed, coffee production simply isn’t one of Tanzania’s most important exports like it is in Uganda.
Tanzania’s coffee industry is a lot like its neighbours, in that there are not really any farms that could be considered as large-scale operations. Most of the country’s 450,000 coffee farmers work on plantations that are no more than a couple of hectares in size. You certainly wouldn’t expect to find many farms with their own washing stations, instead most farms are members of a cooperative for processing and trading their coffee.
Despite the best efforts of both German and lately British colonists in the 19th and 20th centuries to commercialise coffee in the country, Tanzania’s coffee industry is still seen as still yet to reach its full potential. When their closest neighbours include two of the most established coffee growers in the world, we may perhaps be inclined to cut Tanzania some slack. We must remember too that it is still a relatively new country, since finding independence in 1961.
Major growing regions can be found in the southwest, northwest and northeastern corners of the country. Coffee cultivation has existed on a personal consumption level as long as there have been tribes in the country, but it was the Germans who introduced an emphasis on Arabica farming for the purpose of trading in the late nineteenth century. This occurred in the northeast towards Mount Kilimanjaro which remains a prominent focal point for coffee farming.
You’ll find most Tanzanian coffee is grown at altitudes of 1,000-2,000 masl, which is perfect for Arabica plants to thrive. Bourbon was the original varietal introduced for coffee cultivation but nowadays you’ll always find a good mix of Bourbons, Typicas, Blue Mountains and Kents.
Perhaps one of the biggest quirks about coffee from Tanzania and other African regions is the higher yield of ‘Peaberries’. These are something of a phenomenon and occur in a natural mutilation within the coffee cherry.
In a coffee plant’s cherry, you would usually find two beans facing each other. Peaberries refer to beans that have grown on their own within the cherry. Western buyers especially love them, because they are believed to be of higher quality due to the fact that just one bean has been soaking up all the nutrients from the plant. Realistically, a lot of coffee drinkers probably can’t tell the difference. The origin, varietal and processing method will play a much more important role in determining the final taste.
What does Tanzanian speciality coffee taste like?
Tanzania is a big country with three distinct growing regions, with that in mind you can expect to find many nuances to its coffee. Coffees grown closer to Mount Kilimanjaro can offer a similar experience to those from Ethiopia, especially when grown above 1,300 masl. You should expect to pick up high acidity and soft floral flavours like lavender and rose petal, especially when they’ve been washed.
You can also get natural dry-processed coffees from Tanzania that will be a bit more earthy with bolder flavours. If you want something a little sweeter and with a little more punch, go for a natural.
You won’t often find a single origin Tanzanian coffee that’s been roasted for espresso, but you may find it as part of a blend, to which it will add fruitiness and freshness. Most Tanzanian coffee beans sold on their own will be for filter coffee and will make a delicious french press or Chemex.