Coffee Origins: Tanzania

Coffee Origins: Tanzania

I remember learning about Mount Kilimanjaro in geography class years ago. It’s a dormant volcano, which for a child is like soooo coooooool — “Will it erupt again?! If yes, when?”. More seriously, it’s also the highest mountain in Africa.

Little did I know that it also serves as a historical landmark in coffee history.

You see, Mount Kilimanjaro is situated in Tanzania. The mountain itself and the area surrounding it are important sites for Tanzanian coffee production. Goodness, geography would have been even more interesting if I knew this earlier.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Today, we’ll be introducing another country in our Coffee Origins series — Tanzania!

Where is Tanzania?

Tanzania is a country in the East of Africa, which is known for the “big five” game (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, rhinoceros) and vast national parks, most notably Kilimanjaro National Park. Besides being home to Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro is also the oldest coffee growing area in Tanzania, especially for Arabica. At a growing altitude of 1050 to 2500 metres above sea level, it boasts of some delicious coffee varieties that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Tanzania produces approximately 70% Arabica and 30% Robusta coffee. According to James Hoffmann in his book The World Atlas of Coffee, he describes the tasting profile of Tanzanian coffee as “complex, with bright and lively acidity and often with berry and fruit flavours.” It’s vivid enough to conjure the image of an explosion of wonder in our taste buds. 

As curious coffee lovers, we’re always eager to try out new and interesting coffees, flavours that are often uncommon and even unusual. In this regard, I’m pretty sure Tanzania doesn’t disappoint.

Moreover, it’s usually possible to trace coffees from Tanzania back to the farm where the coffee plantation is. This high level of traceability is super important because not only does it help us select specific coffees we enjoy and allow us to consistently purchase the same variety, it also helps maintain and improve the quality of estate coffee in Tanzania over the long run.

But how did coffee come to Tanzania?

Given the close proximity to another fellow coffee-growing African nation Ethiopia, it comes as no surprise that coffee is largely believed to be introduced into Tanzanian agriculture by Ethiopian farmers during the 16th century. However, being a relatively unknown crop before then, coffee was overlooked as a significant crop until the arrival of German missionaries a few centuries later.

Before that, coffee was mostly planted by the Haya people who originally brought the coffee back from Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia). This variety of coffee came to be known as “Haya coffee”, it was of a Robusta variety, and also known as amwani.

Wait.. so amwani is a kind of coffee? Like latte, cappuccino etc.? 

Short answer: Yes, amwani is a type of coffee in Tanzania.

Longer, more complete answer: Amwani isn’t exactly the coffee we’ve come to expect to get at a cafe. Instead of being brewed into a cup of fragrant liquid, amwani is not served in a typical mug. On the contrary, the coffee cherries are boiled together with herbs. This mixture is then smoked over a few days. After that, this smoked coffee cherry mixture is chewed as amwani.

Not what you expect, huh?

Personally I can’t imagine chewing coffee cherries as my daily caffeine fix. But many of the “more modern” coffee brewing methods known to us today were actually only experimented on and discovered in the recent past.

Eventually, amwani became more than just a caffeinated beverage to the Haya people of Tanzania. It became an important part of Tanzanian culture. Amwani was served at royal meetings, religious rituals and various other formal meetings. This also caused the status of coffee to increase, making it become more valuable as a crop.

Adopting the British nomenclature of grading

Speaking of status and grading, Tanzania also opted to follow the British nomenclature of grading. This way of grading is done according to shape, size and density of the coffee beans.

Such grades include: AA, A, B, PB, C, E, F, AF, TT, UG and TEX. Coffee beans are sifted through screens of various sizes and are then given a grade.

A majority of Tanzania coffee beans are of AB grade. This means that the produce comprises both A grade and B grade coffee beans.When mixed together, they form the Tanzania AB grade.

If you’re wondering what the PB means, nope it’s not peanut butter, it stands for peaberry!

Peaberry refers to coffee that underwent a mutation to yield only one bean inside the coffee, instead of the usual two. One bean like a pea, see?

It’s a naturally occurring mutation that presents in certain arabica and robusta coffee varieties.

Interesting as they are, pea berries are generally considered to be of superior quality compared to their regular unmutated counterparts. Of course other factors play a crucial role too, eg. growing conditions, altitude, climate, farmers’ quality control etc. But peaberry coffee are highly valued due to their rarity and distinct flavour profiles.

In 2021, the Tanzania Coffee Board, a government regulatory board unveiled plans to quadruple Tanzania’s coffee production by 2025. This is done in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture to promote coffee production and also boost exports. Even more recently, the government has even removed 42 levies previously incurred on coffee growers, in their effort to enhance the coffee growing industry.

With all these plans and constant updates in progress, you might want to keep an eye on Tanzanian coffee. It’s a pretty safe bet that coffee in Tanzania is going to increase in quality and popularity among international coffee lovers in the coming years.

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