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Cupping at the Crater in Tanzania

Five Senses CoffeeBrad Butler 15 October 2013

What brings me to this region of the world? Why, the hope of finding great coffee of course! I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend an annual event held in Tanzania known as ‘Cupping at the Crater.’ The event is organised by several of the more driven specialty coffee farmers in the region. It brings together coffee professionals from all over the globe to showcase Tanzania as a coffee growing region, and also provides much needed feedback for the farmers about the quality of their produce. This year the three main farms involved in this event were Acacia Hills, Shangri La and APK. The event takes its name from the Ngoro Ngoro crater, which is a famous and beautiful safari destination located close to Acacia Hills and Shangri La.

Farm 1: African Plantation Kilimanjaro

‘Is it as easy to grow specialty coffee in Tanzania as Colombia?’ This was one of many questions I was keen to ask Alejandro Galante, the owner and operator of African Plantation Kilimanjaro. A successful specialty coffee farmer in Colombia, Alejandro has also chosen to purchase a farm in Tanzania and thus to expand and diversify the family business, something which will inevitably challenge and stretch him personally too. African Plantation Kilimanjaro (APK) is a group of coffee farms which were established in colonial times. They are now being revived and revitalised, with new varieties, plantings and processes. Many of the current trees are ancient, with root stock that is more than 50 years old. They are growing on the slopes towards Mount Kilimanjaro. The altitude is good, the soil is great and the knowledge of how to grow specialty coffee is certainly something that has been in Alejandro’s family for years. But will the experience and knowledge he brought from Colombia yield good coffee in Tanzania? I am going to find out at the cupping table.

Farm 2: Acacia Hills

After a long day of travel over hard, corrugated and dusty roads which reminded me of outback Australia, this place was a sight for sore eyes (or butts). Perched up at 1800masl, the view from just above the drying beds was utterly spectacular, looking out over a portion of the farm, down to the plain below, with Lake Eyasi peeking around the corner of the mountains. As a reward for the day’s travel, we all enjoyed a cool, refreshing traveller’s beverage upon arrival.

Much like APK, Acacia Hills is a coffee farm which has been in existence for 50 plus years, harking back to the colonial times in Tanzania. For a few years at least, it fell into disuse. After persevering through the usual challenges of getting an old farm back into good working order, the owners quickly discovered the added challenges of being located right on the border of a national park: roaming wildlife. At both dawn and dusk, it is not uncommon to see elephants and buffalo roaming down the mountain from the forest which is behind the farm. These spectacular animals unfortunately have no problem wandering through and destroying coffee trees in the area. Our host, Mark, recounted an amazing story. One day, a group of elephants wandered down to the farm during the rainy season and decided that a certain part of the farm would make a wonderful water park. They then proceeded to slide down the muddy hill, taking out all the trees on their way. For those of you who are thinking that this may have been just a single animal ‘slipping over’, it was much more than that! There were numerous elephants involved and they re-climbed the hill to re-use this wonderful piece of fun and slide down again. What a great sight it would have been! (Although it wasn’t at all helpful for the farmers who were trying to make a living there.) I think there might be some fencing work done here in the near future.

With a coffee tree nursery full of varieties which are new to the region, and their willingness to expand and experiment, Acacia hills is going to be a farm to watch over the next few years. In the nursery, they are propagating a healthy young crop of Geisha, Pacamara and Castillo trees which should start to yield a crop over the next 2-3 years. This will be an exciting time — if the elephants and buffalo manage to stay away long enough for a good harvest to be picked.

Farm 3: Shangri La Estate

Shangri La is the most established of the estates we visited, and is located only a few ridges away from Acacia Hills. Nonetheless, it took over an hour to get from one farm to the other. Mountainous terrain is such a blessing for isolation. Shangri La has good access to water, rich volcanic soils and a high altitude, all of which greatly aid the growing conditions across the farm. The first thing I noticed as we approached Shangri La was the wonderful white building on the coffee plantation. As it turns out, these buildings are accommodation for tourists who are seeking a quiet and relaxing get away in this beautiful location, which fortunately is very close to the Ngoro Ngoro Crater (look it up!) But enough of such digressions — we are interested in the coffee.

The coffee farm is owned and run by an enigmatic and passionate Dane named Christian, who successfully plied his trade as a farmer in Denmark for many years and is now turning his hand to coffee in Tanzania. During our time in Tanzania, Christian visited the three farms with us and showed a great desire to learn from the many meandering discussions along the way, whether it was discussions led by the other farmers or by us as guests. It reminded me how good it is to be able to share understanding, opinions and experiences with others in the same industry.

King of the Crater

After cupping many coffees during our visit, a final competitive day of cupping was scheduled. The idea was that all the farms who wanted to represent their best or favourite coffee would prepare it and place it on the table. As part of this cupping, it was agreed between the entrants that there would be one winner — and that all the other competitors would donate money to sponsor local kids to be put through the small school which has been set up on Shangri La. This was an interesting cupping, as APK entered their experimental, full natural processed, high altitude coffee which was beautiful. But I think it polarised the group and caused some division of opinion. After all votes were cast, the winning coffee was an amazingly clean and juicy cup which had distinct dark chocolate and caramel notes and came from Acacia Hills. After the dust had settled on the victory and all the bragging rights were firmly established, the ultimate winners were the four kids who will get a free education next year.

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