Zimbabwe coffee is often overshadowed by other East African origins, namely the bright and powerful coffees of Kenya. Yet they are quite different in terms of flavor profile and balance. We have often had difficulty finding Zimbabwe coffee that has a clean cup character, hence the drought in offering it at SM. Some of the intrinsic cup flavors border on wild or even unclean. Whether it is from the terroir or the cultivars used, Zimbabwe coffees can have earthy chocolate and leather flavors that (in moderation) are pleasant but in excess give an off impression in the finish. But an ideal Zimbabwe can have excellent acidity accenting complex roasty notes, almost savory in character; a deep brooding character overall.
Zimbabwe's Coffee Background
Zimbabwe, formerly known as lower Rhodesia until independence in 1980, has produced coffee commercially since the 1960s. The total area of the country is 150,873 square miles. Zimbabwe occupies part of the great plateau of southern Africa. The most prominent physical feature is a broad ridge that runs southwest to northeast across the country. It has an elevation of between 4000 and 5000 feet and is known as the High Veld. The land of Zimbabwe is primarily covered with savanna; a particularly lush grass that grows during the moist summers. Forests are found only in limited areas along the eastern border and in the wettest areas of the High Veld. Wildlife includes elephants, hippopotamuses, lions, crocodiles, impalas, giraffes, and baboons.
Coffee production is chiefly from the Manicaland and Mashonaland provinces along the border of Mozambique. Coffee production towns are Chipinge (also spelled Chapina) and Mutare. Top AA quality coffee is often marked "Code 53" on the bags, an enigmatic and perhaps arbitrary internal designation for best quality. The power-grabbing by Mugabe and suppression of democratic media in Zimbabwe has been very troubling. Once a model of modern progress, it has resembled a dystopian nightmare at times.
The principal Zimbabwean cash crop is not coffee, it is tobacco, which is grown mainly in the northern and central regions. Other cash crops include cotton, maize, sugarcane, and coffee. Economic sanctions were responsible for curtailing the export of tobacco in the 1970s, and since then emphasis has shifted to the production of other food crops.Although Zimbabwe lies in the Tropic Zone, its climate is moderated by high elevation. The average temperature is 60° F in July (winter) and 70° F in January (summer). The average annual rainfall is about 35 inches in the High Veld. Most rainfall occurs from November to March.
Zimbabwe farms over 9,500 hectares in coffee. The majority of the crop is grown in the Chipinge district at an altitude of 4500 feet and is harvested from June to November. The most popular method of drying the coffee is in the sun, followed by six to eight weeks of conditioning. This, coupled with the unique growing conditions and the care that the farmers take in cultivation, results in a coffee that has a rich aroma and slightly spicy flavor with medium body.
Coffee farming has had many false starts in Zimbabwe. Originally brought to the country by travelers in the 1890s, it was not broadly planted as was the case in other East African nations. It nearly died out again in the 1920s when plant disease destroyed most of the small plantations, making a resurgence again in 1958, and gaining establishment again in the 1960s. Zimbabwe established strict classification and grading standards in order to insure that fine quality coffees would be produced for export.
The '80s and '90s
The 1980s and '90s saw Zimbabwe coffee gaining ground in the market and in price, with the buyers starting to recognize its better flavor attributes. But land ownership was a politically charged issue, as huge tracts were held by a powerful elite for many decades. Large coffee Estates were often owned by long-established white families. These estates would often be surrounded by smaller farms of out-growers, often black farmers who gained financing and technical expertise from the Estate, as well as a market for their coffee. With political instability came charged rhetoric that emboldened militants who followed Mugabe seized large farms and estates.
Coffee was often burned in mass land clearings, as it was seen as too much labor and not quickly profitable. As stability returned, there was direct damage to the capacity to produce any volume of good coffee. The best dry mills in the country shut down for lack of volume. The path forward in Zimbabwe is not entirely clear. We are finally seeing some quality samples from 2014/15 harvest. But we haven't found in Zimbabwe any counterparts with whom to work directly. The old model of bulking all coffee from one estate to sell full containers is not the way toward rebuilding a reputation, in my opinion. That was the '90s.