If you were to ask the average coffee-drinker in the west where the home of modern Arabica is, then they’d likely reply Africa. Ethiopian and Kenyan coffees tend to dominate the discussion, with their abundance of sunny mountains and mineral-rich soil, they’ve wowed the world with their distinctly acidic, sweet and clean flavours that we generally think of as ‘East African’. Zambia is a nation that’s often overlooked in these discussions, as despite having the necessary altitude to produce great coffee, this potential has yet to be tapped – or at least not to the same extent as on Africa’s famous East Coast.
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When was coffee brought to Zambia?
Part of the reason that Zambia has yet to realise its potential is that is hasn’t yet had time to do so. Coffee was only introduced into this part of the world in the ‘40s, and it wasn’t until the ‘80s that coffee began to be taken seriously. This process was helped along by an injection of funds from the World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organisation in the seventies, and now production in this landlocked nation amounts to more than eight-thousand tons of coffee every year.
This late maturation has led to the industry taking on a much different form, with just under twenty enormous plantations of more than five-hundred hectares dominating the landscape. This means that smaller farmers are unable to start and maintain a business with the same ease that they might in nearby Kenya. The result of this is far less variety than you might find elsewhere.
Of course, operations of this scale have their advantages. It’s far easier for these mega-plantations to maintain a consistent final output, as they’re able to apply rigorous science – and benefit from all of the economies of scale that come with being very large.
The cost of labour in Zambia is much higher than it is in other African nations, which makes coffee-farming less attractive to ordinary Zambians. Moreover, the climate is much drier than it is elsewhere, which makes irrigation necessary. These costs combined place Zambian coffeemakers at a relative disadvantage.
While the nation’s coffee-producing regions aren’t as rigidly-defined as they are elsewhere, you’ll find that most Zambian coffee comes from high-rainfall regions in the central and Northern provinces. Moreover, being landlocked, Zambian exporters must ship their product through neighbouring countries in order to get to the ports.
What does Zambian coffee taste like?
Despite this, there are still some gems to be found in the Zambian market – and they boast a flavour that’s subtly different from those of their near-neighbours. You’ll find that the sharp acidic edge of East African coffees is often softened somewhat in their Zambian counterparts – making the latter perfect for those in search of a more restrained flavours. In the typical Zambian cup you’ll find floral and citrus notes, with a twist or nuts or berries. The better specimens will exhibit more unusual flavours, like cucumber, vanilla, maple and butter.
As the obstacles to coffee-production in this country are one-by-one overcome, we expect to see more and more high-quality Zambian coffees reach our shores in the years to come – and naturally, you’ll find them on these pages.