Trying to use single origins in an espresso machine can sometimes be like pushing a square peg into a round hole – they just don’t fit. The extraction can be uneven, delivering results that are either too high in acidity, sweet or sour, or lacking in body, which inevitably means that they either must be blended, or ignored and not used at all. This is pretty sad when you consider the beans’ journey in order to make it into our cups. Yesterday I decided to cup some washed coffees from Guatemala, and my whiz-bang, bells and whistles, multi-boiler espresso machine was highlighting the high levels of acidity in the coffee. Disappointed with these results, I dragged out my $10 French press and bingo, the coffee came to life! It had body, flavour and sweetness, and was perfectly balanced.
The resurgence of lo-tech brewing methods such as siphons, aeropress and pour-over units has fortunately come at a time when blending coffees is beginning to take a back seat. Roasters are searching out unique origins, micro lots and rare varieties and these brewing devices are extracting the coffee in such a delicate way that they can turn on these coffees’ unique flavours in a more palatable way. An example of one origin I have had ongoing trouble with is the Tanzania AA. It always seemed to vary in flavour from season to season and to be too bright and winey, that is until recently when I bought my first Chemex pour-over.
Dating back to the 16th century Tanzanian coffee was used as an energy food source for tribes and also as a form of currency. Fast forward to the 19th century when the Germans ruled most of East Africa and coffee quickly became a cash crop, coffee was heavily planted in the perfect, rich volcanic-soil Moshi region in the north and in the Bukoba region in the northwest. By the end of World War I, the British had control and continued to push the coffee industry, which saw many natives forming cooperatives to gain a fairer share of the market. By 1961, Tanzania finally had its independence but also had a government that made poor decisions which, in conjunction with a failing market, had pretty much destroyed the infrastructure of the coffee industry by the 1980s, with a dramatic effect on the quality of the coffee.
In 2001, the government took action and set up the Tanzania Coffee Research Institute, to embark on fixing the ailing industry. Their goal was to replace every tree in Tanzania with plants more suited to the environment and that are less prone to diseases. This was conceived as a 10-year plan and was designed to stabilise the industry; it’s now starting to pay off, as Tanzanian origins are now beginning to appear at the cupping table, especially coffees from Kilimanjaro, Arusha region in the north and Ruvuma in the south – coffees that, perhaps surprisingly, are beginning to rival the superior Kenyans.
I’ve ordered a lot of coffee from the Karatu Estate in the north of Tanzania, bordering the Serengeti national park. I like this coffee best when using pour-over methods such as a chemex or a plunger. This emphasises the unique brightness and delicate flavours that are seemingly lost when extracting from a traditional espresso machine. If roasted lightly, the grind aroma should reveal a molasses-sweet tone but also be slightly peppery, and the aromatics when the coffee is wet offer a hint of red berry and apricot. When using the chemex, the flavour is reminiscent of camomile tea with a hint of honey and raspberry, which is near impossible to achieve as an espresso. The body is well balanced and it has a flavour that lingers, but is still relatively clean and as the cup cools more of the sweet, sugary notes start to dominate.
Location: Tanzania, Karatu estate
Plant type: Bourbon/Arusha
Fragrance/Aroma: pepper, red berry and apricot
Flavour: camomile, honey and raspberry
Body: silky and smooth