Coffeehunter Joanne Berry journeys to the Blackburn Estate in northern Tanzania in search of the country’s finest coffee…
In a country the size of Tanzania, ‘near’ means a six hour drive away; a very bumpy and dusty drive which slowly gave way to a beauty I had not been expecting, and which left me glued to the screen my car seat window had suddenly become.
We were on our way to the coffee producing region Arusha, in the north of the country, to visit the beautiful Blackburn Estate. Mercanta has been working with Blackburn Estate for the last four years, long before my time here began. I have however been familiar with the coffee since 2009 from time spent working with one of our customers in South Africa. Thanks to the exceptional passion and meticulous care with which both Michael and Tina Gehrken approach everything they do on their Estate, the name has become synonymous with quality across the industry.
The beauty of this Estate is quite overwhelming and yet entirely unsurprising. Every day I was there Tina and Michael would be at their processing station or amongst their coffee trees, working together either helping prepare loads of coffee to be pulped or picking the red cherries and collecting the overripe discarded cherries that fell to the ground as the pickers swiftly moved through the trees. Tina is known as ma ma takataka: takataka is rubbish in Swahili, and she is always picking up rubbish. Michael too would stop the car and walk over to the tiniest pieces of discarded litter to collect it as we drove through the Estate. They have both been living in Tanzania for the past 30 years, they have raised their children here and they have built a home.
Tanzania is largely divided into two growing regions; the North and the South. Most of the Estates like Blackburn are in the North, however roughly 85% of the coffee produced in the country is done by smallholder farmers across Tanzania. On Estates coffee is grown and processed according to the owner’s initiative while in the case of smallholder farmers it is much like in other African countries. Here there are approximately 450,000 families involved in growing coffee, these producers either sell their cherry directly to Central Processing Units (CPU), which like washing stations process cherry into parchment. Or they form small groups which then form larger cooperatives who own CPUs and process the cherry of their members.
There are three different avenues through which coffee can be purchased: the internal market, through auction and direct export. Internally farmers can sell their coffee to private coffee buyers, farmer groups or cooperatives. The auction is run by the Tanzania Coffee Board (TCB) and takes place every Thursday during the season which is usually for 9 months. At the auction, licensed exporters can then bid for coffee which can come from individual farmers, farmer groups and cooperatives. Lastly coffee can be bought directly for export; this requires a licence to be issued by the TCB for the sale and is done so on a case by case basis.
Meeting Michael and Tina and visiting Blackburn was such a privilege, I am grateful to both of them for their time while I was there. I am also grateful for the beautiful coffees they produce.
Our coffees from Blackburn Estate are arriving early next year!