Like so much else in the modern world, coffee has its roots in Africa. Legend has it coffee was discovered in the Ethiopian province of Kaffa by a farmer who noticed how hyperactive his sheep were after eating a certain plant; he tried it and noticed it had the same effect on himself. Celebrated journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski reported throughout Africa for nearly five decades, and he was particularly moved by the custom of coffee in Zanzibar:
'The drinking of morning coffee is an age-old ritual here, with which -- along with prayers -- Muslims begin their day. The bell of the coffee seller, who each day at dawn walks up and down the streets of his district, is their traditional alarm clock . . . The morning's first cup is an occasion of greetings and salutations, of mutual assurances that the night passed happily, and expressions of faith that this promises to be - Allah willing - a good day.'
Traditionally served by conical steel pots into tiny, intricate porcelain cups, the flavour of Zanzibar kahawa reflects its island’s spicy reputation: dark-roasted coffee beans, fresh-ground cinnamon and cardamom blended by scalding hot water and served in small, powerful shots. In recent decades, however, the influx of foreign tourists – particularly Italians with a penchant for fine coffee – has influenced Zanzibar shops to increase the variety and quality of their caffeine offering.
Zanzibar Coffee House
In a chair in the back corner of Zanzibar Coffee House, owner Thomas Plattner eyes a seemingly flawless chocolate-infused cappuccino through thin spectacles. “See the way the cream rises? The milk is of poor quality,” he says before signaling to one of his staff that they must look into finding a new milk supply. With his professor-like eyeglasses and a Master’s degree in Agriculture, Plattner is the 'Doctor of Coffee'. He runs the 80 year old Utengule coffee estate in Southern Tanzania’s Mbeya region, where he meticulously monitors the quality of beans from his 160 hectare tree farm right into the cup. His passion for the process is evident as he lists the many factors capable of ruining the perfect cup of coffee: growing, harvesting, drying, roasting grinding, filtering, water quality –any hiccup, and all is lost. “It’s a whole science. It’s like wine!” says coffee house manager Jane Achermann.
The Coffee House itself is a remarkable building, tucked inside the narrow alleys of Stone Town near the Darajani Market. Originally built on a coral foundation in 1885 for the Sultan Said, it has since undergone numerous transformations and repairs to reach its current state as a café and guesthouse. The décor is tastefully modern with a few antique lamps and coffee machines for a traditional touch. Plattner boasts an exclusive blend of Zanzibar-grown coffee, which he wholesales to more than 30 local businesses along with the Italian machinery to make the ideal cup. A coffee perfectionist, Plattner will bluntly critique a competing restaurant’s coffee then help repair their coffee brewer, free of charge. Mesmerized by his coffee expertise, the restaurant usually ends up switching suppliers in Plattner’s favour. Glowing reviews and unwavering business –despite the economic slowdown– suggest that Zanzibar Coffee House has found the recipe for success. But neither Plattner nor Achermann believes the quality of their espresso is the sole reason for their booming success; they credit the sparkling service of their local employees. “They really identify themselves with the coffee house,” Achermann explains of the coffee shop’s all-female Zanzibari staff, all fully trained in the science of brewing coffee. “They take pride in their work and the service they provide.”
Msumbi Coffee House
On the other side of town, hidden within equally narrow alleys near Shangani Street, another coffee shop sits inconspicuously near a dusty pile of cement bags. The shop’s entrance is disguised by one of Stone Town’s traditionally ornate wooden doors, unmarked as a business establishment. In fact, the only hint that suggests the building is open to visitors is a small wooden sign in the window that informs passers-by the inhabitants are “Now Serving Breakfast.” Even when Msumbi Coffee Shop’s door is open, there are no outdoor signs to lure customers, and one has to quietly wonder how they acquire enough business to stay open. “Maybe it’s because we have good coffee?” muses local store manager Wellu Kilinga. Msumbi is the name of the river flowing near the region where their coffee is grown. Those beans are then roasted in-house in a back room before being sold to foreign customers over-the-counter and in bulk. Kilinga points to a wall lined with buckets of freshly roasted beans for sale, recommending the customer favourite, Msumbi’s House Blend; an Mbeya-based bean with a strong aroma. Msumbi Coffee Shop is exclusively a word-of-mouth establishment: in fact unless you’ve already frequented the shop, you’ll probably need to ask around to find it. Nonetheless its home-brewed coffee and quaint atmosphere make Msumbi a pleasant surprise for travellers off the beaten track.
For a taste of the local favourite, wander to Jaw’s Corner; a large four-street junction where locals congregate to play pool, debate politics and defend their favourite sports teams. Located just off Kenyatta Road, this hangout is the unofficial home of Stone Town coffee drinking. Admittedly a less refined atmosphere than Zanzibar’s indoor coffee houses, Jaw’s Corner is nonetheless teeming with local culture. Local elders sell traditional kahawa at the incredulous price of 50 Tanzanian shillings per cup. They mimic every ancient Zanzibar coffee tradition except the conical steel pots, which have been replaced by giant tin pots handled expertly by veteran hands.
Served scorching hot in tiny porcelain cups – just like the old days – most locals grip their cup underhand, holding it directly under their mouths to cool the boiling contents. The seating consists of a stone baraza – a cement bench protruding from the building – or occasionally a rickety wooden bench that looks like it might not support your added weight. The small porcelain cups are “washed” by dipping a used cup into a bucket of tap water that sometimes sits unchanged for the entirety of a work shift. The coffee is always black, rarely filtered and carries the smoky scent of beans roasted (and likely burnt) in an open wood fire. Since sugar is never added, local coffee is offered with some form of sweet like kashata, a dry sugar-and-coconut-based dessert or halua, a jelly-like treat traditionally reserved for Arabic special occasions. For another unique touch, locals have pioneered an efficient new use for the red-hot coals used to heat the coffee: you can often catch them lighting limp cigarettes off the side of the fire. One thing is certain when you stop for Zanzibar kahawa – you’re in for an experience.
So whether you’re looking to indulge in an age-old tradition, savour an Italian-calibre cappuccino or simply jolt your sunburnt senses, Zanzibar has a coffee experience for everyone.