From the country formerly known as upper Rhodesia, and now named for the Zambezi River, Zambian coffees range from Kenya-like brightness, to subtle, balanced coffees with complexity and body. Zambia has variable quality: it has the potential to be outstanding (which is why we offer particular lots when we find an excellent coffee), and it can be very off-tasting and defective (which is why we're usually out of stock for long stretches).
Coffee was introduced in the 1950's with cultivar seedstock from Tanzania and Kenya. It is grown mainly in the Northern district of the Muchinga Mountains (regions of Nakonde, Kasama and Isoka) and in the vicinity of the capital city of Lusaka.
The past few crops produced some real duds ...do not expect every coffee with an exotic East African name to be good! In fact, I think the logistics of shipping these coffees can result in a marked loss of flavor, or in the case of Tanzania, baggy flavors from being stored in shipping containers for long periods at port! If it is good coffee, it has to be handled properly and shipped quickly. When this isn't done, the defective coffee is easily detected on our cupping table. Anyway, when we have a Zambian in stock you can bet it is good!
Zambia seems to have cup quality issues stemming from basic agricultural and environmental challenges; with water and drought, soil management, relatively lower altitudes of coffee plantings, and some fairly non-stellar coffee varieties in production.
We started offering Zambian coffee in a different era: The 2000 crop ranged from unremarkable estate coffees to very poor quality generic stocklots of peaberry and flatbean. These were widely available, and I thought they were all very poor in the cup. It is sad to know that these low quality lots are ruining a good origin's reputation, and that some "specialty" roaster somewhere is buying this stuff and selling it as "good" coffee.
The 2001 crop was a mixed bag, but we found an excellent coffee from the Isanya Estate - very potent and perhaps not for every palate due to distinct wild notes in the cup. In 2003 we thought the Lupili was quite nice, but the following year it was flat as cardboard. In 2006, we found again a fine cup, with that balanced character we appreciated in the past. (In fact 2006 was a peak year for Zambian coffee exports in terms of volume, and it has plummeted since then). Even from the exact same farm, you can expect these variations from crop to crop, year to year. Since that time we have found little to get excited about though. But we remain hopeful.