I think I first met Neel Vohora in Chicago in a blizzard during the winter of 2008. He wore khaki shorts and a Stetson style hat and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all. Neel and I have spent a little more time together since that day nearly a decade ago, kicking around his family’s farms in Karatu, drinking beers in reptile houses in Arusha, rambling down dusty roads in southern Ethiopia, eating shellfish in Seattle.
I started working with the Vohora family on my first assignment to East Africa with Intelligentsia, just under a decade ago. The relationship had been hit and miss, as coffee selections were often a lengthy process and the ports in Tanzania were (and remain) thoroughly congested. I’d been reassigned from a larger project sourcing espresso from Brazil to oversee some of our more complicated relationships, rekindle old flames, and find new coffees in Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Zambia. I’m pleased to say that after all these years I still speak with Neel and his sister Kavita regularly and buy their coffee, now destined for the warehouse here in Oakland for Royal.
The flight into the Kilimanjaro International Airport is majestic and dramatic, the awe-inspiring dominance of the mountain visible even in moonlight, as it was when I first saw its snowcapped peak. I caught a ride into Arusha, maybe a 30-45 minute drive, and slept for the evening. Arusha is a coffee town, surrounded by various estates at moderate foothill elevations boasting the designation “Kilimanjaro,” a great marketing tactic. We’d leave these estates as a distant memory the next day.
Driving from Arusha with Neel took close to 4 hours back then before the roads were fully paved. That time is nearly halved now. Bumpy, dusty, and arid in the peak of Tanzania’s dry winter (August), it was no luxury cruise, but the moment we reached the Mto wa Mbu river on the edges of Lake Manyara National Park (famous for tree-residing lions) I could tell something special was about to happen.
We bought a bunch of short red bananas from a vendor and ascended the ridge of the Rift Valley, passing through the swollen trunks of baobab trees on our way to the plateau where I first spied the Ngorongoro crater in the distance. Ngorongoro, the world’s largest unbroken caldera, looms over a verdant landscape, the shell of an ancient, ruptured volcano. Inside its walls, a wildlife conservation area, cut off from much access to the outside world, is home to hordes of zebra, eland, gazelles, and wildebeests, two prides of lions, hyena, hippopotami, and scores of other local birds and mammals, including a small population of black rhino. The Maasai, among the region’s more visible residents with distinctive red flannel robes and unchanged traditions of nomadism, are frequent visitors, passing through the crater with their goat and cattle herds in tow.
The Vohora’s estates are nestled into the caldera’s outer ridges, bordering the park. Since 1971, the Vohoras have owned about 1000 acres of farmland on the southern exterior slopes near the town of Karatu. Neel’s grandfather arrived from India, first working for the British colonists as a farm manager prior to the nation’s independence. Neel’s father, Ajai, heads the export business from nearby Nairobi, and Kavita runs the milling and sampling operations back in Arusha.
While Neel’s farm wasn’t my first to visit, it quickly became my favorite. Lush vistas, excellent coffee, the thrill of wildlife sightings, and unrivaled company (Neel’s also an excellent cook, adept at both Tandoori and the occasional Impala steak) make for easy passage of time. Our typical routine during the visit is to ride up to the washing station managers in the morning, view the fields in harvest in the afternoon, cross the ridge to pay a call to Hugh, their farm manager, and spend the evening after dinner drinking cheap lagers next to fire deep into the evening. If we spy Hugh’s truck on the neighboring hill, we know he’s tracking an elephant, and we might choose to follow.
Upon return to Arusha, we rendezvous with Kavita at the mill, and chew on a few recently roasted macadamia nuts, also grown on the farm. She and her QC specialist will have cupping ready for us, ready to calibrate and show off the newly harvested trials. The evening will be spent finding an outdoor venue for food, a bottle of wine, and maybe some music.
It’s been many years since I’ve visited, too long frankly. Kavita’s daughter is seven – we’ve never met except over Skype. Hugh will surely be in his nineties. It’s hard to say we’re exactly friends with that kind of distance but we do chat via email, What’s App, and Instagram with a bit of regularity.
After a decade of knowing a family, however, even if the relationship was started and maintained as a commercial one, it’s hard for it not to feel friendly. We ask about health and our partners and chew the occasional fat before talking about the coffee business.
One of the things that are consistently impressive about the operation is the adaptability and drive to innovate. When I first visited ages ago, the farms were in the midst of a water rehabilitation project, aimed at improving the quality of the runoff from the washing stations so it could be used again for irrigation. Groves of newly planted heirloom cultivars from Ethiopia dotted a newly planted hillside and Geshas populated the farm’s nursery. And by the drying tables, Neel pulled back a tarp to reveal some coffee fruit, ripening in an early iteration of what would become “winey” process coffees, which macerate prior to pulping and drying.
Recently, Marcelo Pereira (married to our Inbound Traffic Coordinator Amy) paid the Vohoras a visit. While I aim to return next year, I’m of course thoroughly jealous of the trip, as Marcelo focused with the family on further innovations in processing styles and flavor profiles. It sounded like they must have had an absolute riot, I can’t wait to see what comes of the collaboration.
Predictably, when I recently asked Marcelo what he thought of the place, he said “It’s the most beautiful farm I’ve ever visited.”