KenyaKenya is the East African powerhouse of the coffee world. Both in the cup, and the way they run their trade, everything is topnotch.: Kenya is the East… …more is a powerhouse of the coffee world, known for the intensityWe have a simple scale to rate intensity in our coffee reviews, from Mild to Bold. Low intensity does not mean low quality!: We have a simple scale… …more of it’s bright acidityAcidity is a positive flavor attribute in coffee, also referred to as brightness or liveliness. It adds a brilliance to the cup, whereas low acid coffees can seem… …more and complexThe co-presence of many aroma and flavor attributes, with multiple layers. A general impression of a coffee, similar to judgments such as “balanced” or “structured” …more flavors. The quality of the top coffee lots has been rewarded with high prices in the weekly Kenya auction in Nairobi. So in a sense Kenya was (and is) the first coffee-producing nation that had a transparent system where coffee quality and prices have been linked. That’s amazing, and important to recognize!
The problem in Kenya is that, for the farmer, producing that top-quality coffee is expensive. Kenya coffee requires constant care, year-round focus, expensive inputs, and lots of labor. So whether the farm gateFarm Gate Coffee is the name we give to our direct trade coffee buying program. Farm Gate pricing means that we have negotiated a price directly with the… …more price truly rewards the farmer has been a matter of debate. But the laws have adapted to allow buyers to directly purchase coffees, bypassing the auction if they can pay a better price, and this has opened up a new window on quality in Kenya. And that’s largely the way we source our Kenya coffee!
Broadly speaking, the best Kenya coffees are complex and bright, and it lights up the palate from front to back. It is not for people who do not like acidity in coffee. (Acidity being the prized, flavorful bright notes in the cup; think citrus, black currant, and berry)!
A great Kenya balances brightnessA euphemistic term we use often to describe acidity in coffee. A bright coffee has more high, acidic notes. : A euphemistic term to describe acidity in coffee…. …more with sweet flavors, syrups and cane sugarA refined sugar, that has a no rustic sweetness. This was called “refined sugar” but has been rebranded as “cane sugar” thanks perhaps to C and H brand…. …more, spice notes, and fruitedIn some coffee taster’s lexicon, “fruity” means the coffee is tainted with fruit, and “fruited” means a coffee is graced by positive fruit notes. We don’t exactly see… …more aspects that sometimes tend toward wineyA taste term to describe a wine-like flavor with a similar perceived acidity and fruit, and some level of acetic acid. It is found most commonly in East… …more.
When looking for the the reasons Kenya has such unique coffee, it’s good to focus on the Kenyan wet-process method, which is different than other places. In Kenya, they use long fermentationA key part of the wet process of coffee fruit is overnight fermentation, to break down the fruit (mucilage) layer that tenaciously clings to the coffee seed, so… …more times, and an additional soaking process afterwards.
The wet mills are on slight hills and the first row of tanks are for overnight, initial fermentation. Coffee from the day’s harvest comes in at evening time, then it is sorted out at the mill for any under-ripe or Coffee Berry Borer-bitten cherries. Coffee is logged in by the mill to ensure proper payment to the farmer, then collected in cement bins and run through the pulper/grader, which removes skins from the fruit, and does some basic separation of the heavier (riper, more mature) cherryEither a flavor in the coffee, or referring to the fruit of the coffee tree, which somewhat resembles a red cherry.: Either a flavor in the coffee, or… …more from lighter (floating) underripe ones.
This results in 3 different streams of graded coffee seeds emerging from the pulper, washed down cement channels into separate tanks. Coffee is left overnight in the initial tank, and then is washed down into a lower series of tanks for more fermentation, lasting as long as 36 hours! (In Central America, coffee is rarely fermentedAs a defect flavor, a fruit quality in a coffee that is excessively ripe, toward rotten. Fermented flavor can be the result of poor wet-processing, over-ripe cherry, or… …more more than 24 hours total).
Water is changed in the tank every 12 hours, but they use filtered, recycled water which maintains the fermentation reactions. After this the coffee is sent to the washing channel, where the fruityIn some coffee taster’s lexicon, “fruity” means the coffee is tainted with fruit, and “fruited” means a coffee is graced by positive fruit notes. We don’t exactly see… …more mucilageMucilage indicates the fruity layer of the coffee cherry, between the outer skin and the parchment layer that surrounds the seed. It readily clings to the inner parchment… …more layer that clings so vigorously to the coffee parchmentGreen coffee still in its outer shell, before dry-milling, is called Parchment coffee (pergamino). In the wet process, coffee is peeled, fermented, washed and then ready for drying… …more layer is now easily scrubbed off as the coffee is pushed down the channel. Now it goes to a soaking tank, where it is held in clean water for 12 hours. It can actually be held for as much as 48 hours here, if the drying beds are filled with coffee, as can happen in the middle of the harvest.
The water is changed so that little or no fermentation is occuring. I mean, technically there is nothing left to fermentAs an aroma or flavor in coffee, ferment is a defect taste, resulting from bad processing or other factors. Ferment is the sour, often vinegar-like, that results from… …more, but they feel that the soaking tank finishes off any small amount of fermentation that is needed. The coffee is then washed down channels again to the triage point where it is dumped onto a large screen, like a mesh gurney, and transported to an available space on the raised drying screens. The key difference here is the extraordinarily long fermentation time. And yet the resulting coffee (usually) has one of the brightest, cleanest cup profiles in the world!
The Challenges in Kenya
Currently, the Kenya auction system and coffee production, in general, is suffering a myriad of problems, as is all of East Africa. Politically, Kenya, the former model of progress and African Independence, is in disarray. For now, the coffees are still of high quality but if the auction system does not continue to serve and benefit the small farmer co-ops, they will plant other crops instead, or replace the better cultivars (the excellent SL-28Scott Labs selection 28 Kenya cultivar, a preferred type with Bourbon and Mokka heritage. It supposedly is selected from Tanganyika DR cultivar, found by A.D. Trench on a… …more and SL-34Scott Labs selection 34 Kenya cultivar, a preferred type with French Mission Bourbon heritage. It supposedly is selected from French Mission Bourbon trees at Loresho Estate in Kabete… …more selections) with the disease-resistant, but poor quality, Ruiri 11 strain.
I was in Kenya, visiting farms, as well as the Nairobi auction house and the cuppingCupping is a method of tasting coffee by steeping grounds in separate cups for discrete amounts of ground coffee, to reveal good flavors and defects to their fullest…. …more rooms of a big coffee exporter. The entire auction operation is amazingly impressive – over 600 separate lots that are sampled and bid each week! Be sure to look for my travel commentary from my recent Kenya trip, plus a couple hundred new images. There are great pictures of the coffee auction house, where nearly all Kenyan coffees that reach the market are traded. I also went back later that season, and have visited every year since, so check out our travelogues.
There have been many political controversies in Kenya lately, with localities taking control of the coffee sector. In 2013/14 this occurred in Nyeri area, as the politicians became involved in how coffee was going to be marketed and limited the transport of coffee as a way to control where it was sold. While it was done “for the farmers” there have been many questions since about the net gain the new strategy yielded on behalf of those it was supposed to help. Still, it underscores that the system is in need of greater transparencyTransparency is a flavor characterization synonymous with clarity. It is also a business ethics term, implying that as much information as possible about a product is made available… …more at all levels.
On a Historical Note ….Coffee was introduced into Kenya by way of Reunion (BourbonA coffee cultivar; a cross between Typica and Bourbon, originally grown in Brazil: Mundo Novo is a commercial coffee cultivar; a natural hybrid between “Sumatra” and Red Bourbon,… …more) island at the end of the 19th century (1893 is sometimes given as the date). It was brought for local cultivation by the Fathers of the Holy Spirit congregation in 1911 – another case of the long and twisted road that religion and coffee have traveled together.
Harvest Times – Main Crop: October-December, Fly CropFly Crop is a term used in chiefly in Kenya to mean the second, smaller harvest. There are no flies in the “Fly Crop”! But the term is… …more: June-August in some zones only, Primary Cultivars in Kenya: SL-28, SL-34, Kents K-7, Riuri 11, Batian. Bourbons are sometimes called “Scottish Mission” and “French Mission” but it is mostly a marketing term rather than fact.
One of the big concerns among buyers of Kenya coffee is cultivarUSDA is (obviously) the United States Department of Agriculture. USDA also had coffee plant breeding programs in the past and one variety they distributed to Indonesia and was… …more. SL-28 is the king of all varietals and is broadly planted at high altitude farms. SL-34 and K-7 can be found in some higher zones too. SL stands for Scott LaboratoriesThe commercial research organization that was contracted with cultivar development from 1934-1963 in Kenya. Scott Labs was responsible for the development of the SL varieties, based on the… …more, who was contracted by the government to improve upon the Bourbon types of coffee that had come with French Missionaries from Reunion (Bourbon) island via TanzaniaIn terms of the Tanzania coffee character, it belongs to the Central/East African family of washed (wet-processed) coffees, bright (acidy), and mostly aggressively flavorful of which Kenya is… …more in the south, as well as some inputs from the Scottish MissionThe Scottish Mission introduced Mokka coffee from Yemen to their site in Kibwezi Kenya in 1893, and later at Kikuyu. These were called the St. Austin and St…. …more in the North which brought in YemenYemen has a coffee culture like no other place, and perhaps some of what we enjoy in this cup is due to their old style of trade…: Technically,… …more Typica seedstock.
Coffee Leaf Rust (CLRCastillo is a selection of the Colombia cultivar that has become the most commonly grown coffee in Colombia. It is preferred to the older resistant variety, Variedad Colombia… …more) and Coffee Berry DiseaseAbbreviated as CBD: A fungal disease that results in cherry dying and dropping to the ground before it is ripe.: A fungal disease that results in cherry dying… …more (CBD) are huge problems in Kenya, and without treatment the crops would be devastated. The fact is, OrganicGrown without the use of artificial fertilizers, herbicides, etc.: Organic coffee has been grown according to organic farming techniques, typically without the use of artificial fertilizers. Some farms… …more Kenya coffee is not viable, and you would need to pay 10x more for it if the farmer was going to be compensated fairly, because there would be so much loss. While the SL types have some resistance to these diseases, the Coffee ResearchThe study of the agronomy of coffee, its chemistry, or other improvements: The study of the agronomy of coffee, its chemistry, or other improvements. There are coffee research… …more center in Ruiru came up with a new type in the 1980s called Ruiru 11An Arabica cultivar from Kenya, a dwarf form with resistance to CBB (coffee berry borer) and CBD (coffee berry disease) : Ruiru 11 is named for the station… …more.
It is a back-crossed hybrid of earlier Ruiru types that has Hibrido de TimorHibrido de Timor abbreviated HdT is the interspecies hybrid of C. Arabica and C. Canephora (Robusta) that was found in Timor Leste in the 1940s. It has been… …more inputs. HdT is a natural mutation of ArabicaArabica refers to Coffea Arabica, the taxonomic species name of the genus responsible for around 75% of the worlds commercial coffee crop.: Arabica refers to Coffea Arabica, the… …more and RobustaRobusta usually refers to Coffea Robusta, responsible for roughly 25% of the world’s commercial coffee. Taxonomy of Robusta is debated: some sources use “Robusta” to refer to any… …more that occurred on the island of Timor, and while the plant is hearty and strong, it tastes different than the SL types. Now there is a newer hybrid, BatianNamed after the highest peak on Mt. Kenya, Batian is resistant to coffee berry disease and coffee leaf rust, the two common fungal diseases affecting coffee in Kenya… …more, that is making inroads among farmers, yet still does not have the cup taste of the treasured SL coffees.
Most co-ops and farms are well aware now that the buyers want the SL types, and if properly managed they can have good yields and disease resistance too. Well, add to that “if they are properly treated with fungicides.”
Yes, Kenya is dependent on them and there is no way around it. Their use appears to be wise (especially since they are so expensive) and it is not like farmers run out and spray the coffee cherries before harvest. Much of the treatment is before the coffee is formed on the tree. Various certifications, Utz Kapeh and Fair TradeFair trade is an organized social movement and market-based approach to empowering developing country producers and promoting sustainability.: Fair trade is an organized social movement and market-based approach… …more and Rain Forest, require careful signage, training, and protection for those who spray. But the fact is, your Kenya coffee tree has been treated with fungicides at some point. In this way, it is 180 degrees opposite of EthiopiaEthiopia is the birthplace of coffee: it is in the forests of the Kaffa region that coffee arabica grew wild. Coffee is “Bun” or “Buna” in Ethiopia, so… …more.
I am really proud of our consistently excellent selection of Kenyas! It takes a lot of work to sort through the many samples we receive in order to find the few that are truly complex. These are the coffees that truly stand out, not just making a pleasant cup, but providing a real “experience”. When we go after an auction lot, 9 out of 10 times we buy the whole thing; it is exclusively ours. While it is possible that the same farm or co-op has more than one auction lot (for example, early and late harvest lots from the same season) I can say with certainty that we have cupped all the lots and chosen the best one. It’s just a matter of effort and hard work, and when it comes to cupping Kenyas, we put a focused and intensive effort into the auctions during the main crop season.