Kenya is a powerhouse of the coffee world, known for the intensity of it’s bright acidity and complex 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 gate 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 brightness with sweet flavors, syrups and cane sugar, spice notes, and fruited aspects that sometimes tend toward winey.
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 fermentation 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) cherry 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 fermented 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 fruity mucilage layer that clings so vigorously to the coffee parchment 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 ferment, 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-28 and SL-34 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 cupping 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 transparency at all levels.
On a Historical Note ….Coffee was introduced into Kenya by way of Reunion (Bourbon) 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 Crop: 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 cultivar. 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 Laboratories, 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 Tanzania in the south, as well as some inputs from the Scottish Mission in the North which brought in Yemen Typica seedstock.
Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR) and Coffee Berry Disease (CBD) are huge problems in Kenya, and without treatment the crops would be devastated. The fact is, Organic 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 Research center in Ruiru came up with a new type in the 1980s called Ruiru 11.
It is a back-crossed hybrid of earlier Ruiru types that has Hibrido de Timor inputs. HdT is a natural mutation of Arabica and Robusta 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, Batian, 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 Trade 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 Ethiopia.
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.