Kenyan Coffee Overview
Although coffee was first introduced in Kenya in the late 1800s by the British, it was after the country achieved its independence that the coffee industry thrived. Kenya structured their coffee industry with admirable foresight, and their coffee beans became known as the crème de la crème in the coffee world. Besides making good use of the ideal growing conditions, Kenyans maintain a sophisticated research establishment, employ the most advanced processing techniques, and have a unique export system organized as an open auction.
The open auction system allows exporters to bid on coffees .Every licensed exporter will get samples of different lots of coffee to evaluate and distribute to their customers. This way, the exporter bids for the coffee with satisfactory evaluation results and that their customer prefers. It is an interesting system that can sometimes results in very high prices for top scoring coffees but can also make it challenging to work very directly with producers.
The majority of the coffee in Kenya is grown on smaller plantations with just a few hundred trees. These producers will deliver their coffee to a local co-operative washing station for processing. Some washing stations will work with just a few hundred farmers while others might work with several thousand. There are some small private farms who process their own coffee as well as a few large estate farms.
Around the 1930s, the Kenyan government hired Scott Labs to determine the best coffee strains to grow on Kenyan soil. From that research, SL-34 and SL-28 came out as winners and probably the most prized Kenyan beans. These two varietals produce coffee with incredibly vibrant acidity and wonderful complexity. More recently farmers have been encouraged to grown disease resitant varietals, maily Ruiru and Batian. Some think that these could potentially reduce overall quality but they are providing to be easier for farmers to maintan.
Kenya grows mainly Arabica, with a small percentage of Robusta production. Coffee is often grown among other crops and shade trees like avocado are common.. Most of it is grown in a very fertile volcanic soil on high altitudes between 1,400 to 2,000 meters above sea level. The growing region stretches from the hills of Mt. Kenya and almost to the capital, Nairobi. There is also a smaller region located on the slopes of Mt. Elgon.
We first visited Kenya in 2016 and have been buying coffee direct since the 2016 harvest. Every harvest we aim to purchase coffee from Kianderi and/or Kangunu co-operative.
Washed process: nearly all coffee is being wet-processed, and Kenya is well know for producing some of the best washed coffees in the world. Cherry is hand harvested and processed using a pulping machine to remove the outer layer of fruit. Most of these machines also use density sorting to seperate by cherry quality. The coffee is then fermented and this can vary depending on the washing station. Some might ferment for 12 hrs dry, others may ferment in water but the dry fermentation method is more common in Kenya.
Coffee will then usually be washed and graded in channels and then moved to raised tables for sun drying. Some might choose to soak a second time.
Coffee being washed in grading channels at Kianderi washing station:
Coffee drying in the sun on raised tables:
Natural process: In Kenya the low grades are often processed as natural coffees however some producers (especially larger private estate farms) process some high quality naturals but these can be quite rare.
Kenyan coffee tends to showcase bright, juicy flavours with high acidity. The varietal, high altitude, volcanic soil, climate and processing are all key factors that contribute to the unique Kenyan flavours profile. The coffee gives a complex flavor, but also balanced and fragrant aroma, infused with floral tones. Other tones range from tart citrus to black-currant berries with incredible quality or aroma and flavor.