Jambo! (hello in Swahili)
Kenyan coffees are, for a lot of roasters, showcase coffees, despite the fact that neighbouring Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. So, why is this the case?
KENYA – origin
This eastern African country is home to the Great Rift Valley and the country’s savannah, is the kind of landscape that most people imagine Africa to look like…just think of the film ‘Out of Africa’ (which was in fact filmed in Kenya, just outside Nairobi) and if you’ve read ‘The White Masai’ (by Corinne Hoffman) then you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Although there are only two official languages, Swahili, and English, more than 60 are actually spoken in Kenya within the 40 (plus) ethnic groups.
Most people live in the highlands and Nairobi, Kenya’s capital sits at an altitude of 1,700 masl. The country borders 5 countries – Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Sudan, Uganda and Somalia – and the Indian Ocean.
COFFEE PRODUCTION IN KENYA
As an origin, Kenya has all of the geographical and climatic conditions to produce world-class coffee and quite frankly, it does.
Kenya’s soil is super fertile. The presence of an active volcano system and the presence of the Great Rift Valley – a geological wonder - are what make the soil rich in mineral nutrients, responsible for the flavour of the coffee produced there. In addition to this, the rich soil eliminates the need for the use of pesticides and fertilizers.
Sitting on the equator, Kenya has been gifted with a diverse range of mountains with Mount Kenya claiming second highest mountain in Africa. At altitudes of well over 1,800masl coffee grows freely on its slopes.
Kenya is fairly new to coffee growing and as mentioned above, although it is in close proximity to the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia, it wasn’t until 1893 when coffee cultivation began. This is nearly 300 years after the plant was first cultivated for commercial purposes. The story goes, it was introduced by French Holy Ghost Fathers (Roman Catholic congregation of priests) who brought the trees from Reunion Island. The mission farms were located just outside Nairobi, the capital, and this is the centre of where coffee growing in Kenya was developed.
Later on, as a British colony – established in 1920 – Kenya became a powerful source for the Empire to control both the tea (already established in Kenya) and coffee market worldwide – which they did! Demand for coffee in Europe was high in the 1920s which made coffee, Kenya’s main cash crop for export.
KENYA’S COFFEE MARKET
Kenya achieved independence from the British in 1962 but it was well before this that Kenyans created and put systems in place that were proved to be very insightful when it came to selling their coffee.
The 1930s were significant years for Kenyans. Prior to 1934, coffee plantations were owned by the British and unfortunately operated with the Kenyans used as slaves. In 1931, the Coffee Board of Kenya was established and in 1934 the indigenous Kenyans were allowed to grow coffee on their own land.
Nairobi Coffee Exchange_Kenya_photo credit: Joe Morrocco
A year later, 1935, Kenya established an auction system which is still to this day unique. The auctions still take place at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange as the primary method for purchasing green coffee. Independence from the British came in 1963 and the coffee industry in Kenya was organised around this auction system – government led where coffees were and are auctioned weekly. This is seen as a system which is transparent and established a pricing system based on quality therefore higher quality lots got a higher price.
Nairobi Coffee Exchange_Kenya_photo credit: Joe Morrocco
How does the auction work?
Each estate or cooperative works with a marketing agency who is responsible to bringing the coffees to auction to of course sell to the highest bidder. There is a percentage that goes to the marketing agent (usually between 1.5-3% of the price of the coffee) and there is also a government tax on the sale of the coffee. Samples of the coffees get distributed (tendered) to the licensed exporters or ‘members’ of the Nairobi Coffee Exchange prior to the auction. The coffees to be auctioned get catalogued and printed – this becomes available through the Exchange. The agent bids on behalf of the exporter. Many exporters tend to bid on lots and sell them on privately to importers and roasters alike. The competition for the best lots is fierce especially for the known estates and cooperatives and for the most highly graded AA grade coffee beans.
It is noteworthy to mention that the auctions are still considered to be the most transparent system in terms of price and distribution for fine green coffees anywhere in the (coffee) world. If you have heard of the Cup of Excellence auctions, it was the Kenyan auction system that inspired those.
Everything eventually changes with the times and this is true here too. In 2006 some of the constraints controlling the auction platform were relaxed.
What did this mean?
Up until that point, it was the larger established estates and cooperatives that supported the auction system, understandably because they were able to afford the middlemen so to speak. Supporters of the auction system claimed that the auction promoted a price discovery mechanism. However, a lot of the small holder farmers believed that the auction system encouraged a long chain of middlemen which just ate into their income.
And this is where the change was necessary. The government went on to license a number of independent marketing agents who were now allowed to sell directly to foreign green buyers without going through the auction system and therefore trade on the open market. Certain criteria were also put in place that would need to be met prior to being awarded a license which included a guarantee that the farmers are paid.
The ‘second window’ as it was called, created therefore the opportunity where a farmer and a buyer (roaster or importer) can have negotiations separate to bidding at auction usually reaching agreement before or during harvest. This enabled coffee farmers to secure a traceable route to trade and receive a higher price sooner.
GRADING – KENYA’S GRADING SYSTEM
As I’ve mentioned at the start, Kenya holds a reputation for superb quality coffee beans. When the coffee tree was originally brought to Kenya, it was of the bourbon variety. However, there are two particular Kenyan varieties have attracted huge interest within the speciality industry and those are SL-28 and SL-34, hybrids that were produced by the Scott Laboratories. These are the varietals that make up the majority of the high-quality coffees from Kenya.
The grading system in Kenya is a well established one and uses a combination of bean size and bean quality. In reality they define size and assume quality according to the size. Apart from the AA (screen size 18 – 7.22mm) lots which are considered the most superior, the other grades include AB (combination of grade A screen size 16 – 6.80mm – and B screen size 15 – 6.20mm), E (elephant bean – self-explanatory: the largest sized bean), PB (peaberry – see our blog on peaberry beans to find out more), C (the size below the AB category), TT and T (both smaller size with T being the smallest), MH/ML (Mbuni Heavy and Mbuni Light – these are naturally processed coffees and are considered low quality).
IN THE CUP – COMPLEX FLAVOUR NOTES
Kenyan coffee is also referred to as the ‘connoisseur’s cup’.
Generally, Kenyan coffees tend to be bright, full of acidity and fruit. However, a Kenyan coffee bean is much more than that. It is famous for its complexity.
What does that mean?
A ‘complex’ coffee means there is a presence of many aromas and flavour attributes creating multiple layers. So, a great Kenyan coffee will give you the bright winey acidity, the fruitiness, the citrus notes alongside spiciness or chocolate, typically with a medium body. It is this multi layered, deeply dimensioned explosion in your palate.
Kenyan coffees, for a lot of roasters, are showcase coffees, those that stand out with the flavour notes and complexity mentioned above. For a long time, however, we’ve tended to paint all of Kenya with the same brushstroke, without digging in to see what each county could have to offer us as for diversity of flavour or profile.
This coffee aims to do just that. Our green coffee importer along with their partner exporter at origin, have selected four regions to showcase the regions’ coffee and expose what each region has to offer. The four regions are Nyeri, Embu, Mt Elgon and Kirinyaga.
‘Uteuzi jimbo’ means - quite aptly - county select in the Swahili language and our coffee comes from Nyeri. The coffees from this region are often considered ‘the Kenyan yardstick’ and these are a selection of the best of them! Enjoy!