Kenya

Kenya produces some of the most exquisite coffee in the world. The best Kenyan coffees have a sparkling acidity, juicy mouthfeel, and incredible floral aromatics, and with complex ripe fruit flavours and intense sweetness.

Overview of Coffee in Kenya

Most of the coffee in Kenya is grown in the Central Highlands on the high plateau – north and northeast of Nairobi, on the slopes of Mount Kenya and the foothills of the Aberdare Mountains. Most estates are concentrated in the Kiambu growing region (which includes the towns of Thika, Ruiru and Limuru), while smallholders are concentrated in Nyeri and its neighbour to the east, Kirinyaga. Other growing areas in Central Kenya include Embu, Meru and Murang’a. Coffee is also grown in Western Kenya, in the regions of Nakuru and Baringo (close to Central Kenya) and Kisii (in the southwest), and Trans-Nzoia, Keiyo, Marakwet, which are located further west.

Nyeri and Kirinyaga are known for their high quality and complex coffees, thanks to the excellent natural conditions for specialty coffee, and a high concentration of well-run wet mills. The west is also emerging as an exciting new region with great potential. While the cooperatives here are not as organised as those in Central Kenya, the climate and altitude are perfect for producing exceptional coffee, and many exporters are starting to invest in gaining access to these coffees.

Overall, coffee production in Kenya accounts for around 10% of its exports, and the country can produce around 65,000 tonnes of coffee per year. All coffee produced is processed using the washed processing method and dried on raised African drying beds. There are two major harvests in Kenya: the main harvest, which runs from February to July, and the fly (mitica) crop, which runs from September to December.

History

Coffee was introduced to Kenya in the late 1800s by French and Scottish Missionaries. It began to be commercially produced at the start of the 20th century. By 1920, coffee had become Kenya’s biggest export. In 1933, the Kenyan Coffee Board was established, and the following year the auction system was set up. Protocols were soon established that were used to grade coffee and help improve quality.

For the first half of the 20th century, coffee was produced on large British-owned estates under colonial rule. It was not until the Mau Mau uprising in 1954 – which ultimately led to the country’s independence in 1963 – that coffee production began to be transferred from the British to the Kenyans, and many smallholder farms were established, along with cooperatives and wet mills to process their coffee.

By the late 1970s, the production of smallholders had surpassed that of the larger estates. Today, smallholders represent about 55% of production. It is estimated that there are around 700,000 small producers in Kenya, who are members of several hundred cooperatives that own their own washing stations. The remainder of Kenyan coffee is grown on medium or large estates, most of which have their own wet mill, and sometimes dry mill.

Kenyan Auction System

The Kenyan Auction System was established in 1933, and today 90% of coffee is still sold via this system. Way ahead of its time, this transparent and centralised system has established a pricing hierarchy based on quality, with higher quality lots fetching higher prices. The auctions take place at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange and are widely considered to be the most transparent and effective price-discovery and distribution mechanism for fine green coffees anywhere in the world. (It even inspired the Cup of Excellence auction model.)

Before 2006, the auction platform was the only way that coffee could be sold and bought in Kenya. New legislation was then introduced to make it possible for coffee to be purchased directly from a cooperative or estate. Off the back of this legislation, the government has licensed upwards of 30 independent marketing agents, who are now permitted to sell directly to foreign green coffee buyers and bypass the auction system.

Grading

Grades within the Kenya system are simply a measure of bean size, not of defect tolerance. Typically, the best lots are either AA (screen 17/18), AB (screen 15/16), or PB (grade for peaberries, where a single bean has grown inside the coffee cherry instead of two).

AA grades are usually considered superior and fetch the highest prices, but sometimes AB lots can be more complex and of a higher quality than AA lots. We therefore always trust the cupping table when selecting coffees for purchase.

Varieties

In the specialty coffee world, Kenya is famous for two unique varieties: SL-28 and SL-34. Both have Bourbon and Moka heritage and are named after the laboratory that promoted their wider distribution in Kenya during the early 20th century – Scott Laboratories (now the National Agricultural Laboratories of Kenya).

These varieties are prized for their exceptional flavour, distinctive big body, and winey blackcurrant notes. Other varieties, such as Batian and Ruiru 11 (both of which are known for their resistance to Coffee Berry Disease and Leaf Rust) are becoming increasingly common as well.

Processing

All coffee in Kenya is processed using the washed processing method, which involves double fermentation.

Coffee cherries are carefully hand picked and delivered, either directly to the wet mill or to a collection centre. They are transferred to pre-sorting mats or tables, where any unripe or damaged cherries are removed. The coffee is then weighed and processed using the washed processing method.

The coffee cherries are first put in a tank full of water, and any immature cherries are removed (these cherries float and are therefore easy to remove). The coffee is then pulped using a disc pulper (with three sets of discs) to remove the skin and fruit from the inner parchment layer that protects the green coffee bean. After being pulped, the coffee is sorted by weight using water, with the highest quality and densest beans being separated out from the lighter, lower quality beans.

After pulping, the coffee is dry fermented overnight to break down the sugars, before it is cleaned using water, sorted once more via water channels (the heavier coffee, which sinks, is considered the higher quality, sweeter coffee) and soaked for a further 24 hours in clean water. This process strengthens the proteins and amino acids in the bean which, in turn, heightens the complexity of the acidity and the clarity in the cup.

After soaking, the coffee is spread out on raised drying tables (also known as African beds) where it is turned constantly to ensure the coffee dries evenly, and so that any defects can be identified and those beans removed. Time on the drying tables depends on climate, ambient temperature and volumes under processing. It can take anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks to get to the target moisture level of 11-12%.

 

How we buy coffee in Kenya

We select our absolute favourite Kenyan lots with our partners at Dormans, via the Kenyan Auction System and through direct relationships. Everything we buy from Kenya is vacuum-packed and available in 30kg lots. We typically have Kenyans on offer from May/June but, due to the high density of these coffees, we find the quality holds up really well, and they can be used throughout the year. We look for Kenyans that are juicy, sweet and complex, and we buy the very best quality we can find on the cupping table.