Origin Report: Kenya

Posted on May 15th, 2017

Fresh-crop Kenya season is one of the most thrilling times of year for us, and not
only because the coffees are always delicious and dynamic, but also because their
arrival is the culmination of complex work behind-the-scenes — work as complex
as the coffees themselves.

Before we get into talking about this year’s Kenyans, we wanted to briefly explain how purchasing green coffee in Kenya happens, because it is pretty unique. Coffee is sold by way of two main marketing systems in Kenya: by auction at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange, or through direct sales, often called “Second Window.”

Since the establishment of the auction system in the 1930s, the majority of Kenyan coffee has been traded this way. It’s evolved from an “open-outcry” bidding system to a largely silent one, with an electric trigger for each trader to hit when bidding. Through this system, prices of highly sought-after coffees can soar, as agents work to outbid each other on the coffees that are available that week.

The introduction of the Second Window created an avenue in which a farmer and buyer (such as a roaster or importer) can negotiate a price somewhat separate to the bidding at auction, typically by discussing and agreeing upon the deal before or during the harvest. Some exporters will also cup and directly purchase coffees from their associated marketing agents or mills, negotiating a price based on the previous week’s auction prices for specific grades.

These two distinct ways of doing business is part of what makes sourcing from Kenya somewhat tricky, and it’s also why we decided to send two Cafe Imports staff on this year’s sourcing trip: Joe Tynan from our Australia office, who heads our annual Kenya buys, and Megan Person in sensory analysis, an expert cupper whose extremely keen palate would help us identify the top lots. Together, Joe and Megan were able to cup an average of 50 samples a day over their two weeks in Kenya, including lots up for auction and those we buy directly, from estates and factories with whom we’ve partnered before.

It has traditionally been somewhat hard to develop strong long-term relationships with producers to secure the same coffees year by year, and the potential for high prices at auction create conflicting incentives for farmers and cooperatives to postpone bringing their lots to market, holding out for higher prices, which can be a risky proposition across the board. Added to that is the fact that Mother Nature doesn’t much care how much money a farmer can get for high-quality coffee, and this year the weather threatened to make a royal mess of things.

Thanks to Megan and Joe’s tag-teamed approach to sourcing, however, we’ll be seeing some sparkling examples of the best of what Kenya has to offer from both avenues, and they are due to hit our warehouses in just a few short weeks.

Kenya is one of the growing countries with two distinct harvests – one after the “long rains” from March to May, and one after the “short rains” from October to December, which is the main harvest season. This past year, however, the crop cycle started with unusually heavy and early rains, followed by an alarming drought. Without steady rains during the swelling, the time in which the cherry grows most rapidly, the percentage of top AA grade coffee they produce drops precipitously.

Joe and Megan traveled throughout the coffee regions to meet farmers, tour factories, cup coffees, and of course place bids for the top-scoring and best-tasting lots. Joe reports that because of the lower yields and reports of drought throughout the country, “naturally, Kenyan coffee prices soared, with AAs fetching incredible prices at auction—some as high as $700 USD per 50 kilos.”

“Two great things come from this,” he continues. “One, while they produce less coffee, farmers will get a better price through the auction and can negotiate higher Second Window prices, and two, with the added stress [on the plants] and longer maturation, the quality of those AA and even the ABs should be great this year. So while you may have to pay a little extra, those Kenyan beauties are out there, and after cupping steadily through them, we think we’ve got a fantastic selection of them.”

Megan and Joe spent more than two weeks driving around in search of the best Second Window coffees to buy directly, and in just three days they managed to visit a whopping 11 factories and small estates. They plotted their course after rounds and rounds of cupping: “It was great to choose who to visit this way,” Megan says. “Coffee first, then a face-to-face visit based on what we liked. Then we can check on the quality, cleanliness, efficiency, and character of the factories and factory managers.”

Back in the office, we got a welcomed surprise from the two of them in our inbox: a photo of a sudden downpour at the Gachatha factory in Nyeri! “On our way there it poured, which felt nice and the earth just drank it up. We drove out from under the raincloud, but it caught up to us just as we pulled into Gachatha.” As an added bonus, Megan says, the lots from Gachatha “would turn out to be some of my favorite coffees.”

That’s only the beginning of the best, though: Megan reports back on several lots that have her especially excited, as well as some of the factories that most impressed her. Insider tip: Megan says keep eyes open for coffees from Kaguyu in Kirinyaga, which were so tasty the factory was an absolute must to visit; as well as Kathakwa factory in Embu (“A region I truly adore,” says Joe), which Megan describes as “Beautiful! Huge!”

That dedication to quality is what we expect to taste in the cups from Kenya this year, and the lower quantities of what’s available will only make these arrivals that much more special. For more information about individual lots, recommendations, and pre-booking, reach out to sales@cafeimports.com or speak with your sales rep: You won’t want to miss out on these arrivals.

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