General Cup Profile
Kenyan coffee is known internally as the supermodel of coffee: Everything about it seems to be more refined, more intense, and bigger. Generally we see black currant, intense citric acidity expressed as grapefruit, and phosphoric acidity contributing to the “sparking” quality of the acidity, along with very sweet and very creamy cups. The fascinating part of the discovery of the Kenyan profile happens when varieties can be isolated. For instance, we find those black-currant bombs in SL-28, and rich creamy lemon more in French Mission. Some of the new rust-resistant varieties, like Ruiru 11 and Batian, can add new, sometimes undesirable flavors, but Batian (which is very new and not yet harvested on a large scale) was created to address the need of a rust-resistant and delicious coffee. We will see how it ends up.
Bungoma, Embu, Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Kisii, Machakos, Meru, Mt. Elgon, Murang'a, Nakuru, Nyeri, Thika, Taita Taveta, Tran-Nzoia
Kenya has very unique processing techniques which contribute greatly to the quality of the cup. Kenya uses a “double fermentation” process, in which the beans soak in fermentation tanks twice (12–24 hours each time). In between those soaks, the beans are flushed with water to clean off any excess organic material. After the second fermentation, the beans travel through a water channel which not only separates the densities, but also allows for another good scrub of the coffee before it's dried. Density separation happens when less-dense beans, or “floaters,” are taken out of the channel, leaving only the highest-density coffee. After the water-channel journey is complete, the beans go for another bath in a water tank for a final soaking for up to 24 hours. This last soak is said to strengthen the amino acids and proteins in the bean.
The water is drained, and then the beans are then taken to a “pre-dry,” or “skin dry,” which is a fast full-sunlight dry on raised beds for about six hours with low bean depth, which is meant to help the parchment from cracking. After the pre-dry, the beans are then taken to large raised beds and stacked with a thicker bean depth, where they will dry for 7–14 days depending on conditions.
Kenyan producers dry their coffee down to 11–12% moisture.
This system is definitely an expensive and resource- and labor-intensive way to process coffee. However, Kenyan coffee is some of the cleanest, most intense, longest-lasting coffee in the world, and we definitely have this meticulous processing to thank, in addition to the origin's favorable altitude and varieties.
Kenya battles both coffee-leaf rust—roya, as it’s known in the Latin American world—and CBD, or "coffee berry disease," in a very significant way. Over the years, the government has introduced rust-resistant varieties like Ruiru 11 and Batian, but those varieties are met with disdain from some “cuppers.” The reality is that without these new varieties, most farms would be decimated by rust. For producers, it is the balance of finding the best cup while also running a profitable and sustainable business for themselves and their stakeholders.
We have several key partners in Kenya that use heirloom varieties like French Mission alongside some of the newly engineered ones.
It is common practice in Kenya to stump trees instead of replacing trees with new ones. Producers will allow three main branches to grow from the stumps. They then trim the main arteries of the tree one by one to offset a total loss of production. This cycling of the branches allows for new growth on very old bones of a tree.
We see different pruning techniques all around the country, but ultimately the goal is the same: provide a scenario for the tree to grow new healthy arms to avoid overstress from killing the tree or damaging the quality of the fruit.
Kenya also experiences an annual drought like some other countries. We spoke to an agronomist who actually believes the annual drought is crucial to the health of the trees in Kenya. He stated that the drought actually hardens the wood, providing a more robust tree for the flowering brought about by the rain following the drought.
Coffee is said to have been first brought to Kenya in 1893 by John Paterson, a Scottish Missionary to the Taitan Hills in the Southern part of the country. We always find this particularly interesting because of this country’s proximity to the birthplace of Arabica coffee, neighboring Ethiopia. Throughout the early 20th century, coffee spread North, but was primarily confined to other European settlement areas. After the Devonshire White Paper of 1923 (which was a document issued by the Duke of Devonshire to address the land grab and racial tension between Africans and European settlers), coffee began to spread outside of the white establishments into the country.
In 1933, the Kenyan Auction System, or a version of it, was established. This is still the way that the majority of coffee is sold in Kenya. Speaking to producers, most believe this is the most efficient way for them to realize the best price for their coffee consistently. Free-market forces allow them to get the best price for their cup when multiple people are bidding for it. We have several relationships that do not go through the auction, as we have set very fair long-term prices for total production from some estates, but most of our microlots are purchased through the auction.
The key component of the auction system in Kenya is the marketing agent, or the party between the producer and the outside buyer of the coffee.
The auction works like this:
Every estate or cooperative society has a marketing agent with whom they work. The marketing agent charges 1.5–3% to sell the coffee, and 4% government tax is levied on the sale of the coffee.
Producers grow, pick, process, and mill the coffee before the marketing agent brings the coffee to auction on behalf of the producer. The marketing agent helps to find buyers for the coffee. Potential buyers have the ability to cup the lots before bidding on them at auction, which is not possible with an auction system like the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX). Exporter’s labs often look like never-ending cupping tables and sample roasters because they have to cup every little microlot in order to potentially find the gems. Once the gems are found, the coffee is bid on, and, if won, the coffee then transfers hands, is paid for, and prepared for export.
Typically, when we are seeing samples from the auction system in Kenya from our export partners, they have already bid on and successfully secured the lots.
Café Imports' History in Kenya
Café Imports has purchased Kenyan coffee directly for over 10 years, and we were one of the early pioneers of introducing microlots to the U.S. market. At that time, most people were not willing to pay or take the risk on importing a small, high-scoring, traceable lot of coffee, but Jason Long really went out on a limb to take the risk, and clearly it has paid off. We have worked with several different excellent exporting companies in Kenya, and work primarily with one now which also owns an extremely progressive marketing agency. Their marketing agency does not simply buy and sell coffee for producers, but since 2006 they have provided cutting-edge agricultural and business training to provide a long-standing path for success with their producer partners. They have trained over 100,000 producers since inception. This ethos mirrors our mission, and we are proud to help bring these outstanding coffees to market through a marketing agency and exporter that operates with such a high level of integrity.
While cupping Kenyan coffee, or, better yet, when just an “average” Kenyan coffee is on the table next to other origins, it is apparent that clearly Kenya produces some of the most exquisite coffees in the world. Our hope is that Kenyan coffee becomes more relevant in terms of how people use this coffee as a brighter East African component. Price is always the limiting factor in Kenya, as differentials are higher than neighboring coffees, but purely on a quality front, we believe that Kenya is the clear winner in most cases, price aside. Our hope is that we can continue to uncover some of the world’s most immaculate microlots, while also finding those 87+ full containers at reasonable prices so Kenya begins to show up in more blends and espresso, elevating the entire sector of our industry.