Kenyan coffee is undoubtedly some of the most complex in the world, in more ways than one.
Starting with the most obvious, coffees from this beautiful East African country are big, colorful mosaics of flavor, expressing any number of different regional, varietal, and processing-influenced profiles, and often expressing them at full saturation. Tasting the best of the best Kenyans can feel like the coffee equivalent of standing directly inside a rainbow with your mouth open, as if you could taste color.
Then there’s the complicated way that the market operates there: Traditionally dominated by the generations-old auction system, buying specific, individual lots is no easy feat, and not for the weak of heart or light of palate. During the height of the season, exporters, traders, and buyers might cup through 150–200 coffees or more every day in preparation for the live bidding that take place in Nairobi on Tuesdays. Of course, those are just the coffees that wind up on the block, not to mention the samples from so-called “second window” or “relationship” coffees, which are negotiated directly with a co-op or estate. (Though beware that direct sourcing doesn’t necessarily mean simple sourcing, either.)
Perhaps the most complex thing about Kenyan coffee, however, is the set of ethical questions it raises for us, and the challenges it presents to us as a square peg we have spent decades trying to fit into the round hole of traceability, partnership, and consistency.
But first, flavor.
“The coffee-growing regions are very distinct,” says Megan Person from Cafe Imports’ sensory analysis team. “They have very hard lines drawn up country. You know when you’re going from one county to the other, and we know when we’re getting coffee from one county or another. There are just really cool, distinct profiles.”
Person recently spent more than a week sourcing this year’s Kenyan lots, alongside Joe Tynan from Cafe Imports Australia, our principle Kenya buyer; and Joe Marrocco, U.S. senior sales representative and director of education. She along with the Joes cupped with our partners at Dormans, the second-largest exporting company in Kenya and our longtime friends on the ground there, who have been especially pivotal in our pursuit to source coffees, for our line of regional Uteuzi Jimbo offerings with those profiles in mind.
Flipping through her cupping notes from the week, Person describes what she was finding in each cup: “Embu is really balanced, citrus fruit, chocolate, apple, tart acidity. Nyeri has white grape, juicy, lively, really fruity and sugary like caramel.” Marrocco chimed in to say that depending on the location, factory, and varieties grown, Nyeri can also have “more of the ‘classic’ Kenyan [profile]: More grapefruit and tomato.”
Marrocco also speculated about the regional differences caused by the relative position of both Nyeri and Embu to Mt. Kenya. “If you think about it,” he says, “Embu gets more morning sun, and Nyeri gets more evening sun because of which side of the mountain they’re on.” The timing and intensity of that bright hot light will certainly impact sugar and acid development: Soft warm light in the morning might mean more delicate florals, while strong afternoon sun could be the cause of those popping fruit flavors.
This year also sees the arrival of a new-to-us area in the Uteuzi Jimbo regional program: The coffee-growing fields on the slopes of Mt. Elgon, an inactive shield volcano that straddles the Kenya-Uganda border. “It’s wildly different, not in that Kenyan traditional style,” describes Joe Tynan. “It’s a little bit more tropical, quite heavy on the grapefruit, floral, tea-like. Almost akin to an Ethiopian. Really delicious.” Typically, Mt. Elgon’s coffee isn’t known as being specialty-level quality, and its distance from Nairobi has made access difficult, but, says Tynan, “It’s an area that I’m going to try to push us into a little bit more. There seems to be a lot of potential out there.”
For the second year in a row, Tynan and Person were a cupping power couple, tag-teaming along with the staff at Dormans to taste through as many auction catalogs and second-window offerings as possible and tackling just under 1,400 coffees during their time in Nairobi. Building relationships with producers can be difficult in Kenya due to the distance created by both the auction platform and the somewhat complex, many-layered way that coffee is delivered to and run through the factory system (note: factory is the term used locally for various milling facilities), so repeat visits can make a huge difference in the solidifying of a partnership or business bond.
“Going back in to Dormans that first morning was like going back to old friends. It was a really good feeling,” Person says. “It was really easy to work with them, it was easier to communicate what we wanted, what we expected, and what we were also willing to do to help make sure that we met those expectations. It was like getting to be with a work family, especially after having kept up communication with them over the past year. They’re a small team, and since we’re a small team as well, it was a great fit.”
Tynan agrees that Person’s repeat performance in the cupping lab was hugely helpful to securing the top lots and cementing the kinship between Cafe Imports and Dormans—and, through Dormans, several of our top-choice factories. “Having Megan there is fantastic. It means that we have essentially the same situation [cupping in Nairobi] that we have in the U.S., where there’s two people who cup absolutely everything together. We’re able to approve [lots] on the spot and to get a lion’s share, the pick of what anybody wants to send us. There’s no way they’d send us 1,400 samples [to the Cafe Imports office], so for us to be able to turn around and cup that much and approve them right then and there is a huge boost to our program in Kenya.”
The scope of that cupping might be awe-inspiring to us, but it’s rather workaday to the Dormans team, says Tynan. “That’s what Dormans does every day, they have to cup through everything that’s turned in to each of their marketing agents, and they have to cup every single thing that’s turned in to the auction every single week. That’s 22 weeks out of every year that they’re cupping those kinds of numbers, and they’re not just cupping the AAs, the ABs, and the PBs. My hat goes off to them for being able to do that—10 days is pretty easy in comparison, and we were just tasting the good stuff!”
Joe Marrocco was a welcome new addition to the sourcing team this year, and was able to lend a palate at the cupping table as well as to take in the coffee culture and landscape of the country. While Tynan and Person were practically sequestered in the lab at Dormans’ office in Nairobi, Marrocco was able to head out into the field to visit factories and meet some of the cooperative leaders in various counties up country. “What you see when you’re driving around, there’ll be a tiny plot of coffee, and then a bunch of avocado trees, and then a bunch of nut trees, all kind of strewn about. And tea, so much tea. The coffee is patchwork. It’s a small part of what they’re growing, and to be honest it seems to be an afterthought,” he says.
The locals drink little if any coffee, and are primarily fonder of tea. This detachment is somewhat baffling to specialty-coffee buyers if only because it seems remarkable that farmers and millers who don’t even drink coffee could also be responsible for some of the most jaw-droppingly good microlots in the world. How is this level of quality possible without even tasting the finished product? What kind of potential would there be if Kenyans were tasting it?
“At every mill that we went to, we asked them if they’d tasted their coffee, and they said no. Not one,” says Marrocco somewhat sadly. “Whenever we said, ‘Would you like to ever taste your coffee?’ They said, ‘Yes! Of course we would! This is our life, this is what we do! How would we do that? We don’t even know how we would do that!’ They were blown away by the idea of being able to taste their coffee.”
Here’s where another aspect of Kenya’s complexity comes in. Where once the country’s coffee landscape was dominated by large (and largely white-owned) plantations—think Out of Africa—today the vast majority of coffee is grown by thousands of smallholder farmers, who deliver tiny amounts of cherry to a nearby receiving station, either as a member of a co-op or simply as a means of getting it off their hands in return for a little bit of money. Coffee is mostly a cash crop for producers here, and the average farm is incredibly small, something between 50–500 trees. (For scale, the average smallholder in Colombia might own 1.5–2 hectares of land and farm between 7,000–12,000 trees.)
The astoundingly modest size of the average farm is a major obstacle in achieving anything resembling our expectations of traceability: When we buy microlots (5–75 bags) from a particular washing station or factory, then, what we’re getting is the amalgam of any number of farmer’s deliveries, sorted, separated, and blended by quality and screen size, but not necessarily documented down to the producers whose respective harvests are represented in the lot. Farmer-specific details are positively impossible to gather without doing a full-scale sweep of every garden-size plot in every county, or a census of every single bag of cherry delivered to each factory every day, along with a way to track specific deliveries of the fruit as they are blended to create day lots by quality, size, and density.
“If we think about the concept of a microlot, Kenya almost sparked that concept,” says Joe Marrocco, describing the way those small chops enter the marketplace, factory by factory. “Kenya sparked grading, Kenya sparked auctions.” However, the systems that the country established and inspired have in some ways kept the producers locked in a pattern of disenfranchisement, in addition to creating difficulty in establishing clear and consistent relationships. “If you’re a farmer and you’ve delivered your cherry, you get 20 shillings per pound, which equates to about 2 cents, since it’s 105 shillings to the dollar,” Marrocco says. “That 20 shillings a pound is what you walk away with on that day, kind of like an advance. You know that your ripe cherry is going to go for far more than that amount at the end of the day, but the farmers are not getting the vast majority of that auction price.”
Marrocco then explains how the pay-out works after the coffee has been processed, sampled, and put up at auction: “If you have a mill that has 200 lots of coffee that goes through it, and some of those get priced at $5 a pound and some of those get priced at $0.20 under market, the aggregate of all of that is what will eventually trickle down to the farmer. So, if you’re the farmer who has the best farm in the region, you’re going to get paid the same as the farmer who has the worst in your region. As long as you deliver ripe cherry, you get paid the same amount per pound.”
In our traceability-obsessed specialty-coffee industry, Kenya is one of the major outliers: The absence of that farmer-to-market through-thread is as complex as the profiles of the coffees themselves, and raises many questions for us about what traceability means, who it is for, and how necessary it is in order to buy and sell the best coffees in the world.
“It’s definitely a funny one because for the most part your traceability is only to what factory that came from and what week that coffee was handed in to the dry mill,” Tynan offers, and Marrocco agrees: “Visiting there is literally like stepping back in time and seeing how disconnected they are from the rest of the coffee world, but their systems are so efficient that they’re able to isolate the cream of the crop, keep it separated out just enough to satisfy our need for confirmation that we’re not doing something bad.”
“I think the exception is that it’s such good quality that people are willing to look past the fact that they can’t have all of those details, based on the fact that the system doesn’t allow it,” Tynan offers. “There’s definitely avenues to have that traceability down to a single person in the estates and small estates, or down to a group, a much smaller co-op where you can name the producers,” Tynan says, contrasting the marketing system with somewhere like, say, Colombia, where it’s slightly easier to tell a coffee’s “story,” so to speak. Even without that romantic tale, Tynan says, “in reality, if you get this 90-point Kenyan, you’re just going to go ‘Damn, that’s delicious,’” with or without the in-depth background details.
For the moment, at least, we will simply need to continue asking ourselves tough questions about traceability, what it means to source great coffee ethically, and how—if at all—we can make more of an impact at the individual farm level while still honoring our relationships and the incredible work that companies like Dormans and organizations like the various co-ops do on the ground every day.
“To be honest with you in Kenya it probably won’t change: The system promotes factories and co-ops,” says Joe Tynan—and for the time being, that’s what we’ll focus on as well: Promoting the individual factories, co-ops, and select small-estate holders who are doing the best work and producing some of the world’s most outstanding, and certainly most complex, coffees, hands down.
This year’s Kenyan offerings are getting ready to hit the water: For our current available offerings from last harvest while we wait for new crop to arrive in late spring, visit www.cafeimports.com/offerings.php, and e-mail email@example.com for more information about pre-booking your lots for this year.