Kenya is the East African powerhouse of the coffee world. Both in the cup, and the way they run their trade, everything is topnotch. The best Kenya coffees are not sold simply as generic AA or AB. They are specific auction lots sold to the highest bidder, and heated competition drives the prices sky high. Their research and development is unparalleled. Their quality control is meticulous, and many thousands of small farmers are highly educated in their agricultural practice –and rewarded — for top level coffee.
In general, this is a bright coffee that lights up the palate from front to back. It is not for people who do not like acidity in coffee (acidity being the prized bright notes in the cup due to an interrelated set of chlorogenic acids). A great Kenya is complex, and has interesting fruit (berry, citrus) flavors, sometimes alternating with spice. Some are clean and bright; others have cherished winey flavors.
I am really proud of our consistently excellent selection of Kenyas! It takes a lot of work to sort through the many samples we receive in order to find the few that are truly complex. These are the coffees that truly stand out, not just making a pleasant cup, but providing a real “experience”. When we go after an auction lot, 9 out of 10 times we buy the whole thing; it is exclusively ours. While it is possible that the same farm or co-op has more than one auction lot (for example, early and late harvest lots from the same season) I can say with certainty that we have cupped all the lots and chosen the best one. It’s just a matter of effort and hard work, and when it comes to cupping Kenyas, we put a focused and intensive effort into the auctions during the main crop season.
Currently, the excellent Kenya auction system and coffee production in general is suffering a myriad problem, as is all of East Africa. Politically, Kenya, the former model of progress and African Independence, is in disarray. For now, the coffees are still of high quality but if the auction system does not continue to serve and benefit the small farmer co-ops, they will plant other crops instead, or replace the better cultivars (the excellent SL-28 and SL-34 selections) with the disease resistant, but poor quality, Ruiri 11 strain.
I was in Kenya, visiting farms, as well as the Nairobi auction house and the cupping rooms of a big coffee exporter. The entire auction operation is amazingly impressive – over 600 separate lots that are sampled and bid each week! Be sure to look for my travel commentary from my recent Kenya trip, plus a couple hundred new images. There are great pictures of the coffee auction house, where nearly all Kenyan coffees that reach the market are traded. I also went back later that season, and have visited every year since, so check out our travelogues.
There have been many political controversies in Kenya lately, with localities taking control of the coffee sector. In 2013/14 this occurred in Nyeri area, as the politicians became involved in how coffee was going to be marketed, and limited the transport of coffee as a way to control where it was sold. While it was done “for the farmers” there have been many questions since about the net gain the new strategy yielded on behalf of those it was supposed to help. Still, it underscores that the system is in need of greater transparency at all levels.
On a historical note: coffee was introduced into Kenya by way of Reunion (Bourbon) island at the end of the 19th century (1893 is sometimes given as the date). It was brought for local cultivation by the Fathers of the Holy Spirit congregation in 1911 – another case of the long and twisted road that religion and coffee have traveled together.
Some facts …Harvest Times – Main Crop: October-December, Fly Crop: June-August; Cultivars in Kenya: SL-28, SL-34, Bourbon, Kents, Typica, Riuri 11. Bourbons are sometimes called “Scottish Mission” and “French Mission”.