Now that our Kenyan coffee lots from the 2012 harvest have finally landed, it’s time to give them a little introduction.
The arrival of fresh coffees from Kenya is always an exciting time for us. Kenya is renowned for consistently producing some of the most complex and interesting coffees in the world, and accordingly, they are some of the most sought after and expensive.
Kenyan coffees are known to have a distinct blackcurrant-like flavour, although not all of our offerings this year follow this trend. In fact this year’s harvest has bucked many trends on the Kenyan front – the total output was over double the size of the previous year.
This unusually large harvest resulted in some rather unique expressions of Kenyan coffee. We still found the familiar traits of the classic Kenyan; winey, complex and rich, but others possessed more delicate acidity and that were more tea-like and subtle.
The quality of the coffee from Kenya is no coincidence. The coffees that we purchased this year were all grown at very high altitudes – 1700 to 2000m – on rich acidic, volcanic soil. Perfect conditions for coffee cherries to slowly ripen and develop superior acidity and structure.
The two main varieties of Arabica you will find in our Kenyan lots are SL28 or SL34. They thrive in Kenya’s unique coffee growing regions, and are rarely planted elsewhere. The ‘SL’ is an acronym of Scott Laboratories, who in the 1930’s, developed coffee strains for increased yields and disease resistance. It turns out that neither SL28 or SL34 give particularly high yields, but the flavour of the coffee that they produce is often exemplary. They are a crucial ingredient in the creation of the signature Kenyan flavour.
All of our Kenyan coffees were hand picked, and as part of the rigorous sorting and grading process, also hand sorted. At some farms, pickers are graded as ‘A’ or ‘B’ depending on how consistently they pick red, ripe cherries, and then are paid accordingly.
After the coffee cherries undergo a preliminary sorting they are de-pulped, leaving just the seed with just a layer of slimy mucilage. The next step is to break down the mucilage through a process of fermentation. Here, the Kenyans do things a bit differently. In other coffee producing nations, the de-pulped cherries are taken to a big tank and are left to ferment either in water or in their juices for 12-24 hours. In Kenya it is common for this process to take as long as 72 hours. In other countries, this would result in the coffee being over-fermented and spoiled, but thanks to a very stable environment there is little risk of over-fermentation. What these extended fermentations achieve is not known precisely, but it is hypothesised that it may contribute to both the coffees’ sweetness and fruity characteristics.
Another important piece of the puzzle behind the superior quality of Kenyan coffees lies in their trading systems. Coffees are sold by the ‘lot’ in an auction that takes place each week at the auction house of the Nairobi Coffee Exchange (NCE) in central Nairobi. Each ‘lot’ of coffee consists of about ten to fifty bags that come from a designated zone. This system of lot division predates even the micro-milling revolution of Costa Rica.
Since this system has proven to be successful at properly rewarding producers of great coffee, there is more incentive for farmers to put in the effort and necessary investment required for producing top quality coffee.
This year, Paul travelled with Tim Wendelboe for the first time to a coffee growing region near Mt. Elgon in Western Kenya. This is an area that had been largely abandoned for thirty years. The coffee trees here grow completely unfertilised and are practically wild. Because of a lack of infrastructure, the few coffee farmers that persisted in the area often had to sell coffee illegally over the border to Uganda. With the help of exporter Dorman’s and farm management consultants CMS, the coffee producers of the region are now working towards re-establishing a sustainable coffee producing industry and producing coffees of the highest quality.
We purchased one lot from a cooperative in the region called Sasuri that is now in its second year of production. It will be exciting to see how these coffees from such a fledgling region evolve in coming years.
That’s it for our little journey into Kenya. We’ll be following up with some posts on the specific coffees that we’ve bought. Some of our Kenyan offerings are already roasted and ready, so check out our web store.