Kenya: Some Background. Some Current.

Fields of drying coffee
Fields of drying coffee

There’s no doubt: Kenya is an amazing coffee destination.

The promise of finding some of the most unique coffees in the world keeps us coming back year after year. The potential of finding perfection in a cup – coffees with powerful aromas, refreshing acidity, flavors of sweet berries, rich mouthfeel, finishing with a clean and lingering aftertaste – is what keeps us on our toes and constantly searching for more. As you know, perfection is elusive; most of the coffees from Kenya are not exactly like this.

My first visit of the season was in mid-December 2011 and I knew it was premature – that there wouldn’t be much to cup. But I also knew it was the perfect time, harvest time, to visit farms and chat with producers about husbandry and cherry picking processes. I also wanted to see the washing stations in full operation. I wanted a better understanding of how and why the coffees taste as great as they do.

At the time of my visit, the producers were overwhelmed with the high yields of the season and excited by the prospect of high prices. To give some background, this harvest has turned out to be more or less what it should be, given the fact that last year’s volumes were catastrophically low, which followed a poor harvest the year before that. With volumes 2.5-3 times more than 2010/2011, yields are back on track. Producer and washing station manager alike were convinced coffee quality would be better this year despite the high volume. This is due to more even cherry maturation, leading to better consistency and easier picking.

Laying cherry out
Laying cherry out

Last year’s rock bottom yields fortunately coincided with the highest prices seen in the Kenyan coffee trade over the past forty years. At least farmers were well paid for the little coffee they did have. Coinciding with record-breaking prices, we paid the very highest – $7.60 FOB Mombasa – for all our AA-lots last year. The washing stations that produce our coffee pride themselves on having some of the best-paid cherry producer members in the country. When I interviewed producers and cooperative managers in December about the situation this season, they acknowledged that the high prices of last year incentivized spending an unusual and disproportionate amount of money on more resources in the field: more fertilization and overall better preparation for the season to come. They were eager to thank buyers for paying such good prices last year. At the same time, they were anticipating the same high prices this coming season. As we now know, 2-12 months later, "the market has come down". NYC is at 220+/- this week, down from 320+ in February 2011.

This year’s harvest started late due to unexpected weather patterns during flowering season, followed by rain and cold while cherries were maturing, all resulting in a month’s delay in cherry picking.

Picking in the altitudes we buy our coffees from started in mid-October 2011 and harvest was well into its peak during my visit. As the harvest was very big, there could have been a lot of coffee made available for sampling and sale in mid-December, however, the cooperatives held back coffee, waiting out the market in an attempt to see if prices would return to previous levels. By the end of 2011, running into the beginning of 2012, a lot of well-rested coffees were being kept at the co-ops’ warehouses and were thus not being presented for sale. A bottle-neck-situation at the mill was inevitable…

All our coffees from Kenya are dry milled at the Central Kenya Coffee Mill (CKCM) in Karatina, Nyeri, after initial processing at the cooperative-owned washing stations. I went to CKCM for a couple of days in December and found a lot more coffee to cup than I had expected. Ernest, manager of quality control, roasting and the cupping room at the mill, knows our preferences and had prepared representative samples from previously favored washing stations, as well as samples from new acquaintances.

My notes from these cuppings: Karagoto - of Tekangu co-op - a constant winner. Even the very early pickings (November 1st) were stunningly complex and rich in body – characteristics we have experienced from previous years.

Tegu - of Tekangu co-op - keeping up with some good lots, but not as outstanding as in previous years.

Gatomboya - of Barichu co-op - some good lots, but the early right-out-of-the-drying-bin lots were not as expressive in fruit attributes as we are getting from current crop.

Kieni - of Mugaga co-op - a couple of interesting samples; enough to trigger our already established curiosity from last year.

Gichathaini, Kangocho, Ndaroini - all of Gikanda co-op - showed some promising super cleanliness, fruity sweetness and an elegance that piqued my interest and had me searching for more to cup.

There were other samples but these were not our “cups of coffee”.

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About the Current Visit The full picture of this season’s offerings remains to be seen but there is no time to waste! I have waited until the last minute to be able to taste as many coffees as possible and have started a process of booking the very best of the 300 samples we have been through this week so far.

At the time of writing, there are still quite few samples yet to be presented from the co-ops but whatever is out there now is up for grabs and is being sold – quite literally – off the sampling table. Timing is of the essence in green coffee buying these days.

Collaborative Roasters, unite! Stay tuned...