Kenya: The Final (for now) Word

Before we get into the following, I want to make note that much of the previous two posts, as well as what will follow in this one, is necessarily detailed. We are being detailed in an effort to be transparent. Transparency doesn’t just have to do with prices; the buying process is complex and has been unnecessarily vague to those not buying coffee on the ground. We’re changing things. So when you read these posts, much of the information on buying process goes for all the origins we work with.


Cupping for potential is something we do a lot. We have to. Some coffees are fantastic when they are fresh, but some do not express their best attributes at the time of first cupping – it’s simply too early. Sometimes coffee is presented right off the drying bed and is so fresh it expresses in ways that may not follow-through in later cuppings. It can go either way. Sometimes the coffee will become even better than during the initial cupping, sometimes worse. At origin, coffee is usually stored in parchment up until the moment it will be cupped, or is sent for cupping. The process of preparing a sample is an important process but just as important is knowing/understanding what one is assessing when tasting a sample. For example, is the coffee a representation of everything in the lot, is it a screened representation of what is being offered, or is it a readily prepared coffee? We sometimes talk about the taste of parchment in a coffee: how fresh it is, as well as how and when it was hulled. These things matter. As an example, a slight upward variance in moisture content (i.e. coffee that has not sufficiently rested after drying and has too high a moisture content), combined with being stored in a tight plastic bag in a warm environment, right after parchment is taken off, will affect the resulting flavor profile, whatever the coffee’s inherent qualities were.

Some Notes on Screen Quality

During my visit to Central Kenya Coffee Mill (CKCM) in February 2011, the floor at the warehouse was barely littered with coffee bags. This year, the warehouse is filled to the roof. There has been a serious congestion of coffee coming into the CKCM mill from the cooperatives. Coffee has been kept in parchment and was theoretically ready to be milled in early January. The parchment coffee is "resting" in open bins and while they are under a roof, they are still exposed to moisture from outside air. Due to the unusually high volume of coffees that were processed and dried in December, and because of rains in the Nyeri district in mid-late December, coffees may have been put in resting bins prematurely. In any case, at the time of delivery to CKCM it was also discovered that there was a need to re-dry some lots under open sun. Re-drying is okay, but it can also damage the coffee if it has not been properly dried in the first place. This has been an issue all over Nyeri this year. Last week while at the tasting lab in Nairobi, I tasted some parchment samples (i.e. samples taken from a lot that is then hulled but not screened). All bean sizes are present within this kind of sample. However, I mostly tasted samples of AA, AB, PB grades – these are coffees that have already been milled, screened and are ready to be packed and shipped. I even had the opportunity to taste comparative parchment samples of AA, AB, PB screenings from the same factories: Karagoto, Tegu, Ngunguru. This provided a pretty good picture of what is going on at these places. The coffees I liked best had outturn numbers (i.e. an identifying number given to a coffee lot when it arrives at CKCM that tells us what stage in the harvest it is from) from weeks 15 to 20 (Week 1 begins October 1st) – different samples of lots from the same factory. It is fascinating to taste how different coffees from the same place can be everything from awesome to just plain awful.

And Without Further Ado… Tasting Notes!

KARAGOTO AA I have tasted at least a dozen Karagotos and with some reasoning, I would guess that the lot we ended up choosing (from outturn week 17CK) is from, more or less, the same outturn as the ones I tasted in December 2011. These were picked and processed in the very beginning of November. Our experience with Tekangu coffees over the last five years is that the earlier pickings are the better ones.

Cupping notes: Intense aroma with floral notes. Sweetness, as if from well-matured fruits, a well integrated acidity, clear berry attributes. A full-bodied mouthfeel and juicy aftertaste.

TEGU We have passed on buying at this stage. The tastings in December proved a little disappointing, generally due to weaker intensity and more anonymous attributes; particularly in comparison to sister factories, Karagoto and Ngunguru, which to me are STELLAR this year. However, we will continue to cup samples from Tegu from newer pickings/millings as the season proceeds. We are hoping for great stuff and if we find any, those lots will come in the next shipment. For now, we will not buy Tegu just because of its (well-deserved) fame. It has to prove delicious too, baby!

NGUNGURU AA, AB, PB We are getting a lot of Ngunguru this year, which is an absolute pleasure. Interestingly, the various screen qualities, as well as varying stages in the season (outturn weeks 15CK to 20CK) show beautiful nuance/complexity in character. Overall greatness in this coffee. The earlier pickings showed more complexity and balance; newer pickings show fresher acidity and transparency.

Cupping notes: Intensely floral aromas. Good sweetness, crisp and well pronounced acidity, distinct flavors of red currant (AA), fresh peach (AB), and darker berries (PB). Clean and elegant mouthfeel with a lingering aftertaste.

KANGOCHO AB, KIENI AB, KARATINA AB, GATOMBOYA AB I have chosen these AB lots, some from earlier pickings in the season (outturn week 16CK), some from later pickings (outturn weeks 19CK & 20CK). All express what I find to be desirable and classic attributes.

Cupping notes: Intensely sweet and heavy aromas. Sweetness and flavors as if from sun-matured blackberries, with an acidity giving it spine and strong character. Velvety mouthfeel with a soft and lasting aftertaste.

Acidity junkies are raving in Kenya. The question is: how much and what kind of acidity one wants in the coffee, rather than whether one can find it. We'll work hard to get these Kenya lots in quick and fresh this year so you roasters can have all the acidity you wish to play with. Look for a well prepared, vacuum-packed and clean selection. Get in line for some Kenyan awesomeness!

- Robert