Kenyan Coffee Guide: Facts And Best Tips For Buying

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Kenyan Coffee

Kenyan coffee is highly esteemed by connoisseurs for its robust body and intricate, complex flavors. This acclaim isn’t coincidental. Kenyan farmers have numerous advantages at their disposal, ranging from optimal growing conditions to comprehensive research and trade strategies, all contributing to the consistent supply of premium Kenyan coffee beans.

Let’s explore further into the intricacies of Kenyan coffee production and its rich culture to understand what establishes this nation as one of the premier coffee-producing regions worldwide.

Contemporary Overview of Kenyan Coffee Production

Kenya’s coffee industry is celebrated as one of the most sophisticated in the world, thanks to a well-orchestrated cooperative system encompassing production, processing, milling, and marketing. The Nairobi Coffee Exchange stands at the heart of the trade, serving as the central auction system for Kenyan coffee. This, coupled with a strong coffee research foundation and the backing of the Coffee Board of Kenya, is widely recognized as pivotal to the country’s international acclaim in coffee production. Coffee cultivation was introduced to Kenya by the British in the early 20th century.

Today, Kenya ranks as the 16th largest coffee producer globally, with annual production reaching around 100 million tons. Interestingly, about 95% of this coffee is exported, as the domestic population traditionally prefers tea. It is estimated that Kenya has around 150,000 coffee growers, with the industry providing direct or indirect employment to up to six million people. The majority of the coffee comes from small-scale farms, with the rest produced on larger estates.

Despite the high value of the beans on the global market, Kenyan coffee farmers are among the poorest in the world. This has started to impact production, with yields declining in recent years as small-scale farmers succumb to socio-economic pressures. Additionally, coffee exports have been on a downward trend, partly due to the conversion of agricultural land for real estate development and the volatility of global coffee prices.

The Variety of Coffee Originating from Kenya

The majority of high-quality Kenyan coffee beans are of the Arabica variety, which is renowned for its superior flavor and high-quality coffee. This has significantly contributed to Kenya’s global recognition for producing exceptional gourmet coffee. The climatic and soil conditions in Kenya, featuring high altitudes and well-drained loamy soil, are perfect for cultivating Arabica beans. Meanwhile, robusta coffees are typically grown in other African countries such as Madagascar and Uganda.

In line with a growing global trend, Kenya has faced criticism for introducing new hybrid Arabica plants like the K7, which showcase improved resistance to coffee berry disease and coffee leaf rust. However, these new varieties often lack the intricate acidic subtleties associated with traditional classics.

Kenyan coffee beans are classified by their size, a process conducted on green coffee beans before roasting. The largest beans receive the Kenya E (elephant) grade, while the second-largest are labeled Kenya AA.

Kenya’s Most Renowned Coffee

The first coffee trees in Kenya were of the Bourbon variety, often called French Mission coffee due to their introduction by French missionaries.

Today, the most cherished Kenyan coffee beans are SL28 and SL34. These technical-sounding names are derived from Scott Labs (SL), a company hired by the Kenyan government in the 1930s to identify the most economically efficient coffee strains.

SL-34 is recognized for its bronze-tipped leaves, resistance to heavy rainfall, and suitability for lower elevation growth conditions. On the other hand, SL-28 is the star performer, offering an incredibly unique and complex tomato-like acidity. This unique attribute has led many to consider terroir as a contributing factor to its distinctive profile.

Key Coffee Cultivation Areas in Kenya

Kenyan coffee is cultivated in the nutrient-rich volcanic soil found on high plateaus, ranging between 1400 and 2000 meters above sea level. This fertile, loamy soil is ideal for growing Arabica beans. Currently, around 160,000 hectares of land are dedicated to coffee cultivation, divided between large plantations and small-scale growers. The distinctively vibrant flavors of Kenyan coffee are often attributed to the minimal shade on the farms.

The most significant and oldest coffee-growing regions are located in the central highlands surrounding Mount Kenya, including areas like Nyeri, the Aberdare Range, Thika, Kirinyaga, and Nakuru. Coffee is also cultivated, albeit on a smaller scale, in the western regions of Nyanza, Bungoma, and Kisii near Mt. Elgon, and in the Taita hills on the southeast coast.

Processing Techniques

Only perfectly ripe red coffee cherries are handpicked, with meticulous care taken to discard any damaged or diseased fruit. The majority of Kenyan coffee undergoes wet processing, a method that typically results in a cleaner, brighter, and fruitier cup. This well-established protocol across the country ensures a consistently high-quality product.

The beans are subjected to a lengthy fermentation process, lasting up to 36 hours, to remove the slimy, sugary coating. Following this, they are sun-dried and subsequently sent for milling.

The Flavor Profile of Kenyan Coffee

Kenyan coffee beans are recognized globally as some of the finest, renowned for their full-bodied nature, balanced complexity, and rich depth. They often carry a savory-sweet undertone, which experts liken to a wine-like acidity. The high-altitude volcanic soils where these beans are grown contribute to their high acidity, a trait highly sought after by coffee enthusiasts.

Kenyan beans have a medium to full body that imparts a bold flavor and a lingering juiciness on the palate. Depending on the bean varietal, the tasting notes of Kenyan coffee span from black currant berries to tangy citrus. They offer a clean cup, a floral aroma, and a unique tropical taste that’s adored by many connoisseurs.

Brewing Kenyan Coffee

The method of brewing Kenyan coffee can vary based on the specific qualities of the single-origin coffee you wish to highlight. Here are a few favored methods:

Steeping methods are often the best to truly appreciate the subtle nuances and delightful aroma of Kenyan coffee. A French Press or an Aeropress are excellent tools for this purpose. It’s recommended to grind the beans slightly finer and brew stronger than standard to accentuate the bright and acidic character of the beans.

Kahawa Chungu is a traditional Kenyan coffee, usually enjoyed by older Swahili men. It’s typically brewed over a charcoal stove in a tall brass kettle and gains its distinct bitterness from the addition of spices like ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. It’s often served with dates or other sweet treats to balance out the bitterness.

Kenyan beans are also considered ideal for cold brew coffee, a method that retains the floral and fruity notes while tempering the acidity. The process involves steeping coarsely ground coffee in cold water for 18 to 24 hours, followed by straining out the grounds.

Roasting Kenyan Coffee

Kenyan coffee beans are versatile, responding well to a range of roasts, although most roasters lean towards a light to medium roast. Each classification (Kenya AA, AB, Peaberry) reacts differently to heat, but their relative density makes them quite forgiving during the roasting process.

When roasting Kenyan beans, the goal is to highlight the sweet fruity acidity and the creamy or juicy mouthfeel. Slower drying during the roasting process enhances the sweetness and develops the desired mouthfeel. After roasting, it’s advisable to let the beans rest for at least two days to bring out their inherent sweetness.

Enjoy Your Coffee

Kenyan coffee enjoys worldwide acclaim, thanks to the high-elevation and loamy volcanic soils optimal for growing Arabica beans. Coupling these natural resources with an advanced system for growth, production, and distribution, Kenya has maximized its coffee potential. As external factors begin to impact production in the region, it’s a good time to savor this luxury product.