Coffees of Kenya: Still Struggling, Still Great
I'm often asked for my opinion on the world's best coffee. Not a particularly informed question, but once it's clear that my questioner is asking for the name of a country rather than for the name of a farm or cooperative, I respond that the world's most reliably good coffee comes from Kenya. I hasten to offer additional caveats: great coffees come from all countries, Kenya is too acidy for espresso, etc., but at that point the questioner's eyes typically glaze and we move on to something else. Amazingly, Kenya's coffees continue to shine despite a cascade of problems: recent social and political disorders that threatened Kenya's very existence as a country; chronic charges of corruption in the coffee sector; a confused move away from the discipline of an auction system to a more open market. Nevertheless, some of the finest coffees I cupped from last year's crop were Kenyas.
What about this year? We cupped twenty-two Kenyas from sixteen roasting companies. Almost all were new crop, just arrived in roaster warehouses.
Considerable Excitement; Some Disappointment
These were almost uniformly fine coffees in the Kenya style: high-grown and brilliantly acidy, complex and distinctive. Only one sample among the twenty-two displayed a shadow of a taint. Many, including the nine reviewed here, were not only distinctively Kenyan, but distinctively different in the Kenya style, exciting variations on a classic theme. However, I confess that I was greedily hoping for still more excitement: a sample or two soaring definitively above the rest, lifted by a transcendent, perhaps lucky, combination of singularity and perfection. With most other origins I would not harbor such grandiose expectations, but Kenya invites them. It is possible that some of the samples were a bit too fresh, and will benefit from a month or two more in the warehouse, allowing the acidity to soften, fully releasing the aromatic complexity from the dampening impact of a slight astringency. With a handful of other samples, not reviewed here, the acidity was rather dull and allowed the profile sag, suggesting that in these cases we were cupping last year's crop.
The Ruiru 11 Bogeyman
I hope that none of my mild disappointment was provoked by the shadowy threat specialty coffee buyers have feared for years. The hybrid variety Ruiru 11, like similar hybrids developed in Colombia and India, is a sophisticated effort to combine the disease-resistance of robusta with the positive cup character of traditional local Arabica varieties - in the case of Kenya, the famous SL28. I have absolutely no experience directly cupping Ruiru 11 against SL28 grown in comparable circumstances, so I am in no position to make generalizations. I can only report that several of the samples we cupped this month (not reviewed here) displayed the signs of a well-constructed modern hybrid: Sturdy but simple, good acidity, body and balance, yet lacking that little something more, the aromatic and flavor nuance that in my experience derives ultimately from a distinguished ancestry on the part of the trees that produce the coffee.
The Kenya Note: AKA Black Currant
It seems very likely that the distinctive flavor note of exceptional Kenya coffees, a shifting and complex dry fruit sensation often described as black currant, derives from SL28 and related Kenya varieties that are descendents of the heirloom Bourbon. This dry fruit note appears in varying guises in Bourbon and Bourbon-derived varieties all over the world, though it does not appear inevitably under all conditions and terroirs. I certainly have cupped coffees ostensibly from Bourbon trees that do not exhibit this note. But it does appear that the bourbon-related SL28 variety grown in the context of central Kenya tends to manifest this note with particular consistency and elegance. It is a sensation difficult to describe but easily identified once experienced. Pungent yet fruity, dry yet juicy, it sometimes resembles fresh black currant, but for me more often reads as a complex mix of pungent cedar and sweet purple-fleshed fruit (blackberry or black cherry). The fruit can lean toward ripe orange or grapefruit, or take on a distinct light red wine nuance. The floral notes that turn up in many fine Arabicas often float deliciously over the dry berry.
This month we had several samples that displayed variants on this flavor complex. Typically I did not use the term "black currant" in my descriptions because it feels too specific, a shorthand descriptor that undervalues the complexity and variety of the sensation. Look for combinations of terms like cedar, pungent, dry berry, red wine, orange. I tried to use these terms carefully, in an attempt to unlock some of the variants of this note for interested readers.
Names, Cooperatives and Auctions
Although the word "Estate" appears in many of the coffee descriptions, it is unlikely that any of the outstanding Kenyas reviewed this month were grown on large farms of the kind typically called estates. In most cases they were produced by cooperatives of small growers, sold at state-sponsored auction on the basis of cup character alone, and identified after sale by the name of the cooperative "factory" or mill where they were processed.
Many observers argue that the discipline of the Kenya auction system with its emphasis on immediate cup character rather than name or history is one reason for the enduring quality of Kenya coffee. However, Kenya is now opening the market to direct sales between buyers and producers, owing in part to past complaints that coffee authorities were skimming money from auction proceeds. Nevertheless, it appears to me that most if not all of the extraordinary coffees reviewed this month were sold through the traditional auction system, with its anonymous linking of cup character and price.