Coffee Article: Coffees From Kenya

September 2011

Still Tops: Coffees of Kenya
by Kenneth Davids; Reviews by Kenneth Davids with Justin Johnson

Generally the central highlands of Kenya produce some of the most complex and subtly distinctive coffees in the world. There are a few other coffee origins/types that may be more distinctive, meaning more different from the sensory norm for coffee: Ethiopia Yirgacheffes, the very finest traditional Sumatras, the small but growing volume of coffee produced in Panama from trees of the Gesha variety. But the best Kenyas display a character than is at once distinctive and recognizable in its intense but sweet acidity and pungent fruit notes (grapefruit, strawberry, black currant), yet various in detail. In some, for example, a wine-like nuance emerges; in others a floral note that can range from lush and lilyish to crisp and lavender-like.

Of the forty-one Kenyas we sampled for this month’s article, over 50%, or twenty-one, attracted scores of 90 or higher, and thirteen (all reviewed here) rated 92 or higher. However, it turns out that quite a few Kenyas are not particularly distinctive. Many that we cupped for this article came across as pleasant high-grown East Africa coffees, but without the distinctively pungent Kenya fruit and intense but sweet acidity. And a few turned up that simply were not very good coffees by any criteria: mildly to heavily tainted, probably from moisture damage during drying.

Predicting a Good Kenya: Starting with Price

These mixed results suggest that the Kenya name on the package or website alone is not enough to assure a superior coffee. How are consumers likely to know before brewing whether they are buying one of the more distinctive, brightly exotic Kenyas as opposed to one of the more ordinary?

We sorted through the forty-one Kenyas we cupped using two simple criteria to see whether these criteria would net useful pre-purchase generalizations that could be used to anticipate quality in a Kenya.

Regrettably, one of the clearest distinguishing criteria was price. Assuming readers can more or less trust our ratings, the higher the retail price the better the Kenya. This has not always been true with other origins we have tested, but it did appear to apply to these forty-one Kenyas. The nineteen coffees rating 90 or over for which we found retail prices averaged $1.54 per dry ounce. Coffees rated between 85 and 89 for which we found prices averaged a much lower $1.02 per ounce. Of the six coffees rated 84 or lower, the two we found prices for averaged $0.78 per dry ounce.

This price-to-distinction curve is probably clearer for Kenya coffees than for coffees from many other origins because most green or unroasted Kenya coffees continue to be sold at auction in Nairobi following a system that over the decades has proven to be a very effective mechanism for linking price and distinction. Lots of coffees from cooperatives are tendered for auction and a few days later, after exporters (and in some cases their clients) have had an opportunity to cup them, are sold at auction. Exporters may bid on behalf of clients or on their own behalf. This system undoubtedly has had a positive impact on quality over the years, and Kenya green coffee prices generally are among the highest in the world (setting aside the irrationally myth-driven prices for Jamaica Blue Mountain and Kona), though members of Kenya cooperatives continue to complain that they are being underpaid for their efforts, as they probably are.

The SL28/SL34 Criterion

A second indicator for quality in Kenya coffee is botanical variety of Arabica. It increasingly has been clear to those of us who cup Kenya coffees on a regular basis that the traditional varieties of Arabica most widely grown in Kenya, SL28 and SL34, tend to produce more distinctive-tasting coffees than coffees produced from newer more disease-resistant hybrid varieties like the widely grown Ruiru 11. I am not writing about quality here, because quality can be defined simply as freedom from taint contributed by careless picking and processing. The best India wet-processed Robustas are among the highest quality coffees in the world if we only judge on the basis of freedom from taint. Nor am I arguing that older varieties of Arabica inevitably taste more distinctive than newer varieties, or that varieties created decades or centuries ago by selection necessarily are more distinctive than varieties created recently by deliberate hybridization. Typica, one of the coffee world’s oldest widely grown varieties, definitely does not produce a distinctive cup, whereas Pacamara, a recent hybrid, does. But it is abundantly clear that SL28 and SL34, as they have naturalized in the highlands of Kenya, are linked to the distinctive pungent, complex fruit character we associate with the finest Kenya coffee.

So look for some indication on the package that the Kenya you are considering buying was produced from trees of the SL28 and/or SL34 varieties. When we matched variety to rating for the forty-one Kenyas we cupped, we found that coffees indicated as having been produced entirely or mainly from trees of the SL28 and SL34 varieties averaged a rating of 91, whereas coffees from the hybrid Ruiru 11, or (as was more often the case) coffees for which no variety was listed, averaged 87. For the skeptical, keep in mind that we establish detailed ratings for each sample before we identify it or learn anything specific about it.

Caveats and Details: Variety, Estates and Cooperatives, Processing

There are some caveats in regard to variety, however. Kenya coffee authorities are currently promoting a new highly disease-resistant hybrid called Batian which they claim (based apparently on one set of tests by two panels) cups more attractively than a test sample of SL28. It will be awhile before we see much of this new variety appearing on specialty coffee lists, but we definitely will see it, given the glowing descriptions provided by Kenyan coffee authorities who claim an almost otherworldly combination of high yields, strong disease resistance and distinctive cup quality and character for their new baby. I hope Batian does turn out a success both for producers and consumers. But, for now, look for SL28 and SL34.

Other details: Two of this month’s high-rated samples, the Strongtree Kenya Kiaora Estate (94) and the Victrola Kenya Chania Estate Natural (92) fell into separate categories in several respects. Both were produced from trees of the Bourbon variety, a variety that shares the pungent/sweet fruit character of SL28 and SL34 and is one of the presumed progenitors of those varieties. Both the Strongtree and Victrola Kenyas also are atypical because they were produced by larger farms or estates rather than by the cooperatives of small holders that produced our other high-rated Kenyas. Both also were most likely sold through channels outside the auction system. Finally, the Strongtree is an organically grown coffee, unusual in Kenya where chemicals are in common, if discreet, use, while the Victrola Chania Estate is a lushly fruit-toned, dried-in-the-fruit “natural” coffee, also unusual in Kenya, where traditional and meticulous wet-processing is overwhelmingly the norm.

Read Beyond the Ratings

If you select coffees from our reviews, keep in mind that differences in character may be more important to you than one or two rating points. These are all splendid coffees, but all display subtle but quite distinct differences. Take time to read the fine print. Also, given that we limit the number of coffees we actually review to between eight and fifteen, I thought it would be appropriate to offer an “honor roll” of other fine Kenyas from this month’s cupping we rated 90 through 91 but did not review.

Allegro Coffee, Kenya Grand Cru (91); Coffea Roasterie, Kenya Ndimaini (91); Stauf’s Coffee Roasters, Kenya AA Full City (91); Caribou Coffee, Kenya Karibu (91); 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters, Kenya Kangocho (91); Green Mountain Coffee, Kenyan Highland Cooperatives Fair Trade (90); SpecialtyJava.com, Kenya AA Githongo (90); Four Barrel Coffee, Kenya Murang’a (90).