Date: March 1999

Column/Title: Kenyas and Other East Africas

Author: Ken Davids

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Specialty coffee professionals tend to be protective of Kenya. For one thing, it remains the world's single most consistent source of superlative coffee. And Kenya is superlative in the particular ways American specialty professionals define superlative: alive with the dry, vibrant sensation called acidity, fruity without cloying sentiment, big and resonant.Furthermore, most specialty folks admire the Kenya auction system. You don't cut deals for Kenya coffee. You compete for specific lots of coffee at open auction. The highest bidder takes the lot. No matter if the highest bidder is a smallish roaster in the Midwest or a massive conglomerate. The system is simple and transparent, and the big guys can't use volume or other incentives to bully smaller customers out of a market or wrap up an entire production, as Starbucks does with certain farms and mills in Central America. If you pay the best price, you get your coffee.

Finally, the auction system puts emphasis on the actual quality of the coffee at a given moment, rather than on the name of the farm or the mill that produced it. If a Kenya cooperative produces a good coffee one year and a poor quality coffee another year, auction prices will reflect that shift in quality. Roasters value this system, not only because it rewards cup quality in a very direct way, but because it puts the buyer in control rather than the seller or grower. Roasters tend to resent coffee origins that sell at high prices primarily because of name recognition. They feel that they have no choice but to offer certain famous-name coffees, even if the quality in a given year doesn't live up to the coffee's reputation.

All of this tenderness about Kenyas probably contributed to the general unease about this cupping. Some of our board members feared that holding the cupping several months after the peak delivery time for Kenyas might mean tired or faded coffees, for example. And many complained that tasting Kenyas at the relatively light degree of roast often used for cupping purposes might overemphasize Kenya's high-grown acidity at the expense of balance and completeness.

In all of the board comments I felt a deep concern that Kenya, the most precious jewel in the specialty tiara, might not only tumble out of its setting, but bust up like glass on the pavement. After all, there have been plenty of recent plantings of the dreaded new Kenya hybrid coffee variety Ruiru 11. Perhaps this would be the year that the Ruiru 11 effect finally would hit, and Kenya would begin a sad decline toward the same mediocrity that has overtaken other origins under the impact of widespread planting of technified hybrid coffee varieties.

No reason to worry, at least not yet. Even given the usual Coffee Review caveat -- this is one set of coffees, arbitrarily chosen from one crop, and not to be mistaken for a comprehensive or eternal judgement about an entire origin -- Kenya remained glistening triumphant at the top of the specialty tiara. We included four coffees from other Africa origins in the cupping along with the Kenyas -- one from Zambia and three from Zimbabwe. Although these coffees fared better than many other origins we've cupped, they came nowhere near to attracting the ratings and praise elicited by the Kenyas.

Just by the numbers, the Kenyas averaged a score of 84, to an average of 80 for the Hawaiian Konas we cupped in April 1998, to 78 for the Guatemalas in July 1997, to 77 for the three Zimbabwes in this cupping, to 74+ for the El Salvadors in September 1997. Although an average score of 84 out of 100 may not seem high, it most definitely is: by far the highest collective score for any of our origin cuppings. And the 88 scored by the Kenya AA Gaturi exceeds, if only slightly, the 87 rating for the previous champion, the 1997-98 crop Guatemala La Tacita.

Of course I have no way of knowing whether the majority of American specialty consumers share the panelists' admiration for the Kenya profile. Many American coffee drinkers seem to prefer a rounder, gentler cup to the big, acidy coffees from either Kenya or Central America. Nevertheless, I don't think we can attribute the high ratings for the Kenyas purely to the bright acidity and dry fruit tones that god and altitude bestowed on them. There is also the contribution of people and culture, in this case, impeccable sorting, processing and drying. The taints and defects associated with careless processing or drying that marred some of the coffees in other cuppings hardly surfaced with these Kenyas. Only the seven Hawaii Konas the board cupped in 1998 came close to matching the record for clean, consistent preparation established by these Kenyas.

And, since Kenyas and Konas both are among the world's highest-priced origins, there may be a message here for farmers and mill owners in other parts of the world. Perhaps the near flawless preparation of Kenyas and Konas, over the long run, has contributed more to their prominence than the other factors that people like to cite, like Kona's vacation-land romance and Kenya's high-grown acidity. Maybe, over the long run, care and passion for quality really does count in determining price, no matter what the altitude of your farm or how often general coffee prices yo-yo.

At any rate, coffee lovers should remain reassured that, judging from this sampling of some of the best of the 1998 crop, Kenya retains its candidacy as the world's finest coffee origin.

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