Coffees from Africa and Arabia : Kenya

Of all contemporary coffee origins, Kenya is doubtless the most universally admired. Coffee-growing came late to this mainly tea-drinking nation, introduced in 1900 by the British. When the Kenyans achieved independence they structured their coffee industry with what, in retrospect, seems admirable foresight. They maintained a technically sophisticated research establishment, made use of the most advanced techniques in fruit removal and drying, developed efficiently run cooperatives of small holders, and organized their export industry around an open auction.

The auction system in particular may be the key to Kenya’s coffee success. The buyer who offers the highest price for a given lot of coffee at the weekly government-run auction gets that coffee. No insider deals can be cut. Samples of lots of coffee up for auction are distributed to licensed exporters, who evaluate them and distribute them to their customers for their evaluation. The exporters bid for the coffees based on their own evaluations and on the preferences of their customers.

This simple, transparent system tends to reward higher quality with higher prices. Kenya coffee also has the advantage of consistently high growing altitudes and whatever imponderables of soil and climate contribute to the heady fruit and wine tones that embellish the best East Africa and Arabia coffees.

The main growing area stretches south from the slopes of 17,000-foot Mt. Kenya almost to the capital, Nairobi. There is a smaller coffee-growing region on the slopes of Mt. Elgon, on the border between Uganda and Kenya. Most Kenya coffee sold in specialty stores appears to come from the central region around Mt. Kenya and is sometimes qualified with the name of the capital city, Nairobi. Grade designates the size of the bean; AA is largest, followed by A and B.

The Kenya Cup. Kenya is both the most balanced and the most complex of coffee origins. A powerful, wine-toned acidity is wrapped in sweet fruit. Although the body is typically medium in weight, Kenya is almost always deeply dimensioned. Sensation tends to ring on, resonating like a bellclap rather than making its case to the palate and standing pat. Some Kenyas display dry, berryish nuances, others citrus tones. The berry-toned Kenyas are particularly admired by some coffee buyers. Finally, Kenya coffees are almost always clean in the cup. Few display the shadow defects and off-tastes that often mar coffees from other origins.

Like many origins, Kenya is under fire from specialty buyers for introducing new hybrid varieties of coffea arabica that successfully resist disease but, according to the buyers, do not taste as good as the older hybrid varieties, like SL28, on which the Kenya coffee industry was built. Perhaps the criticism is particularly intense in the case of Kenya because we fear losing one of specialty coffee’s greatest treasures.