One thing that can be said about this month’s survey of 32 Kenya coffees from 26 specialty roasters is that the good samples — and there were many — were not just exceptional, but exceptional in a thoroughly Kenyan way. In fact, the 23 Kenya samples that rated 90 or better often provoked rather repetitive key descriptors: deep, pungent, sweetly tart; black currant, dark chocolate, various citrus notes, hints of flowers.
Distinctive coffee origins like Kenya don’t so much display single dominating notes as they do dominating tendencies. These sensory tendencies may be shifting and complex, yet are generally recognizable. They are a set of possibilities that individual coffees riff on.
You could say that this month’s best Kenyas, particularly those reviewed here at 92 or better, all express in varying ways a sort of paradox, a simultaneous lush seduction and invigorating challenge. The seduction comes in the depth, the sweetness, the chocolate, the hints of flowers, the smooth mouthfeel and general balance. The challenge comes somewhere in the heart of a pungent, twisty, sometimes dry, sometimes tart fruit. The favorite descriptor in the coffee industry for the pungent/sweet fruit characteristic of fine Kenyas is “black currant,” a reference to the piquant-tasting berry most often encountered in jams, in crème de cassis liqueur and as an element in savory-sweet sauces. In fine Kenyas, the black currant can be the center of a constellation that includes sweet tomato notes and various citrus suggestions like tangerine and blood orange. Complicating the black currant constellation may be savory-tending herb- and incense-like hints.
This paradox of sweet seduction and invigorating pungency is what makes classic Kenyas particularly attractive to aficionados and dedicated black coffee drinkers, less so perhaps to casual coffee drinkers. Nevertheless, there is plenty of seduction in all of this month’s reviewed coffees, starting with the very distinctive, yet balanced and complete, Giv COFFEE Embu Gakui Peaberry and Willoughby’s Kenya AA Kigwandi Estate, both topping this month’s ratings at 95.
No Dumbing-Down this Year
True, some of the Kenyas we cupped for this month’s article were riffing on a different tune — you could call it the tune of general high-grown Arabica mediocrity. In some cases the character of the coffee seemed muted by careless roasting, but in other cases it appeared that the green coffee was simply an ordinary, rather simple, high-grown washed coffee without much character of any kind, including Kenya character. This is the great bogeyman for Kenya lovers, of course: that the planting of new high-yielding, disease-resistant hybrids like the sinister-sounding Ruiru 11 and the more recently developed Batian, plus potential labor-saving shortcuts in the generally flawless Kenya processing methods, may turn one of the world’s great and distinctive coffee origins into just another shrinking source of decent but characterless high-grown Arabica.
However, whether owing to stubborn adherence to tradition on the part of aging Kenya producers, or the continuing effectiveness of a Kenya auction system designed to reward quality and distinction, or the knowledge and determination of exporters and importers coupled with savvy sourcing from the best small American roasting companies, there was not much sign — if any — of the widely anticipated dumbing-down of Kenya among the samples in this month’s testing.
The SL28 and SL34 Factor
It’s even possible that the fear of Ruiru 11 has been exaggerated by specialty-coffee buyers. On the other hand, the distinctive and crucial character of the old, Bourbon-derived, Kenya-naturalized SL28 and SL34 varieties appears to be supported by this cupping. Nearly all of the high-rated samples tested for this month’s article were attributed mainly to trees of these two celebrated varieties, though often with an admission that there was also a little Ruiru 11 in the mix. Prompted by the recent interest among producers worldwide in exploring distinctive-tasting coffee varieties, SL28 has been planted elsewhere in the coffee world, although not enough of it has reached the market to judge how well it maintains its character in terroirs other than those in south-central Kenya. We did review an SL28 sample from the Kona region of Hawaii (Hula Daddy Laura’s Reserve SL28, December 2014) which cupped very much like a fine Kenya and attracted a stellar rating of 94.
On the other hand, one top-rated coffee among those reviewed here came from a mix of varieties, none of which was SL28 or SL34. The 92-rated Abundancia Kenya Blue Mountain Ruita I AA also was unusual in a couple of other respects: It came from the little-known Kisii or Gusii growing district in southwestern Kenya, near Lake Victoria, and was imported and roasted for the American market in Portland by a Kenyan farming family. Not only are most of the high-rated Kenyas we review produced from trees of the SL28 and SL34 varieties, but virtually all also come from the traditional growing regions in south-central Kenya, roughly in the area between Nairobi and Mt. Kenya. Interestingly, despite its difference from more typical fine Kenyas in regard to both traditional variety and terroir, this Kenya, though more gently stated than most of the others to which we assigned high ratings, still showed clear Kenya character, including a rather explicit black currant note.