Earlier this month I had the opportunity to travel to Kenya (if you follow @coffeereview on Twitter you already know that.) Although the purpose of the trip was to attend the African Fine Coffee Conference and Exposition in Mombasa, I was able to spend a few days exploring coffee farms and processing facilities north of Nairobi. Whenever I travel to coffee producing countries I am always struck by the depth of expertise of the people involved in the business of coffee at origin. Not to say that those of us in coffee consuming countries are ignorant of the coffee production process but the level of detail is often misunderstood or simplified in an effort to make sense of a complex, multilayered system.
This “coffee safari” consisted of visits to several farms varying in size from the small plots of the 1500 member Iria-ini Framers Cooperative to an estate owned and managed by Sasini Limited, a business that is publicly traded on the Nairobi Stock Exchange. Each facility maintained their own wet mill, often processing coffee cherries from surrounding area farms in addition to their own. Raised tables for drying parchment and natural cherry ruled the day, a powerful visual statement that quality is taken seriously in this region. No matter the size, these farms go about their daily business in much the same way — growing, harvesting and processing coffee — but, as any student of coffee knows, the production process is complicated, and when we drilled down to the details interesting differences in philosophy revealed themselves. What varieties should be planted, how should coffee tress be pruned, how and what kind of fertilizers and mulch should be applied, how long should fermentation last, should it be wet or dry and what about water use practices? Every action has a reaction and each one has the potential to yield a unique result in the cup.
On the final day of the trip we transitioned from the wet mills to the dry, in this case the Thika Coffee Mill. Most small and medium sized growers do not undertake the task dry milling at the farm level because of the investment required for the specialized machinery needed to clean the coffee, remove the parchment from the beans and sort by size, density and color. The Thika Mill serves as a vital link that moves coffee from farmers in the foothills of Mt. Kenya down the chain to roasters throughout the world.
Our last stop, another link in the chain, was the Nairobi Coffee Exchange. Now managed by the Kenya Coffee Producers’ and Traders’ Association, the exchange remains the primary means of trading coffee in Kenya. Every Tuesday the exchange auctions hundreds of lots of coffees from all over Kenya, with set reserve prices so the growers are assured a base price that is acceptable to them. The sample room is a sight to behold, bag after bag after bag of green coffee, marked with identifying names, lot numbers, grades and amounts available. Each dealer who participates in the auction is allowed a 250 gram sample of the coffees. They are provided about two weeks to evaluate the coffees, ship samples to potential customers and determine a ceiling price they are willing to pay.
Once I had made my way to the port town of Mombasa, I joined a group to visit the warehousing, grading and cupping facilities of exporters Rashid Moledina & Company. This third generation coffee export company takes the extra step of grading coffee after purchasing it from the exchange, in an effort to refine lots of coffee for their customers. Through this web of millers, dealers, marketing agents, exporters and shippers coffee is traded from grower to roaster. This part of the supply chain is perhaps most misunderstood but without the individuals and organizations involved in this process the right coffee might not ever find the right buyer.