Exploring the Time-Honored Coffee Traditions of Kenya

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You sip it… On your tongue, you feel the extra-ordinary taste, and wonder…where does it come from? Kenya. That is the name you hear or read on the package.

Though quite close to the coffee-birth country (Ethiopia), it wasn’t until late in 1893 when Kenya began the cultivation of coffee. However, it began started under tremendous restrictions by the British colonizers.

Only a few Africans were allowed to cultivate the crop, with restrictions extending as far as to how many plants one was to grow, and that they were never to consume the coffee as a beverage directly.  

Today the country rides on fame as one of the best coffee producers in the world—mainly cultivating the Arabica type. 

The production system is largely cooperative—consisting of small-scale farmers who work together to produce, process, market, and auction their produce.

Put together with large coffee estates, the number (of coffee growers in the country) comes to 2,691; with most farms comprising of 50-500 trees.

Coffee Growing in Kenya

As the saying goes everything is a perfect product of its environment—and so it is with coffee.

On the rich volcanic soils on the foothills of the Aberdare Ranges and the slopes of the snowy Mt. Kenya, you find Kenya’s green coffee.

The crop of primarily Arabica beans is grown at high elevations of between 3,000-6,000 ft. (below the frost line) thus qualifying it for Strictly High Grown (SHG)/ Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) status.

The high altitude essentially implies that Kenyan coffee grows slowly, allowing adequate time to develop and offer lots of the vital nutrients to the coffee bean. 

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The Rich Tasting Notes

With a full-body, bold acidity, and potent fruit sweetness, Kenya coffee is referred to as the “Connoisseurs cup”—widely sought-after by specialty coffee drinkers and buyers.

It’s powerful and full of character with very distinctive flavors; which is why it’s classified among the world’s best coffees.

But it goes without saying that if you see great, shiny, or admirable stuff, know that there is great craftsmanship involved.

To ensure the consistent production of good-tasting coffee, much more comes into play—in addition to the rich volcanic soils found on the nation’s highlands.

Just as you very well know, coffee is a fruit. And like many other fruits, its cherries grow on trees…

Essentially implying that the climate, type of soil, cultivation methods used, and the altitude play a vital role in determining the flavor of the coffee beans.

In the wine industry, they refer to this concept as terroir—the distinguishing factor of which wine is produced where. The same applies to coffee, as it’s also quite sensitive to terroir.

And, naturally, Kenya happens to exhibit the perfect coffee growing conditions.

Kenya’s Perfect Coffee Growing Conditions

Here are a few reasons why this African nation provides optimal growing conditions for java beans.

1. Rich volcanic soil

Partly, Kenya sits on the Great Rift Valley, therefore, benefiting from the unusually fertile soils resulting from the active volcano.

The relatively “young” volcanic soil is extensively rich in mineral nutrients responsible for flavor enhancement in coffee.

The nutrient-rich soil also allows the crop to grow naturally without necessarily having to heavily rely on additional fertilizers and the use of pesticides, as is the case with monoculture farming.

2. High altitude

As mentioned earlier, Kenyan coffee is grown at higher elevations of over 5,000 ft. This is done intentionally to allow it to develop its greatly admired complex flavors.

The low oxygen levels and cooler temperatures on such high altitudes slow down the crop’s growth, therefore, enriching the beans with a more concentrated flavor—the desired sweet, floral, and fruity flavors.

3. Unique varietals

Just like with wine, the term “varietal” here means all the various types of coffee that can be produced from one type of coffee bean. 

Kenyan coffee is purely Arabica beans that consist of five different varietals, namely…

  • SL 28 – thrives in medium to high elevations, where there is not much of coffee leaf rust problem.
  • SL 34 – grows best at higher elevations with adequate rainfall. 
  • K7 – though not quite flavored as the SL-28 and SL-34, this newer varietal has the advantage of disease resistance. 
  • Ruiru 11 – thrives at all elevations plus it’s resistant to coffee leaf rust and coffee berry disease. 
  • Batian – yields best at high altitudes, exhibits good cup profile, and quite resistant to diseases. 

…Though the SL-28 and SL-34 are the special and most popular varieties due to their concentrated flavors.

The flavors are only possible in the Kenyan terroir—as other coffee-growing nations have tried nurturing them (the flavors) with no success.

Blended with curated harvesting and processing systems, all the above-mentioned factors—from the terroir to the coffee varietals—work together to ensure the consistent production of richly flavored coffee by Kenya.

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Harvesting 

Generally, Kenya’s coffee crops begin flowering in March and April—after the rains commence.

The coffee fruit ripens beginning May to July; then again in September and October. However, most of Kenya’s coffee fruits ripen from October to December.

Once prime for harvest, the farmers carefully handpick the ripe (red) cherries and sort out those with defects, in preparation for processing.

And since the cherries don’t ripen all at once, they (the farmers) faithfully return to the same coffee tree(s) thrice in every growing season to manually execute the process over again.

Compared to countries with mechanized production systems, the Kenyan harvesting system appears quite time-consuming and labor-intensive; however, yields the desired robust flavors and is one of the secrets the nation holds for its consistent production of high-quality coffee.

Processing

The majority of Kenyan coffee is wet-processed—a method that utilizes a substantial amount of water and specialized equipment.

The coffee also undergoes double-fermentation to enrich it with the unique flavors that you’ll eventually taste when the beans are roasted.

It’s during the fermentation process that the mucilage (the slimy sugary coating) which remains on the seeds/beans is removed. 

The coffee is then sun-dried on drying tables and turned over occasionally to obtain the rich bluish color—famously known for Kenyan coffee.

Once dry, the coffee is bagged ready to be dispatched to the mills—where the grading takes place.

Grading

Once rigorously tested for quality, the coffee beans are then categorized into various grades depending on weight, size, and shape.

A general guiding rule for Kenya coffee is that bigger beans carry more essential oils that greatly enhance the flavors and aromas.  And so, the best coffee beans (the largest) from Kenya are graded as Kenya AA.

The various Kenya’s coffee grades include Kenya AA, AB, PB, C, E, TT, T, and MH/ML.

The Takeaway: Kenya Coffee is Fantastic — Now You Know the Reasons Why

Kenya is a nation of rich natural beauty, and the growing conditions provide optimal circumstances for the most flavorful growth of Arabica beans. Enjoy a cup today!

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