Discover the world of speciality coffee through our origins in focus. In this article we visit Kenya, which is a growing region renowned for producing delicate and delicious coffee beans.
In most conversations between coffee lovers, Kenya will often come up at some point, and there is a good reason. Kenya has been a consistently important player in producing truly tasty and often unique coffee beans, despite it not even being in the top 10 biggest coffee producers in the world. Let’s take a closer look at what makes beans from here, so special.
Kenya is the 14th largest coffee producer in the world, exporting approximately 800,000 bags annually - that’s around 48,000,000 kilograms. The country is situated in the east of Africa bordering the Indian Ocean on one side, and a cluster of other prolific coffee producers on its other fronts - we’ll get to why this is important later. At 580,367 square kilometres, it is over 14x smaller than the world’s biggest coffee producer, Brazil.
Coffee Farming In Kenya
It may be a country famed for making great coffee, but the main major export is tea which makes up around 19% of all exports, green coffee exports make up around 4.6%. There are around 150,000 different coffee farmers in Kenya most of whom work in small-holdings and are part of a cooperative. Incredibly, some farms are as small as 0.4 hectares, which is smaller than a football pitch! The coffee from these farms is then often taken to a shared processing station and sold as part of their cooperative. This enables farmers to produce harvests of consistently good quality, command a fair price and fulfil the demand from green coffee importers around the world.
Kenya’s close neighbour, Ethiopia, is heralded as the birthplace of coffee cultivation, which may lead you to think that coffee has been a part of Kenya’s heritage since the very beginning. In fact, coffea arabica and robusta plants were actually introduced into Kenya by humans. To be precise, it was the French who first brought coffee to the country in the 19th century, according to Falcon. According to many accounts, the real coffee boom began in Kenya in the 1930s with many large plots of land formerly ruled by British colonialism being made available to smallholder farmers.
Kenya is also known in coffee circles for its unique array of varietals, many of which are man-made hybrids. Whereas in Brazil you may see a lot of varieties with names like Catuai or Bourbon, you’re more likely to see SL28 or SL34 on a Kenya packet label. These beans have been specially engineered in laboratories to produce plants that are more resistant to adverse weather and offer desired flavours.
That’s not to say that their growing and processing methods are not natural. Kenya coffee plants still grow in the ground and the beans are often wash processed before they’re dried. This method helps to develop the delicate and fruity flavours that Kenyan beans naturally have, making for a clean and refreshing brew.
Their main harvest takes place in the winter before the beans are processed and sorted for auction. Green coffee beans are sorted using a grade system based on the size and appearance of the beans. AA, AB, and PB are the grades most commonly found in speciality coffee from the region. PB beans are often prized as these come from cherries that contained just one seed instead of two, the thought process being that the one bean hasn’t had to share all of the nutrients during growth. As is the case with most coffee producers, thousands of beans need to be sorted by hand!
Geographical Factors For Kenya’s Coffee
The main coffee growing regions in Kenya are located in the highlands in the middle of the country and surrounds the Mount Kenya National Park. Many of the best farms are located at anywhere between 1100 and 2400 masl, which is about 3,600 to 7,800 ft.There are also plantations scattered elsewhere, especially on the border with Uganda, which is another prominent coffee producer in Africa.
The volcanic and sediment-rich soils on the slopes of Mount Kenya and Mount Elgon are perfect for coffee plant cultivation. They’re also protected from the tropical climate of the coast and the arid dry plains of lowlands, which can both be very hot. In fact, despite Kenya being an equatorial country, the temperature in the highlands can range from moderate to very cold throughout the year.
This has a massive effect on the flavour of the beans. If you compare coffee to grapes grown for wine, the characteristics of fruits grown in cooler regions almost mirror each other. White grapes grown in Germany have higher acidity and brighter citrus notes than those same grapes grown in Southern France, the same applies to coffee in this instance. Kenyan beans can be far more delicate and refined than Brazilian or Colombian beans.
Kenyan Speciality Coffee In The Cup
We’ve already mentioned the major flavour characteristics that you might expect from Kenyan speciality coffee beans. For many coffee drinkers, it can taste like nothing you’ve ever had before and has sometimes been compared to tea because it is so light and floral. A lot of people pick up notes of lavender, jasmine and other fragrant herbs too.
You won’t often find premium Kenyan coffee beans in an espresso blend and certainly not roasted as a single origin espresso. The high acidity and bright flavours would be wiped out by over-roasting, with none of the boldness or sweetness of a Brazilian to compensate, it would likely be very sour. Top Kenyan coffees taste incredible on their own, preferably brewed through an Aeropress as this really plays to their strengths. Check out our guide on how to brew using an Aeropress. They can also taste great when they’re cooled down and served with a couple of ice cubes on a sunny day!
Check out our wide range of seasonal and delicious speciality coffees on our online store. We stock the best coffee from the world’s finest coffee growing origins, including Kenya.
Famous Regions: Embu, Kiambu, Kirinyaga
Common Varietals: SL28, SL34
Common Processing Methods: Almost always fully-washed in shared stations
Growing Altitude: 1100-2300+ masl
Flavour Notes: Bright citrus acidity with floral notes