The Kenyan coffee industry is one of the fairest and most transparent in the world. Co-operative groups and estates sell their coffee at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange. The auction system creates a highly competitive environment, which rewards famers for high quality. Experimentation of varietal selection and processing styles is occurring in the specialty coffee sector around the world, but very little is undertaken in Kenya. Coffee growing is diminishing due to land value and the expansion of urban areas.
Estates often look after the growing and processing of their own coffee. Small holder farmers bring their cherries to the local co-operative mill. Depending on the mill, there are differing levels of ‘acceptable’ coffee cherry. Rung’eto co-operative, for example, only accepts the ripest and freshest of cherries. Farmers that bring sub par coffee to the mill will be told to sort through their cherries and remove any over or under-ripe fruit. The coffee is weighed and the farmers receive a receipt with the weight of fruit that was accepted. No currency exchanges hands until the value of the coffee is determined at auction. The cherries are immediately pulped, to remove the fruit from the seed. The coffee is then soaked in tiled tanks. This is called wet fermentation. The parchment coffee (coffee seed with its outer husk in tact) soaks for 24-72 hours, depending on weather conditions. The aim of fermentation is to remove the sticky mucilage layer that is attached to the parchment coffee. The hotter the day, the quicker the water breaks down this layer. The level of fermentation is checked with a quick rub of the coffee between the mill manager’s hands. The sliminess should be gone, but the parchment should still have a smooth feel to it, rather than a rough, stone-like texture. The coffee is over-fermented at this stage. Once fermentation is complete, the parchment coffee is rinsed and then dried on raised beds. The drying process takes 10-20 days.
Once the coffee has been dried, it is taken to a dry mill. This is where the parchment layer of the coffee is removed. When the parchment, or husk, has been removed, the ‘green coffee’ can now be sorted and graded. There is a market for all grades of coffee, so nothing is thrown away. Every producing country has a different grading system, in Kenya the grades range from AA to TT. The higher grades describe the size of the beans, AA is the largest, then AB and so on. Lower grades include debris and infected, malformed coffee beans and lots are often mixed together to make up a larger quantity. Bulk is the word used to describe these blends of low quality coffee. These ‘bulk’ coffees have no traceability or uniformity.
All coffee in Kenya is bought and sold through the Nairobi Coffee Exchange. Each registered buyer (export company) has a seat and a key that activates their bidding button. The key activates software that reveals whether that buyer has paid their debts from the previous auction. If they have not, their key will not activate their bidding button. Each lot of coffee offered at auction comes up on a large screen and buyers press their button to raise the bid by a preset, nominal amount. The bidding is a very quick process, so no time to think. The auction house makes available samples of all lots of coffee to be sold. All of the bidders at the auction already know which coffees they want and how much they are willing to bid. Once a coffee has been bought at auction, it is made available to the winner immediately.
The Kenyan coffee industry is most prized for its famous cleanliness and intensity of flavour. The local market drinks low quality coffee that has been naturally processed, called ‘Mbuni’. I think that this has lead the locals to believe that the unwashed, or natural, process is responsible for the rough and spicy flavour profile. The inequality of exportable and locally consumable coffee, has enhanced the fear of experimentation, especially for the export market. A small number of farmers are combining roots of the Ruiru 11 coffee plant, which is a disease resistant, high yielding variety of robusta, with the traditional SL28 and SL34 varieties of arabica. The thinking is that the roots provide only nutrients and water to the plant, but the variety of the upper, fruit growing region of the plant is the major contributor to flavour, along with altitude and terroir. This is not a wide-spread practice and has had mixed results. A lot of coffee producing countries have tried to experiment with and replicate the Kenyan style of wet fermentation. Why would the Kenyans fix it if it ain’t broke?
Kenya's coffee estates are slowly getting eaten up by population growth and urban development. Famous estates like Gethumbwini are being demolished in order to build apartment or office buildings. This is a fear for the long term sustainability of the Kenyan coffee estates, as some exceptional farms are being knocked down. This doesn’t affect small holder farmers as much, as they are usually further out from the cities and on less desirable land plots to developers.
Kenyan coffee is a particular favourite of ours at Omars as it is so vibrant, clean and fruity. It really stands out with non-pressurised coffee making techniques, like plunger or clever dripper. The prices paid for coffees are very fair, as all lots are bid on by competitive trading companies at the auction. The Kenyan coffee industry is very well educated, from farmers to lab workers, study is usually undertaken to enter the professional world of coffee.