Recently, Kenyan coffee has been making waves in the coffee market. The coffee that comes from Kenya is considered one of the best, and some coffee aficionados are going out of their way to say that it’s better than Brazilian coffee.
But what inspires them to make this bold claim? To get the answer, you need to know all about Kenyan coffee, which I’m going to discuss today.
Kenya is a country in East Africa, and the coffee produced in Kenya is referred to as “Kenyan Coffee.” This is because the coffee that comes out of Kenya is barely found in any other growing regions of the world, and the proof is in the taste.
Kenya coffee has a distinct taste that you can’t find even in most specialty coffee currently available on the market. The production quality of the coffee is also top-notch, ensuring you get your hands on the best coffee Kenya has to offer.
Missionaries introduced coffee to the population of Kenya back in 1893. They brought Bourbon coffee along with them from Brazil. These missionaries established their Missionary in Bura.
The first Bourbon coffee growing in Kenya is at Bura in Taita Hills near Mombasa. Bourbon coffee was then produced in Kibwezi back in 1900 and at Kikuyu back in 1904.
At that time, Kenya was known as the East Africa Protectorate, which was under the control of the British empire. So all the agriculture that took place in the region was under the direct control of Britain, including coffee production.
The rule was that all crops were to be grown by white settlers. The natives were required to provide free labor or cheap labor. The beginning of this production was pure chaos since the coffee market was handled by primary overseeing institutions.
Also, there was absolutely zero regulation on farming, production, processing, bean grading, and marketing. This went from 1900 to 1933.
After an extended lack of proper management, the colonial government established a Coffee Board. The coffee board was in charge of licensing, inspection, grading, and promotion of coffee.
The board established auctions as a suitable means to sell Kenyan coffee beans overseas back in 1934. The first auction ever for Kenyan coffee took place in September of 1935.
After a significant rise in the popularity of Kenyan coffee, the authority figures established the Coffee Marketing Board (CMB) in 1946. The sole purpose of this board was to engage in coffee marketing activities.
The committee started working in full swing on July 1, 1947. However, the board was later abolished in 1971, and the responsibilities of the CMB were transferred to the Coffee Board Of Kenya (CBK).
CBK has passed different amendments over the years, changing their roles. The change that took place in July 2001 specified the responsibilities and roles for CBK, which are:
- CBK is the Coffee Directorate under the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food Authority (AFFA)
- CBK has to create and customize policies that enhance coffee production, processing
- CBK is to monitor local and international marketing for Kenyan Coffee
- CBK is to offer registration and license for coffee farmers and coffee farms
Locals were not allowed to grow coffee until the Mau Mau Uprising between 1952 and 1960. But even then, the government put a lot of restrictions on coffee growing and the coffee-making process.
And even after jumping through all the hoops, farmers were instructed to export the high-grade coffee and sell the low-grade coffee in local markets.
Most coffee produced in Kenya comes from small-scale coffee farmers, who operate under different cooperative organizations. There are also coffee plantations that are managed by individuals.
Kenya’s coffee is primarily grown in areas with an elevation range of 1400-2000 meters above sea levels. The temperature of these areas is around 15°C to 24°C.
These places also are near volcanoes, and as we all know, volcanic soil brings out the best in coffee. A few of these locations are:
- Eastern Kenya Regions: Embu, Meru, Machakos
- Western Kenya Regions: Bungoma, Mt. Elgon
- Mt. Kenya Regions: Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Thika
- Nandi Hills/ Rift Valley
These areas cover around 115,570 hectares of land across 32 counties. Including 800,000 small coffee farmers, there’s a total of 6 million Kenyans involved in coffee production.
Kenyan coffee farming relies heavily on nature via a rainfed farming system. But recently, there have been more coffee farms that have irrigation systems.
Most of the Kenyan coffee in the past was grown without shades. However, to adapt to the current climate change, shaded coffee growing has gained popularity.
Arabica is the most popular coffee bean that is grown in Kenya. In fact, 99% of total Kenyan coffee production is Arabica.
Kenya has two coffee harvesting seasons.
- April to June
- October to December
Auctions are held for the produced coffee at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange each Tuesday during both harvest seasons.
After harvest is completed, all Kenyan coffees go through a thorough process and are graded afterward. After that, about 90% of all coffee is put through washing stations for wet-processing, while the rest is dry-processed.
The result of dry processing is “mbuni,” which means dried coffee that hasn’t been pulped yet.
Before the process begins, the coffee undergoes detailed sorting to pick out unripe, overripe, diseased, or damaged cherries. The sorting process also removes dirt, leaves, and other materials, so the post-processing product stays fresh.
After the unripe cherries are separated from the others, farmers put out tarps and drying beds under the sun, and the cherries are then sundried. When the ripe ones are put through a special pulper machine.
After pulping, the ripe cherries are classified into three categories according to their density.
- Parchment 1
- Parchment 2
Then the beans are fermented, washed and each category of coffee beans are soaked separately before they get sundried. Note that each category of beans is both soaked and dried separately to keep track of each type.
After all that, you’d think that’s enough processing, and the coffee beans are good to go.
When the process is complete, the coffee parchment that comes out is sent to a dry mill for further processing, where it goes through several more stages of processing methods.
Wet-processed coffee is checked for stones and other impurities in this stage. After thoroughly checked, the coffee beans are then hulled and polished to remove the silver skin.
In this stage, an air jet blows away the light beans, husks leftover from hurling and destoning, and any other residual impurities.
For grading, coffee beans are passed through metal sheets with specific openings for every bean size. For example, a screen for peaberries has oblong holes, matching the elongated shape of peaberries. Each coffee size is known as a “grade.”
These Kenyan coffee grades are:
- AA (Screen 18)
- AB (Screen 16)
- C (Screen 15/10)
- E (Screen 20)
Kenyan AA grade coffee is the best grade and quality among all the grades.
In this stage, a densimetric table separates all the coffee beans into three or more categories depending on the density of the beans. The lighter beans stay at, the lower end of the table, while the denser beans move to the upper end of the table.
Density sorting is performed to ensure each bag of beans contains even quality beans. Dense and large beans take a longer time to roast than smaller and lighter ones.
The coffee beans are then run through optical machines to scan every individual bean at high speeds. Once scanned, a burst of compressed air pushes the beans out of the machine.
After the color sorting, all coffee beans are sorted by hand to remove a few deficiencies that don’t get detected by machines. A few of these are:
- Unacceptable size
- Unacceptable color
- Insect-damaged beans
The coffee mills and exporters don’t just pick the coffee from physical appearance alone. Instead, professional coffee testers evaluate the aroma and flavor profile of the product through a coffee cupping process and identify the unique characteristics.
Had fun reading about seasoning & processing?
Learn more from our coffee production process article.
The primary way Kenya sells coffee is through coffee auctions. The auction is administered by the Nairobi Coffee Exchange Management Committee.
Contracted coffee marketing agents sell the coffee beans to the highest bidders, and these bidders are all licensed coffee exporters. These coffee dealers make bids for every 50 kg bag.
Direct sales are made by grower marketers. They export coffee through direct sales by negotiating prices with buyers from different countries. Grower marketers are also licensed by coffee growers to market the coffee overseas.
There are also commercial marketing agents who work as a third party, bridging the gap between the coffee farmer and the buyers and taking care of marketing logistics.
After the sale transaction is complete, coffee beans are packed in sisal bags and loaded into film-lined containers for shipment.
Note that different coffee types have different costs. Since green coffee beans are considered raw materials, the export duty and tax are removed from the equation.
Kenyan coffee has a flavor so fine it’s been given the title “Connoisseurs Cup.”
The coffee has a distinctive taste that can only be compared to Ethiopian Harrar coffee, but Kenyan coffee comes out on top because of its full-bodied richness.
The highest quality Kenyan coffee has a clean and crisp taste, and the balance of taste, acidity, mouthfeel, and aftertaste is fantastic. The consistency is rich and deep with wine-like acidity, the aroma is highly fragrant with fruit and berry tones, and the taste is strong.
The aftertaste of Kenyan coffee can be described as a mix of lemon zest and wine. If you have experience with coffee cupping, you might also find traces of citrus, pepper, and blackberry in the aftertaste.
Some coffee aficionados also love the sublime undertone of black currant in the aroma and coffee flavor.
Even when Kenyan coffee is considered the most refined coffee ever, the most ironic part is that Kenyans prefer tea over coffee, so there are barely any traditional brewing methods.
The only exception is the “Kahawa Chungu,” which I’ll get to in a bit.
Learn more about coffee from our what plant does coffee beans come from? article.
Any roast can get you a fine cup of coffee made out of Kenyan beans, but the most popular choice is a light to medium roast. This specific roast brings out the subtle fruity taste of the bean.
Though there are different grades of Kenyan beans, all the beans are pretty dense, so you can get away with any decent roasting method. But you don’t just want a regular coffee; you want all that Kenyan coffee has to offer.
If you use light roasted Kenyan beans, you’ll find malty and banana after tastes. A Full City roast gets you cocoa and caramel flavors.
Kenyan locals prefer slow-roasting since it emphasizes the sweetness and the heavy mouthfeel. However, if you want to hone your experience even further, let the beans rest for a couple of days (2 days at least) after roasting.
If you want to get the best out of Kenyan coffee beans, Coffee experts suggest that using a steeping method is better than a drip method.
The best brewing method for Kenyan coffee is the AeroPress or the French Press. Imagine being an American, using a French coffee maker to brew coffee beans from Kenya.
If you want to bring out all the flavors, it’s recommended to brew the coffee stronger and use a finer grind. If you don’t have a French press or an AeroPress, you can also use a sieve for regular coffee or a mason jar for cold coffee.
Speaking of brewing for a more extended period, the best way to make the flavors of Kenyan coffee shine is to use the cold brew method.
Cold-brew requires you to steep the coffee beans at room temperature or cold water for at least 12 hours. During this long brew time, all the flavors and oils from the coffee bean mix into the water and give the coffee a richer taste.
“Kahawa Chungu” is a term from the Swahili language, translating to “bitter coffee.” Though coffee isn’t a regular drink in Kenya, elderly Swahili men adopted this strong coffee drink as their go-to.
Brewing Kahawa Chungu is similar to cowboy coffee. The Swahili brew Kahawa Chungu by pouring coffee and water into a tall brass kettle and heating over a charcoal stove.
The bitterness doesn’t come from the coffee itself, however. Instead, Kahawa Chungu contains spices like ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, etc., which gives the coffee the bitter flavor it’s named after.
And now, I have a few interesting facts about Kenyan coffee that you’ll find amusing.
According to the grading system, the best coffee is Kenya AA coffee, according to the grading system, is considered one of the five best coffees in the entire world.
With the vast array of flavors and aromas it provides, along with a distinct aftertaste that puts most specialty coffee to shame, it’s not a surprise at this point.
Since Kenya coffee is grown on the mountains with an elevation of 1400-2000 meters, Kenyan coffee beans qualify for Strictly High Grown (SHG) status. They also acquired the Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) status.
The quality of the coffee beans depends on how many different types of coffee you can make from a single type of coffee bean. This is known as “varietal,” a term used to describe different wines.
Kenyan Arabica coffee beans have five varietals which are:
Kenyan coffee beans are Arabica beans that come in five different varietals:
- Ruiru 11
Each of these varietals possesses unique properties. For example, SL-28 is a varietal that can grow with less rainwater than SL-34. K7 doesn’t produce decent coffee like these 2 varietals, but it has high immunity to coffee berry disease that can affect the coffee plant.
If you’re a veteran coffee drinker, you’ll find that Kenyan coffee tastes similar to Ethiopian coffee beans.
The reason behind it is the varietal SL-28 of Kenyan coffee comes from Ethiopia. It’s also why Kenyan coffee can be closely compared to Ethiopian Harrar roasts.
Most of the Kenyan varietals available today are hybrids produced off of Ethiopian coffee varieties that were produced back in the 1950s.
You might think that Kenyan coffee is expensive only because of the price, but that’s not the entire case.
Kenya produces coffee over a minimal area of land compared to other coffee-producing countries, which is why Kenyan production output is lesser than expected.
Even though the Kenyan population doesn’t consume the coffee they produce, the amount is still low enough to be considered a rarity.
Despite the high demand for this exquisite coffee worldwide, the Kenyan coffee industry faces much adversity for several reasons.
- The rising construction industry is slowly reducing the amount of land available for coffee cultivation in Kenya.
- Rapid climate change slowly takes away the ideal environment for coffee growth.
- Coffee farmers are slowly moving away from coffee production from being underpaid and overworked. Even now, Kenyan farmers are still amongst the world’s poorest coffee farmers.
- The reduced number of coffee farmers is tolling yearly production and coffee sales. Also, veterans of the industry moving away has left the coffee industry in the hands of lesser experienced coffee farmers.
- Global price instability is causing farmers to hold on to coffee beans in hopes of selling them in the near future for a better price.
Had fun Nomies? Then, you are welcome to read out our Brazilian coffee article.
Despite all the negative issues that are affecting the Kenyan coffee industry, the coffee that we can get our hands on is still as good as they come.
Are you convinced enough to try out Kenyan coffee yet? If you are, I hope you have a wonderful Kenyan coffee experience.
Kenyan coffee is grown at the elevation levels of 1400-2000 meters above sea levels.
Kenya has a tropical climate with a high temperature, perfect for growing Arabica coffee beans on a high elevation.
The traditional method of preparing coffee in Kenya is “Kahawa Chungu” or “bitter coffee.”
Kenyan coffee is considered exclusive and amazing because of the vast array of complex flavor profiles and heavy aroma, along with the subtle yet heavy undertaste.
Kenyan coffee has a low supply compared to the high demand, which increases the cost. Another reason is the fine taste of Kenyan coffee that can compete with the most popular coffee varieties on the market.