Kenya Coffee has a distinct, full bodied flavor with little or no bitterness and a wonderful aroma. Today, Kenya is the 17th largest coffee producer in the world and the industry. This East African nation produces over two million bags of coffee a year and it is Kenya’s top foreign exchange earner.
Coffee was introduced to this area around 1893 by the French Fathers of the Holy Spirit, who brought young trees from Reunion Island. Initially, the mission farms near Nairobi, the capital city, were the nucleus around which Kenyan coffee growing developed. The Arabica beans thrive in the rich, loamy, red volcanic soil of the broad, gentle ridges, which slope down into great valleys, full of swift, perennial streams. There is good drainage here and the weather is mild with rainfall throughout the year, for totals of 40 to 50 inches. The coffee grown at these altitudes of 4500 feet to 6000 feet is some of the best in the world. There are special varieties of Arabica coffees unique to East Africa only found here.
In the far west portion of Kenya, coffee is grown on the slopes of Mt. Elgon, near the Uganda border, including the Kenya Blue Mountain variety, which came from Jamaica. Experts say the best Kenya beans come from the gentle slopes of the Aberdare Mountains, north of Nairobi and the south facing slopes of Mt. Kenya.
Most coffee is grown on tiny plots of land, averaging half an acre, which dot the landscape. These groups of small farmers have consistently produced excellent coffee, year after year.
Until recently, all coffee was sold through an auction system which, most experts in the coffee business, say was effective and brought fair prices to the farmers. All farmers were organized into small, craft oriented, cooperative processing centers. Each day’s harvest was sorted and processed separately into small boutique lots of green coffee beans which were sold individually at auction in Nairobi. Unique, unblended lots were purchased by relatively small, high quality buyers who were willing to pay the price.
The Coffee Board of Kenya established guidelines on standards for the beans. All coffee is graded after it is milled and Kenya AA generally means the largest beans while AB is next in size. The theory is that the larger beans will contain more of the special oils which give coffee its aroma and flavor. While size is important, it is just one factor in determining high quality coffee. A second class system was developed to rate the quality of the beans, ranging from 1 to 10 with Class 1 being the best. This system has rarely been advertised but a coffee rated as Kenya AA, could rank as low as Class 4.
Recently, political unrest and instability has disrupted the auction market system and made it more difficult for Kenya beans to reach the world market. There has been discussion about branding different beans as to the specific area of Kenya where they were raised. There are currently three identified brands, Mt. Kenya, Aberdares, and Kenyan Blue Mountain. Starbucks recently introduced a premium coffee in its ‘Black Apron Kirinyaga Kenya’. This was grown by small farmers and processed through six coffee mills as a cooperative venture. Green Mountain Coffee now offers Fair Trade Certified Kenya AA from the Kenyan Highland Cooperatives. This is available in whole beans and also a K-Cup. Don’t overlook this most distinctive coffee!