Kenyan Coffee: How to Buy, Brew And Enjoy It Like a True Coffee Connoisseur
Kenyan coffee is widely considered to be among the best in the world.
Ideal growing conditions, advanced research, and a sophisticated auction and export strategy combine to yield a consistently exceptional product.
Worryingly, urban expansion and coffee price fluctuations have begun to affect export yields.
Read on to find out more about the coffee industry in this East African nation, and how you can make the best cup of Kenyan brew at home.
Interesting Facts About Kenyan Coffee
Flavor Characteristics: How Does It Taste?
Kenyan beans are known for their balanced complexity and deep dimension. They typically offer a savory-sweet nuance that experts describe as wine-like acidity. Many beans grown at high elevations in volcanic soils are imbued with high acid content.
Kenyan beans are medium-bodied, while still imparting a bold flavor and juiciness that resonates on the palate.
Depending on the bean varietal, tones range from black-currant berries to tart citrus.
They are universally clean in the cup and offer a tropical taste unique to the area and prized by many connoisseurs.
The most popular and prized Kenyan beans are SL-28 and SL-34.
These robotic sounding names come from the fact that both were promoted by Scott Labs decades ago.
The lab was hired by the Kenyan government in the 1930s to determine the most economically viable coffee strains in the nation.
SL-34 is distinguished in the field by its bronze-tipped leaves, resistance to heavy rainfall, and lower elevation growth conditions.
SL-28 is the prima donna of the two, offering complex and dazzling tomato-like acidity so unique, that many discuss terroir as a contributing factor.
Kenyan beans are also graded by size, with the measurement process carried out prior to roasting. The largest are graded Kenya E (for elephant) and the second largest are designated Kenya AA.
Kenya AA beans are among the world’s most sought-after.
What Type of Coffee is Kenyan?
There exist two types of coffee beans in the world -- arabica and robusta.
Arabica beans are known to offer a better flavor and higher-quality coffee while robusta beans, which suffer from an inherent bitterness, are prized for being easy to grow and producing large yields.
Kenya is a near perfect place to grow arabica beans which have been shown to thrive at high elevations and in deep, well-drained loamy soil.
Its near-exclusive production of these higher-end beans contributes to a worldwide reputation for quality coffees.
In what is becoming a global trend, Kenya is increasingly under fire for introducing new hybrid varieties of arabica that successfully resist disease.
According to many buyers and experts, these beans do not offer the same subtly acidic nuances as the old classics like SL-28 and SL-34.
Growing Conditions Of Kenyan Coffee
In Kenya, coffee is grown in fertile volcanic soil at high elevations between 1400 and 2000 meters above sea level.
This deep, loamy soil is perfect for the cultivation of arabica beans and is largely responsible for Kenya’s reputation for quality products.
At present, about 160,000 hectares of land is cultivated for coffee. This is divided between large plantations and small scale growers.
The major growing area lies on the slopes of Mt. Kenya and stretches to the capital, Nairobi, while a smaller region is also in production around Mt. Elgon.
The characteristically bright flavors of Kenyan java are often credited to the nearly complete lack of shade in both these districts.
The Processing Method Of The Beans
A particular protocol has been established in the processing of Kenyan beans which produces a reliable high-quality product. All processing is carried out via the wet method which tends to yield, a cleaner, brighter and fruitier cup.
During picking, only perfectly ripe red cherries are selected with care taken to remove any damaged or diseased fruit.
The beans undergo a long fermentation process of up to 36 hours. This helps to remove the slimy, sugary coating, after which they are sun-dried and then sent onwards for milling.
The Current State Of The Kenyan Coffee Industry
The coffee industry in Kenya is often boasted to be one of the world’s most advanced.
This is thanks to a cooperative system of production, processing, milling, and marketing.
They maintain advanced research facilities and an open auction export that is thought to be the key to success.
Coffee growing came to Kenya with the British in the early 20th century. It is now the 16th largest producer in the world with annual yields on the order of 100 million tons.
Of that, approximately 95% is designated for export as Kenyans themselves have long favoured tea drinking.
Estimates suggest there are 150,000 coffee farmers in Kenya, and up to six million Kenyans find direct or indirect employment through the coffee industry.
Two-thirds of production stems from small scale farmers with the remaining third deriving from large plantations.
Unfortunately, despite the profitability of the beans themselves, coffee farmers in Kenya are amongst the world’s poorest. This is beginning to take a toll on production with yields falling in recent years as small-scale farmers give in to socio-economic factors.
Coffee production is also currently in a state of decline due to a property boom in areas that were previously used for cultivation, as well as global coffee price instability.
Best Brew Methods
Kenyans themselves prefer tea to coffee, and it is only in the past few decades that coffee-drinking has begun to take hold in the region.
The exception to this is Kahawa Chunghu, also known as Kenyan Bitter Coffee, which has traditionally been sipped from miniature cups by elderly Swahili men.
The beverage is typically brewed over a charcoal stove in a tall brass kettle and it derives its bitterness through the inclusion of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and/or other spices. It is often served with dates or other sweet treats to balance the palate.
Kahawa Chunghu is frequently touted as an aphrodisiaque as it helps with blood circulation and alertness. If you’d like to try making your own, there is a recipe here.
Steeping Methods Are The Best
If you’re interested in truly savouring the subtle nuances of a Kenyan brew, many experts recommend a steeping rather than a drip method.
A French press or an aeropress are both excellent tools for the job.
It is also suggested that Kenyan beans are brewed a little stronger and ground a little finer than is standard. This all serves to better highlight the bright and acidic nature of the beans.
A Cold Brew With A Bright Flavor
In a similar vein, Kenyan beans are often considered among the best for making cold brew. Cold brewing coffee preserves the more subtle floral and fruity notes of a bean, which is of particular interest with Kenyan beans renowned for the juicy flavors.
Cold brewing is as simple as steeping ground coffee in cold water for 18 to 24 hours before straining out the grounds. A French press is a reliable tool for the job, though tools as simple as a mason jar and a fine sieve can be employed.
For more on brewing and enjoying Kenyan beans, check out this video from Sweet Maria's Coffee.
Where To Buy Kenyan Beans
Kenyan beans’ position near the top of the gourmet ladder means that they are readily available.
Even your local Starbucks is likely to offer a bag.
For optimal freshness however, finding an online purveyor that ships beans soon after roasting is far superior.
Single-origin Kenyan beans are among the most expensive in the world, but this is not without reason. The nation’s transparent auction system means that bags of beans are traceable to the source and ensures that top quality products fetch the highest prices.
This is a boon to small scale farmers and co-operatives who receive fair prices for their output and serves to encourage higher quality production.
Coffee Bean Direct
Coffee Bean Direct is an American seller with a reliable reputation.
They offer differing sized bags of Kenyan AA beans.
The beans are given a slightly heavier light roast than is standard, without becoming oily, in order to fully emphasize subtle flavour notes.
Nairobi Coffee and Tea Co.
The Nairobi Coffee and Tea Company was founded in London in 1925 by two men returning home from running coffee farms in East Africa.
Their long history allows them the connections and expertise to source some of Kenya’s finest coffees and to roast them to perfection.
They have also established a reputation as environmental stewards and ethical traders.
For home roasters, Sweet Maria’s offers an extensive selection of green beans in peaberry, AA and AB grades.
They also offer everything else the aspiring home roaster might want, from instructions and information to equipment.
What Is The Most Suitable Roast Type?
Kenyans take well to a variety of roasts, but most opt for a light roast to better emphasize the subtle fruity flavors of the bean.
Though different classifications (AA, AB, peaberry) respond slightly differently to the application of heat, the relative density of all these beans means that all grades are quite forgiving.
The key is to highlight the fruity acidity of the beans along with the creamy mouthfeel. A very light roast is often favoured, but venturing slightly darker can help promote the sweeter berry flavors of the bean.
Very light roasts are often starchy with malty and banana nuances whereas slightly darker Full City roasts bring cocoa and caramel tones to the forefront.
The drying stage of the roast is particularly important with Kenyans.
Reaching the point of the first crack, when the beans first emit an audible cracking sound during roasting, must be done slowly.
Slower drying helps push the sweetness and develop the prized weighty mouthfeel.
It is also suggested that Kenyan beans be allowed to rest for at least two days following the roasting process to truly optimize their inherent sweetness.
Enjoy A Cup Of Kenyan Brew Today!
Kenyan coffee beans are a globally renowned product thanks to high-elevation and loamy volcanic soils that are ideal for rearing arabica beans.
By pairing these fortuitous natural resources with a sophisticated growth, production and distribution system, Kenya has taken full advantage of its coffee potential.
As external factors begin to negatively influence production in the region, be sure to sample some of this luxury product before it is too late.
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