Tasting Notes: blackcurrant, caramel, stewed fruits
Produced by: Gikanda Farmer Co-op Region: Nyeri
Variety: Ruiru 11,SL 28, Batian Altitude: 1600 to 1900m above sea level
The Gichathaini wet mill is one of three washing stations that make up the Gikanda FarmersCooperative Society in the Mathira West District of Kenya's Nyeri region. This factory itself is actually owned by the coffee farmers that deliver cherries to be processed. 1045 members make up the cooperative society, of which 770 actively sell their coffee through the mill and in turn, make elective decisions in terms of representatives and management positions at the factory. The factory is located about 6 km from the town of Karatina. The conditions in this specific area are ideal; abundant rainfall, average temperatures of 15°C to 26°C, fertile soil, and clean water from the Ragati river.
Kenyan Coffee History
Once coffee is picked ripe, it is delivered to the factory on the same day and depulped. It is then set to wet ferment overnight to break down the sugars. In the morning, the coffee is washed using Ragati river water and then moved to raised drying beds. The water used during the fermentation and washing processes is re-circulated for conservation purposes and moved to soak pits away from water sources so that it can naturally filter into the earth and not pollute the area. When the coffee is on the raised beds it is hand turned and sorted.
Kenya has one of the most interesting and complicated histories with coffee: Despite sharing a border with the “birthplace of coffee,” Ethiopia, Kenya was one of the latest places planted in coffee, nearly 300 years after the plant was first cultivated for sale. In fact, the varieties that were brought to Kenya had circumnavigated the globe before they found their way back to the African continent, mutating in various climates to create a profile that, once adapted to the rich soil around Mt. Kenya, resulted in the singular profiles that this country has to offer.
The first plants were brought to the country by Scottish and French missionaries, the latter contributing what would be known as French Mission Bourbon, transplanted from the island of Bourbon (now called Reunion) to Tanzania and Kenya in an attempt to finance their efforts on the ground. The Scottish, meanwhile, brought strains from Mocha, the different varieties contributing to the dynamic quality of the coffees in the country even to this day.
Established as a British colony specifically for its moneymaking potential, Kenya became a coffee powerhouse as a way for the empire to control both the tea (already a Kenyan staple crop) and coffee markets worldwide. By the 1920s, as Europe demanded more and more coffee, the cash crop became a major Kenyan export, and in the 1930s the auction system was developed, ostensibly to democratize the market for farmers. After Kenya achieved independence from Britain in the 1960s, coffee took on a greater importance to small landholders, many of whom were given coffee farms in the redistribution of private property from large colonial and government-owned plantations.
In the 2000s, approximately 85% of the coffee farms in Kenya are owned by natives to the country, though European influence is still evident in larger estates. Today, the majority of Kenyan farmers tend small plots, growing as few as 150 coffee trees: They bring cherry to centrally located mills, where their coffees are weighed, sorted, and combined to create lots large enough to process and export. There are also privately owned estates, though fewer than during colonial days: The average estate grows around 10,000 coffee trees.
Most Kenyans prefer to drink tea in their homes, and cafe culture largely exists for tourists and in the major cities.
Cup Characteristics & Varieties
The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about Kenyan coffee is “acidity,” but what we are looking for is not simply mouth-puckering brightness or one-note citric acid. Generally, we seek out complex, refined cups that show black currant, grapefruit or kaffir lime, mouthwatering notes of tomato or tamarind, and sparkling tropical fruit like pineapple. The famous SL varieties—SL-28 and SL-34—tend to be juicy and dynamic, while French Mission is typically a more creamy and citric cup.
In addition to variety differences, regional variations exist as with most large coffee-growing countries. Nyeri’s coffees tend to have more fructose sugar, juicy mouthfeel, and strong tart acids. Embu’s profile is more complex, with generally the darker forest fruit, more browned sugars, and overall a bit more balance. Kirinyaga shows the more floral and delicate cups, generally a more refined quality and complexity.
A note about Kenyan “classic” varieties: The “SL” in SL-28 and SL-34 stands for Scot Laboratories, which was hired in the 1930s to undertake a series of selections and tests on Kenyan coffee varieties in order to determine which had the greatest potential for success, both in terms of quality and cultivation. Scientists identified more than 40 trees of different types, giving them a number with “SL” for classification—these varieties are considered selections, not, strictly speaking “hybrids,” though many of them were the genetic offspring of cross-pollinated types and spliced cultivars.
A more modern variety and a direct result of hybridization is Ruiru 11, which is a combination of Timor Hybrid variety (an interspecific hybrid of Arabica and Robusta) and Rume Sudan, a cultivar that is resistant to coffee-berry disease, which is a common plight in the country. Ruiru 11 has been available for sale since 1986.