Everyone is saying it: “Kenyan coffee isn’t as good as it used to be”. From the UK and around Europe to Australia and the USA, Canada and beyond, coffee professionals are united in this view and it’s not just a geographically widespread opinion but a historic one too. I’ve spent my entire working life in coffee, spanning some 35 years and right from the start as a trainee cupper in my early twenties, I was hearing the same thing… “Kenyan coffee isn’t as good as it used to be”.
But in my rookie years, I thought some of the Kenyan coffees were incredible. Was it a myth? It made me long for those halcyon days when Kenyan coffees were surely scoring 100 points (in today’s language) which incidentally, must also have been a time when Cadbury’s Crème Eggs, which have forever been said to be getting smaller with each new Easter, must have been the size of rugby balls!
In my early days of training at Taylors of Harrogate, a wonderful old man called Jim Raleigh, a retired director and previous owner of the business, would still visit every Tuesday and Friday morning. I don’t quite recall the purpose of his visits, but he took me under his wing and based himself in the cupping lab or indeed the ‘liquoring room’ as it was known, and I was able to call on his 80 years of wisdom. I told him how astonished I was by the high acidity and complex flavours of Kenyan coffee, and that’s when I first heard reference to the superior flavours of yesteryear. Some short time later, I cupped a batch of new crop Kenyan samples that were utterly delicious (93+ today) and had them ready for Mr Raleigh to ‘liquor’ on his next visit. He quickly worked his way down the batch (as I waited with bated breath for his joyful reaction) before turning on his heel, heading for the door, shaking his head and uttering the words, “Totally featureless!”. In that moment I realised that perhaps Kenyan coffee hadn’t been so much better in the past, just that the poor fellow’s tastebuds were shot.
A year later I was sent to Nairobi as part of my overseas training to work at C. Dorman Coffee Exporters. I was based in their cupping lab where I tasted literally thousands of coffees each week for several months and I experienced a range of flavours from those in the mbuni naturals that could make you throw up, to the best coffees in the world. The latter were in abundance. It was 1992.
But as the years have rolled by, I have started to think that Mr Raleigh’s view might have been prophetic. Outstanding Kenyan coffees are definitely harder to find – and may I let it be said… as a Q Grader Instructor, I trust that my tastebuds are still serving me well.
Kenya is serious coffee land since it borders, amongst others, Uganda and Ethiopia – the indigenous homes of robusta and arabica respectively. With deep volcanic red loam soils, enviable growing altitudes and varieties that work so well in their environment including the famous SL28 and 34, there should be no surprise that the country can produce some of the best coffees in the world. Its great rival, I’m sure all coffee professional would agree, is Ethiopia at her northern border. But sadly, Kenya is beset with political, colonial and post-colonial systems that have always hampered the coffee farmer, particularly the smallholders.
A legally obliging and complicated strata of organisations form a chain where coffee passes through too many hands; washing stations (or factories as they are known locally), mills, marketing agents, technical agents, auctions and exporters. Such a structure has never fully benefited the grower but has allowed other actors to make serious money. Smallholder farmers struggle to achieve any sort of decent returns and to compound the problem, they’re often not fully paid for up to six months after delivering their cherry to the local factories. This leaves no time to invest in the next harvest which can and usually does suffer as a result.
Many articles have been written concerning this topic, for example this one which is particularly good.
However, this article is focused on flavour – or loss of flavour over time and it’s here that I want to offer my thoughts on the main reason why, which is actually rather obvious. Kenya’s annual harvest has been decreasing for many years and these are the key reasons…
If complex and money draining systems hamper coffee farmers, they’re likely to grow something else as a cash crop, and that something is often tea, for which they are paid in full upon delivery to a local tea factory.
Late payments lead to lack of inputs (fertilisers) and plant care which brings about lower yields.
The sons and daughters of Kenyan coffee farmers see little future in coffee and are attracted to the cities in the hope of a better future. Travel to Kenya and you’ll notice something about coffee farmers straight away. They’re nearly all elderly.
Inheritance through many generations brings about the division upon division of land meaning plots are getting smaller and smaller with less room for coffee.
The high-altitude land around Nairobi was perfect for growing coffee on large estates but it’s even more perfect for building housing upon to serve a city whose population has grown five-fold since the early 1980s. Those farmers cashed in a long time ago.
The impact of the above can be seen in these stats. In 1983/84 Kenya produced 129,000 tons of coffee. Last year it was around 40,000 tons – a 70% decrease in volume. Imagine a lake, famed for its excellent trout, that shrank in size by 70%. There would still be trout in the smaller lake and amongst the remaining stock there would likely still be a few plump and juicy ones, but overall, less of them. And so it is with Kenyan coffee.
However, throughout my career one of the absolute joys of Kenyan coffee has been the search for the results of coincidental alchemy of agriculture and post-harvest production. Absolute perfection is extremely hard, if not impossible to plan due to the endless variables that exist. But sometimes the stars come together and even today the flavours of the good old days make an appearance. Imagine…the varieties are perfect, the hours of sunshine and rainfall just right, the cherry selection and quality control are spot-on, the washing and removal of floaters is tightly controlled and likewise the fermentation and washing. Within the fermentation process the outside temperature and humidity is optimum as are the levels of yeasts, bacteria and moulds in the tanks.
The supervisor gets the timing of fermentation just right and the water is good. A bottleneck in production brings about the need to hold the batch in a soak tank until more drying tables are available. This extra process brings about more chemical and physical changes which develop some new and delicious flavours whilst also increasing acidity. And so the good practices, good fortune and happy coincidences continue as the coffee dries on raised beds with perfect weather conditions and the great care of conscientious workers. The resting period in parchment is just the right amount of time at a lucky average daytime temperature before the coffee is milled and any defects removed before being carefully packed in exactly the right type of sacks.
A sample of this perfect coffee arrives at our lab in Falcon headquarters and is roasted to SCA protocol and graded. The magic of coincidence and good practice reveals itself in the cup as we examine the dry fragrance: lemon, a touch of butter, blackcurrant and a hint of rhubarb. Breaking the crust only confirms this but now there’s a hint of tangerine too. First slurps confirm that our noses got it right and as the coffee cools a little, those lemony notes intensify and that touch of butter turns into a fat and sumptuous dollop. There is summer gooseberry on the finish and more blackcurrant as it cools. The flavour has good length and maintains its excellence. The acidity is almost off the chart… 9+, sharp and bright but refreshing and very pleasing. The body is heavy-but-not-too-heavy, and when balance is considered, we knock off a point – it’s only an 8 but this is in fact part of this lot’s great charm. The acidity is making it a bit crazy and out-there but that’s a good thing and we know this coffee was born for filter. The cups are uniform, clean and sweet and we can’t help but reward the overall flavour with a 9.25. This coffee ends up scoring 91.5, and though it’s rare, this still occasionally happens.
This is our approach at Falcon Specialty. We know there’s a lot less coffee from Kenya nowadays so we cup, cup, cup as many samples as possible in order to catch the fat trout and find those rubies in the dust. Yes, they’re rare – but they do still exist.
Happy Kenyan season everyone.