Like most trips to Africa, our first trip to Kenya and Ethiopia this year started out with almost two days’ worth of flights. Once you land, waves of exotic smells –diesel among them– fuel you past the airport into a large city clearly divided by wealth.
Kenya, one of our most difficult origins to manage sustainably, hosts the capital [Nairobi] which sits on a highland plateau starting at around 1,500 masl, or nearly 5,000 feet. This, coupled with the bright red-orange soil inhabited by a myriad of life that seems to coexist with the community (incredible fertility in densely populated areas is something you tend to see a lot in origin countries) gives you an idea that coffee may not be too far away. Indeed, driving in the northern part of the city on Kiambu road I found small plots of land full of elegant coffee trees bursting with what would soon be blooming flowers.
Within a couple of days in Kenya you get a sense of the general customs, which stem in large part from the English colonization (manners, divisions in industry, organization) even down to their coffee system.
When cupping or referring to coffee lots in Kenya, there are two important pieces of information needed in order to identify a coffee lot: Factory and Outturn. The Factory is the equivalent of a wet mill or washing station where coffee is processed after being picked, typically into washed coffee. The Outturn tells you what week it was picked, which lot # it is and what facility dehulled and sorted it.
We have a strong emphasis on sustainability, we focus on specific producers or partners to work with, and doing this with transparency and consistency can be nearly impossible year to year. One factory may produce hundreds of outturns from over 1,000 individual producers, making it nearly impossible to attribute its deliciousness to anything. This is only the first layer of the onion when it comes to achieving the traceability we seek, as there are also cultural practices that make it difficult (though not nearly as bad as in some other countries) to encourage individuals to separate their coffees from the rest of their community’s and try to find some infrastructure or support in processing that separate lot.
Quality issues also tend to arise when there are estates that decide to go it alone and process their own coffees. Consistently processing coffee with more and more fresh pickings arriving at the wet mill every day while keeping strict controls on certain metrics (while monitoring those metrics) and expecting every lot to be processed the same is as difficult as it sounds. This is only exacerbated by the fact that estates tend to have higher production volumes, furthering the risks that also involve weather changes and additional resource issues.
Taking all of these into account, it’s been difficult to isolate a single estate or producer that we could successfully work with and we’re always searching for new projects to undertake under this goal.
This year we visited Njemu Farms, a family estate that holds four different parcels and runs under the guidance of father Simon, and his two children James and Ernest. Upon first cupping their coffees, which consisted of lots that were mainly SL 34 and Ruiru 11, we felt there was a lot of potential to finally work with an estate that produced a good example of what many regard to be the classic Kenyan cup profile. It seemed to be slightly floral, grapefruity, and you could get some caramel and nectarine flavors once in a while. The family showed us around all of their farms, and walked us through the way they process coffee and what difficulties they’ve faced. These conversations help us focus on what is important to the producer and processer, as well as identify commonalities and differences in our vision and approach. While we ate some muffins and drank hot tea in milk, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is a common experience for other roasters coming to Kenya, whereas in other countries in the Western Hemisphere there can be larger producers that make it easy to go and visit the people in charge of producing the coffee we drink.
The co-operative system in Kenya can be confusing, and most roasters also buy lots from different factories in different areas every year. At Olympia, we have liked the lots from Kibiru Factory for the past few years and tend to pick a couple of larger lots from them in order to build a relationship with them. This year we went past Nairobi and headed for the Aberdare mountains, straight into Kiambu and met the managers behind our Kibiru lots.
Daniel the factory manager was serious at first, keeping a quiet and watchful eye over us as we swept the wet mill where the magic happens. The typical process in Kenya is to ferment the coffee for about 12-36 hrs, then wash it and soak it again before washing it one last time in order to completely remove all traces of mucilage. This slow fermentation and cleanliness tend to highlight the citric acidities commonly abundant in Kenyan coffee. Once we made our way past the beds, we were getting to know each other better and understanding the different impacts of tea and coffee over the local economic chain, which made me realize tea and coffee are complementary not competitive.
Before heading out I found Daniel the teams’ smiles thought provoking; many times, people in agriculture have been left out of the picture of modern economic greatness, cast aside as remnants of a primitive economic vision without being given the dignity and support they deserve.
Marco Ariz: Green Coffee Relationship Manager