Kenya Coffee

kenya coffee beans

Kenya coffee is world-renowned, and for good reason. Traditional cultivation and complex flavors make Kenyan coffee beans like nonother. 

Many consider Kenya coffee one of the best coffees in the world. It is known as a ‘clean cup’ to several coffee connoisseurs. This reflects Kenya coffee’s finesse and unadulterated flavor.

Let’s explore the quality and history of Kenya coffee!

The Power of Land and Soil

Kenya is found just North of Tanzania and south of Ethiopia, two other coffee-producing countries. Kenya is practically ‘cut in half’ by the equator. Although the equator usually alludes to hot weather, Kenya actually has three separate climate zones. Its coastline is typically tropical and humid, while the Northeast is very dry and hot. Its Western and central mountainous zones are the most temperate. This makes for some ideal coffee growing sites.

Kenya possesses a terrain with a remarkable dichotomy. The impressive Eastern Rift Valley separates Kenya. The country’s eastern shore has gentle hills edging towards the Indian sea. Yet, the rugged Western portion of the country is where you find all the mountains and inactive volcanoes. Mount Kenya is the largest mountain, at 17,058 feet. It is the second tallest mountain in Africa!

Mount Kenya

The evolution of these Western landforms contributes to Kenya coffee’s unique flavor profile. This is due to the power of the soil. Kenya’s soil is even more incredible. In the foothills of the mountains, there is volcanic soil diversity. Volcanic soil is very fertile and minerally rich. It also offers great drainage. This wards off potential fungus and other destructive forces to the coffee plant. These soils are also known as andisols

Many believe the quality of Kenya coffee comes from the mineral content and fertility of volcanic soil. This coupled with the high altitude grow sites makes for exceptional Arabica coffee beans. 

A Long Colonial History

Kenya coffee has a very contentious history. Its roots lay in an intense colonial history. Surprisingly, arabica coffee did not travel down from its birthplace of Ethiopia. The Arabica variety arrived by way of Catholic French missionaries. They brought the coffee plants from Reunion island, a French territory off the coast of Madagascar. 

The arrival of the British in 1885 expanded coffee production. The British established the East Africa Protectorate, which is now present-day Kenya. This occupation came at a controversial price for locals. The British recognized the true value of Kenyan land. There was serious agriculture potential, especially with coffee. Several plantations spread throughout Kenya. Yet, the British relied heavily on local labor. Not only did they expect locals to work coffee farms, but the British offered minimal compensation for the work. As a result, the British decided to bring in laborers from India.

The hostility between locals and the British grew more intense with the effects of World War I and World War II. With major financial instability, Kenyans became further enraged. Kenyan coffee farmers could not own their own farms. This ultimately resulted in an intense uprising.

Kenyan Independence

The Mau-Mau revolt erupted in 1952. This multi-force challenged the British occupation and its longstanding oppressive force. Although the British overwhelmed the rebel forces, it eventually set the tone of independence for Kenya. Kenyans gained farm property ownership, although with restrictions on size. Also, Kenyans could not roast and consume their own beans.

Despite these restrictive measures, the creation of small coffee plantations ultimately defined the high quality of Kenyan coffee. After Kenya’s independence in 1963, the country was set up for coffee success. Today, smallholder farmers still control a majority of the Kenya coffee industry. These farms usually belong to a cooperative in order to sustain an income. 

Kenyan Culture

Coffee cannot be made without people! Kenyans are vibrant people with wonderful and diverse traditions. These traditions represent a cultural fusion unique to Kenya. 

Photo credit: Esin Üstün

The cultural origins of Kenya come from the ancient Bantu peoples. This explains Kenya’s official language of Swahili, which evolved from the Bantu language. English is also an official language. Nonetheless, the arrival of Arabs, Indians, and the British over the course of history influenced Kenya’s original cultural makeup. Religion exemplifies this cultural plurality. In Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, you can find both mosques and churches.

Music is also huge in Kenya. In Nairobi, there are several nightclubs. Kenya is home to some unique pop music, African rumba, and even traditional Indian music styles!

Kenyan Food

The best way to understand a culture is through its food! It also best showcases Kenya’s cultural synthesis. 

Kenyan food is full of delicious carbs. Ugali is definitely the most iconic stable dish. Cornmeal boils until it turns into a thick porridge. Maize came from the Americas to Kenya through colonial trade. Ugali accompanies almost every dish in Kenya. There is also the flatbread chapati. This originated from Indian roti! Kenyan pilau or biryani is another dish of Indian descent. Spiced with cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, and cloves, this rice dish is an ultra flavorful staple. 

Apart from delicious starches, Kenyan food is plentiful in meats and vegetables. Goat and beef are the base of rich stews. Vegetables like kale, peas, carrots, and more are grown across the country.

Coffee Production

Kenya coffee plantations exist in every corner of Kenya. Most farms are small, with farmers who really value quality. These farms are all under 40 acres. Farmers manage their crops very prudently. This reflects Kenyans’ long struggle for farming freedom under colonial rule.

Kenya coffee mostly consists of Arabica beans. Yet, you can find some robusta as well. Nevertheless, Kenyan coffee experiences quality assessment from start to finish. This is what makes it stand out in the global coffee market. 

Growing Regions

Kenyan coffee farms thrive in particular parts of the nation. Each location supplies various growing conditions and soil. The most prized sites are high in altitude and have volcanic soils.

Coffee growing is broken down into subregions growing quality coffee beans:

  • Central region (Nyeri, Murang’a, Kiambu, Thika, Kirinyaga:) This area is around the famous Mount Kenya. It is where you will find a major agricultural production. It also has exceptionally high altitudes and an abundance of volcanic soil. Thus, the Central region is home to the most high-quality Kenyan coffee. 
  • Eastern Region (High areas of Meru Central, Embu, Machakos, Tharaka, and Makueni:) This region is not too far from Mount Kenya. It is full of smallholder farms and estates. Its quality volcanic soil also makes for some top tier coffee beans.
  • Coast region (Taita Taveta:) This coffee is grown on the coast in more lowlands. This area yields small amounts of beans.
  • Western region (Bungoma, Vihiga, Kakamega:) This westernmost region borders Uganda. It is very small in production. However, its recent focus on sustainability measures is evolving the quality of beans. This may bring it to the level of Central Kenyan coffee.
  • Nyanza region (Kisii, Nyamira, Nyabondo Plateau, and Oyugis:) Located in southwest Kenya, this region offers beans cultivated by smallholder farmers. Production is not far from the majestic Lake Victoria.

A coffee’s profile is not defined just by production. The coffee processing method ultimately defines its flavor profile.

Most Kenyan coffee is washed. This is what mostly makes Kenya a ‘clean cup’ coffee. The washed process involves de-pulping the coffee cherry to reveal the bean. Then, the beans ferment briefly before being washed. The final step is the drying of the beans before bagging. Coffee factories carry out this entire process for Kenyan coffee farmers. Cooperates own these ‘factories,’ allowing for a streamlined process for coffee producers. 

Photo credit: Chad Cassin

The Coffee Board of Kenya assesses the quality of green coffee beans. Firstly, the bigger and better quality beans typically receive an AA rating. These beans are usually grown in high altitude volcanic soil. Then, all the raw beans are assessed on a ‘class’ scale from 1 to 10. There is even an Elephant grade coffee bean, that is the largest of the green coffee beans! Overall, most coffee imported from Kenya is grade AA. 

The Flavor

The flavor profile of top tier Kenyan coffee is like none other. It is very bold and complex. You may find roasts with definitive citrus and berry notes, while others exhibit floral and tropical flavors. Kenya coffee is usually a light or medium roast.

The Best Way to Enjoy Kenya Coffee

From raw to roasted, Kenyan coffee offers some amazing flavors. We suggest trying a traditional steeping method. A French press makes this method simple and easy. In this process, the coarsely ground beans awaken slowly in hot water. It gives life to the striking aromas of Kenya coffee. And, it makes enough to share the experience, too!

5 Key Facts about Kenya Coffee:
  1. The Arabica coffee variety came to Kenya in 1885 through the arrival of French missionaries and British colonists.
  2. Kenya has incredibly rich volcanic soil, which contributes to the health and quality of coffee beans.
  3. Most high-quality Kenya coffee grows around Mount Kenya, Africa’s second tallest mountain.
  4. Kenya coffee receives a rating and class by the Coffee Board of Kenya.
  5. Kenya’s coffee is complex. Its flavor profile usually consists of berry, citrus, and floral notes.
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