Kenyan Coffee: Learn the Rich History and Distinct Variety


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Kenyan coffee is highly sought-after by many consumers around the world due to its intense flavor and a pleasant aroma. And since 2005, 99 percent of this coffee is exported mainly to Europe, the United States of America, and Saudi Arabia. 

Being one of the few coffee-producing African countries, Kenya is not only known for exporting high-quality coffees in large volumes but also known for producing high-quality coffee beans. 

However, do note that the spectacular flavor profile of Kenyan coffee has been attributed to several factors.

So, let’s further discuss the things that make Kenyan coffee so unique.

Focus Kenyan coffee learn rich history distinct variety

A Brief History of Kenyan Coffee

Coffee has been grown for over a century now, since its first introduction in Kenya in 1893.

The history of coffee in Kenya started when it was introduced in the country by French missionaries. They began importing coffee from brazil and thus introducing the beverage and plant to the locals.

After that, during colonization, the British settlers began to plant coffee in large tracks of land. They invested heavily in the production of coffee to the extent that it became a major Kenyan export.

Almost all of the coffee was meant for export, with only the low-quality grade used in the country. 

Focus Kenyan coffee learn rich history distinct variety

But even though the local industry was gaining momentum through coffee production and marketing regulations, Kenyan’s were not allowed to own or manage coffee farms until 1934, when the British Colonial Board allowed Kenyans to work on small-scale coffee farms with limited resources. 

In 1937, the government formed the Kenya Planters Cooperative Union (KPCU) to play a significant role in the performance of the coffee industry and represent the interest of small coffee farmers.

And when Kenya gained independence, the locals began to take ownership of the planting, producing, and consuming of the coffee, thus completely altering the crop’s history forever. 

Unlike in the past, where the country took low-quality coffee, Kenyans delight in high-quality home processed coffee today. 

Have you had your Kenyan coffee?

Kenyan Coffee-Growing Regions

The main Kenyan coffee-growing regions are Nyeri, Murang’a, Kirinyaga, Embu, Meru, Nakuru, Machakos, Kisii, Bungoma, Nakuru, Ruiru, Thika, and Juja5.

While coffee is grown best in highlands, between 1400-2000 meters above sea level, each coffee-growing region is distinctly different. But luckily, Kenyan Arabica can adapt to different altitudes.

The Kenyan coffee production is at two levels. The first is the smallholder production organized into cooperatives, and the other is the medium to large-sized production, commonly referred to as estates.

An estimated area of 160,000 hectares is under coffee production. And about one-third of which is the most established sector, while the rest are under the smallholder sectors with an estimated 700,000 growers.

Kenyan Growing Conditions

Focus Kenyan coffee learn rich history distinct variety

Coffee is a tropical plant, and Kenya happens to be a tropical country. Certain parts of the country provide cool to warm climatic conditions that are ideal for this crop’s healthy growth.

Kenyan coffee is grown with annual precipitation not less than 1000 mm (35″). This is a good situation since coffee requires rainfall of 1500 to 2000 millimeters per annum or 60 to 80 inches.

Also, Kenya receives rainfall that is well distributed throughout the year. This condition creates deep, well-drained loam soils, which are excellent for the coffee to grow, yield, and prosper. 

In terms of temperature, Kenyan coffee grows with a temperature range of not more than 19C (35F). This complies with the ideal growing temperature of the coffee, which is between 18 to 21 degrees Celsius. 

Aside from an excellent climate, the highlands in Kenya also provide one of the most successful coffee production regions in Africa. And for this reason, the coffee plantations are typically set up in cleared forestland.

Arabica coffee, the primary coffee grown in Kenya, is grown on rich volcanic soils with an elevation of between 1400 to 2000 meters above sea level. 

These conditions are almost present in the districts of Kenya. Areas like Kiambu, Muranga, Nyeri, and Kirinyaga county meet all of the stated requirements, which contribute to the notion of this coffee being the most unique in the world.

Overall, it is no surprise then that you will find acres and acres of land in these areas that are coffee plantations. Kenyans set up these plantations even before the country gained independence and have continued to produce the highest quality coffee in the world.

Kenyan Coffee Processing Methods

Focus Kenyan coffee learn rich history distinct variety

The Kenyan processing methods are both extensive and intensive in producing the highest quality of coffee.

Though the method may vary according to the location and climatic condition of a said area, almost all Kenyan coffee is processed by a wet method to ensure the best quality. 

Once the coffee berries have been harvested, they are transported to the factory. Then the coffee is passed through a pulping machine to separate the pulp from the fruit’s skin. This is typically done in the presence of a lot of water. 

Afterward, the remaining coffee is fermented to remove further the slick layer called mucilage. The duration of fermenting process depends on the climate of the area where the coffee berries were grown. 

Fermentation is usually between 12 to 48 hours. Once the fermentation process is complete, the beans are rinsed with water.

The beans are then passed through grading channels to determine their quality. The densest coffee, and thus the highest quality, is at the high end, while the lighter coffee beans, the lower end.

In their graded quantities, the coffee beans are then dried on drying tables to ensure that they dry up evenly. 

When the coffee has dried, it has to go through a rigorous sorting process. It is sorted by density and size, with the densest graded as the highest quality, grade 1, while the lightest beans are graded as lowest quality, grade 4. 

The coffee is also evaluated for damage, color flaws, or any other imperfections that it may have incurred during drying. The coffee is then stored in 70-kilogram bags and transported to the millers.

What does Kenyan Coffee Taste Like?

Its rich flavor characterizes Kenyan coffee. It has a deep, wine-like acidity and produces a pleasant aroma when brewed. 

Overall, though there are specific nuances due to the region in Kenya where it is grown, Kenyan coffee has a bright taste, with complex tones of both berry and fruit.

The Five Distinct Kenyan Coffee Varietals

Focus Kenyan coffee learn rich history distinct variety

While there are many types of coffees globally, Arabica and Robusta are the only two commercially produced species. 

Arabica is globally recognized as a high-quality, mild coffee and is usually used to blend and upgrade other inferior brands. 

Kenya focuses on producing quality Arabica, which makes their coffee recognized as one of the finest coffees in the world. And what’s more interesting is that they adapt well to different altitudes.

Moreover, there are five distinct varieties of coffee in Kenya. They are;

  1. The SL28 variety; is primarily found in Nyeri. It is known for its high yield and exceptionally cup quality. It is also drought-resistant, and thus many farmers prefer it.
  2. The SL34 variety; has a high yield and high cup quality, though not as high as the SL28. It was developed from the Bourbon variety, as was the SL28.
  3. The K7 coffee variety; as the other varieties mentioned above, the K7 coffee variety is drought resistant. It also traces its origins from the Bourbon variety. Its coffee beans are of slight and mild acidity, and the tree itself has a high-quality output and high productivity.
  4. Ruiru 11; the Ruiru 11 variety is resistant to leaf rust and the Coffee Berry Disease. It also has a high output, but its berries are of lower quality than the other coffee varieties.
  5. Batian Coffee variety; The Batian variety is relatively nascent, as it was produced in 2010. It is resistant to CLR and CBD. It has many similarities to the SL28, and its cup qualities match with the SL varieties.

Kenyan vs. Ethiopian Coffee

Focus Kenyan coffee learn rich history distinct variety

Ethiopia is also a mass producer of coffee, and the quality it produces is world-class. That being said, there are differences between the coffee produced in Kenya to that produced in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is the largest producer of coffee in Africa and ranks fifth in coffee production globally. It has three main varieties of coffee, named after the region in which the coffee comes from; Kaffa, Harrar, and Sidamo.

The coffee that comes from Ethiopia is distinct, with elegant herbal, floral, and citrus notes. Its flavor is sensitive and delicate and can leave bergamot, jasmine flower, and even blueberry aftertastes. It isn’t very strong nor very acidic. You can read our guide on Ethiopian coffee for more details.

Kenyan coffee, on the other hand, is recognized for its unique and exquisite taste. It has notes of citrus and berry, which can be characterized as a bit of winery. It is much brighter and of higher acidity compared to the Ethiopian varieties.

Final Thoughts

Coffee was the first major agricultural export in Kenya and has remained an essential part of the country’s economy throughout its history.

However, while the nation has experienced steady growth since independence, Kenya’s overall competitiveness has been declining. Kenya accounts for a very small share of global coffee exports.

But even though, just remember that these challenges are inevitable. In the end, given the country’s natural heritage, there is still a market opportunity for Kenya to pursue a discern coffee strategy and promote the local coffee industry.

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