| Lynsey Harley

Specialty Coffee - Learn more about Kenya

Considering that Kenya borders Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, it’s surprising that Kenya’s first coffee plants took root in the country’s volcanic soil less than 120 years ago. Although Kenyan merchants traded with nearby countries in Africa and the middle East, until the mid-19th century Kenya remained largely unexplored by Westerners. But after German missionaries traveled there and returned home with stories of majestic peaks and huge lakes, Europeans rushed to explore and settle in Kenya - and they brought coffee with them.

Brief Overview

Coffee: Bourbon, kent various hybrids

Flavor: Characterized by medium body, high acidity, and sweet berry and wine flavors

Main Growing Regions: North/northeast of Nairobi, in the highlands surrounding Mount Kenya, in the Aberdare zone, in the west and in the great rift valley

Elevation: 1,500 – 2,100 meters

Flowering: September – October for the fly (early) crop; February – March for the main (late) crop

Harvest:  May – July for the fly crop; September – December for the main crop

Processing: Majority washed and sun-dried

Scottish missionaries transported coffee seeds from Aden in Yemen and tucked them into the soil at Kibwezi, near coastal Mombasa, in 1893. Cultivation expanded to Nairobi in 1900, and by 1912, several plantations were growing hundreds of acres of crop. Kenya, which became a British colony in 1920, set up an innovative system of researching producing, marketing and selling coffee. Kenya achieved independence in 1963 and continued to improve its coffee industry infrastructure. Today its coffees are considered some of the best in the world.

Kenyas are well known for their full aroma, balanced cup and a complex profile that offers high acidity and flavors of sweet, wine-like fruit and spice. Much of Kenya’s coffee grows 1,500–2,100 meters above sea level in nutrient rich, volcanic soil. The country’s main growing areas—Nyeri, Murang’a, Kirinyaga, Embu and Meru—are situated north and northeast of Nairobi, in the highlands surrounding Mt. Kenya, the second-highest peak in  Africa.

In the west, coffee grows in Kisii, Nyanza, Bugoma and Kakamega. In the Great Rift Valley, the crop grows in Nakaru, Trans Nzoia, Kericho and Kajiado.

Nearly all of Kenya’s coffee is arabica, mostly bourbon-variety hybrids SL 28 and SL34 developed In the 1950s by Scott Laboratories. Disease-resistant ruiru 11, a hybrid introduced in the 1990s, also occupies a small percentage of acreage in Kenya. Though bourbon is typically shade-grown, in Kenya the plants are often cultivated in full sun. Due to the high elevations of the farms, coffee plants are exposed to year-round rain, humid air and cooler temperatures, allowing them to thrive in the sun. Some small holders practice agroforestry, where trees and food crops are planted around the coffee plot. Much of the country’s premium coffee is produced on small farms ranging from one-quarter-acre to three acres in size. To generate enough volume to sell their crop, these small holders have organized into cooperatives. The Eastern African Fine Coffees Association (EAFCA) estimates that more than 700,000 small holders are organized into about 500 co-ops; there are also 320 large estates and more than 3,500 midsize estates of 50–100 acres, with onsite pulping stations. Small holders account for 58 percent of total coffee production and 75 percent of total acreage. In harvest year 2008–2009, approximately 55,000 metric tons of coffee was available for export, and 50,000–60,000 metric tons is expected in coffee year 2009–2010, according to the EAFCA. More than 95 percent of total production is exported; in this country with Muslim heritage and British influence, tea remains more popular than coffee.

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