Java Beat: Exploring Kenyan Coffee
This article originally published in Greater Sturbridge Town & Country Living, March 2021 By Elvis Dyer, Owner/Roaster, Sturbridge Coffee Roasters
When thinking about coffee origins, countries such as Colombia, Brazil and Costa Rican are often front of mind. However, Kenya is recognized today as a prominent specialty coffee origin. Growing regions in the country (especially its central highlands) offer rich, acidic soil, and optimal conditions for specialty coffee production. Kenyan coffee is often associated with bright acidity, a rich, full body, and a distinctive flavor in the cup.
The Kenyan Flavor Profile:
Kenyan coffees offer a complex and fruity cup. It’s bright acidity, full body, and a distinctive aroma makes it a favorite coffee region of many people. As with any coffee region, there are variations within it. Kenya has three important growing conditions: lots of altitude, regular rainfall and good soil. It has six distinct producing regions: Central (Mt. Kenya and the Aberdare mountain range), Western (Kisii, Nyanza, and Bungoma), Great Rift Valley (Nakuru and Kericho), Eastern (Machakos, Embu, and Meru), and Coastal (the Taita hills).Each of these regions have their own particular growing conditions and climate, as well as micro-regions within it, which is why the consumer will find differences in the cup they drink.
Coffee beans from Kenya grow at elevations anywhere from 1,400 to 2,000 meters high. This elevation means Kenyan coffee beans qualify for Strictly High Grown (SHG) / Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) quality bean status.
Kenya also has a wide variety of varietals. SL-28 and SL-34 are unique varietals, and rarely found outside of the country. These grow in high-altitude regions and are known for their complexity. Varietals like K7, which grow at a lower altitude and is drought-tolerant thanks to its long routes. Other varietals such as Batian and R11 were both created in laboratories and both resistant to disease.
Currently there are eight Kenyan coffee bean grades: E (elephant), PB (peaberry – where the coffee cherry has one round seed not two), AA, AB, C, TT (low density beans), T, and MH/ML (low density and tend to taste sour). These grades are given to coffee beans before roasting to determine their size, shape and quality. Bean size is important since beans of the same size roast at the same rates, ensuring consistency so that the entire bag of coffee will produce the same flavor profile.
If you have ever tried Kenyan specialty coffee, there’s a good chance that it came from an SL-series plant. SL stands for Scott Laboratories, the name of the Kenyan research center that first developed these varieties in the 1930s. The SL varieties remain popular among Kenyan producers as they offer good longevity, high yields, and excellent cup quality. World Coffee Research recognizes three official SL varieties, although there are likely many more, and the SL-28 and SL-34 are the most popular in specialty coffee. SL varieties are incredibly resilient and hardy. They require little nutrition, and are resistant to drought, but susceptible to coffee leaf rust, coffee berry disease (CBD), and nematodes in the soil. They produce large cherries after three years and have a low milling loss, which means they have a favorable parchment to green coffee ratio. SL-series varieties may comprise as much as 80% of all exported Kenyan coffee.
Kenyan Harvest and Processing:
Kenyan coffee is harvested twice a year: once from April-June (sometimes carrying over into July) and again from October-December (sometimes carrying over in January). The exact start and end times of the harvest is affected by the region, the weather that year, and the farm’s altitude.
Washed processing is most common in Kenya, but you will also find natural processed coffees in certain regions. Generally, the natural processed method is used for beans which tend to be a lower quality or unripe. Wet processing is a method by which the green, unroasted coffee bean is removed from its outer shell (called parchment). This type of processing usually occurs when the coffee fruit is still moist or just after harvest. A wet-processed coffee tends to taste cleaner and feel thinner (less body) in the mouth once brewed.
Every producing region is unique. Different soils, climates, varietals, and production/processing practices create distinct coffees which, in Kenya’s case, are known for their complexity. Kenyan coffee beans are world-renowned for their intense flavor profile and mouth-watering aroma. Brew up a cup and see for yourself!