Kenya has one of the most interesting and complicated histories with coffee: Despite sharing a border with the “birthplace of coffee,” Ethiopia, Kenya was one of the latest places planted in coffee, nearly 300 years after the plant was first cultivated for sale. In fact, the varieties that were brought to Kenya had circumnavigated the globe before they found their way back to the African continent, mutating in various climates to create a profile that, once adapted to the rich soil around Mt. Kenya, resulted in the singular profiles that this country has to offer.
- Size: 580,367 sq km
- Capital City: Nairobi
- Port City: Mombasa
- Population: 46.7 million
- Languges Spoken: English and Swahili (official), various indigenous languages
Coffee production in Kenya
- Population Involved in Coffee: Approximately 700,000
- Producing Families Average Farm Size: 1–14 Hectares for Smallholders; 15–50 Hectares for
- Estates Bags Exported Annuall: 700,000–1 Million (92.5–135 Million Lbs)
Kenya Coffee Profile
- Growing Regions: Bungoma, Embu, Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Kisii, Machakos, Mt. Elgon, Murang’A, Nakuru, Nyeri, Taita Taveta, Thika, Tran-Nzoia
- Common Varieties: Sl-28, Sl-34, French Mission Bourbon, Ruiru 11, Batian, k7
- Processing Method: “Kenya Washed,” Typically a Washed Process with an Additional Soak Lasting from 12–72 Hours
- Country Specific Grades: Sorted by Size, with Aa the Largest (17/18 Ss), Ab (15/16 Ss), Pb (Peaberry – 16 Ss or 4.74 Mm) Bag Size – 60 Kg
History Coffee Kenya
In our opinion, Kenya has one of the most interesting and complicated histories with coffee: Despite sharing a border with the “birthplace of coffee,” Ethiopia, Kenya was one of the latest places planted in coffee, nearly 300 years after the plant was first cultivated for sale. In fact, the varieties that were brought to Kenya had circumnavigated the globe before they found their way back to the African continent, mutating in various climates to create a profile that, once adapted to the rich soil around Mt. Kenya, resulted in the singular profiles that this country has to offer.
The first plants were brought to the country by Scottish and French missionaries, the latter contributing what would be known as French Mission Bourbon, transplanted from the island of Bourbon (now called Reunion) to Tanzania and Kenya in an attempt to finance their efforts on the ground. The Scottish, meanwhile, brought strains from Mocha, the different varieties contributing to the dynamic quality of the coffees in the country even to this day.
In the 1900s
Established as a British colony specifically for its moneymaking potential, Kenya became a coffee powerhouse as a way for the empire to control both the tea (already a Kenyan staple crop) and coffee markets worldwide. By the 1920s, as Europe demanded more and more coffee, the cash crop became a major Kenyan export, and in the 1930s the auction system was developed, ostensibly to democratize the market for farmers. After Kenya achieved independence from Britain in the 1960s, coffee took on a greater importance to small landholders, many of whom were given coffee farms in the redistribution of private property from large colonial and government-owned plantations.
In the 2000s
In the 2000s, approximately 85% of the coffee farms in Kenya are owned by natives to the country, though European influence is still evident in larger estates. Today, the majority of Kenyan farmers tend small plots, growing as few as 150 coffee trees: They bring cherry to centrally located mills, where their coffees are weighed, sorted, and combined to create lots large enough to process and export. There are also privately owned estates, though fewer than during colonial days: The average estate grows around 10,000 coffee trees.
Most Kenyans prefer to drink tea in their homes, and cafe culture largely exists for tourists and in the major cities.
The Market: Auction and “Second Window”
Coffee is sold by way of two main marketing systems in Kenya: by auction at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange, or through direct sales, often called “Second Window.” Since the establishment of the auction system in the 1930s, the majority of Kenyan coffee has been traded that way. It’s evolved from traditional “open-outcry” bidding on the market floor to a largely silent system, with an electric trigger for each trader to hit during bidding. Through this system, prices of highly sought-after coffees can soar, as agents work to outbid each other on the coffees that are available each week.
Coffee auction system
The auction system works like this: Each estate or co-operative society works with a marketing agent, whose responsibility it is to bring the coffees to auction to sell to the highest bidder. The marketing agent will charge somewhere between 1.5–3% of the price of the coffee, and there is also a government tax imposed on the sale of coffee. Marketing agents tender samples of the milled coffees to interested bidders, and auctions take place on Tuesdays throughout the year in Nairobi; the coffees that are due to be auctioned any given week are printed in a catalogue available through the Exchange. Many exporters will bid on lots at auction and sell them privately to importers and roasters.
The introduction of the “Second Window” created an avenue in which a farmer and buyer (such as a roaster or importer) can negotiate a price somewhat separate to the bidding at auction, typically by discussing and agreeing upon the deal before or during the harvest. Some exporters will also cup and directly purchase coffees from their associated marketing agents or mills, negotiating a price based on the previous week’s auction prices for specific grades (AA, AB, PB, and so on).
Coffee Growing in Kenya
Most of Kenya’s green coffees are grown at elevations ranging from 1,400 meters to 2,000 meters above sea level in the volcanic soils on the high plateaus surrounding the snow-capped Mt. Kenya and the foothills of the Aberdare Range. This elevation qualifies it for Strictly High Grown (SHG) / Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) status. The nature of the high altitude means that Kenyan coffees grow slowly, allowing ample time to develop and providing lots of nutrients to the coffee bean.
The area that spans from 17,000-foot Mt. Kenya south toward the capital of Nairobi is a major coffee growing region, while a smaller growing region is found near the border with Uganda on the hills of Mt. Elgon.
Kenya coffee growing regions include Ruiri, Thika, Kirinyaga, Mt. Kenya West, Nyeri, Kiambu, and Muranga. These prime coffee-growing areas include a wide range of native forest ecosystems that support a variety of wildlife.
Processing Kenya Coffee
Aside from the varieties grown in the country, and the altitudes that range from 1,400 to more than 2,000 meters above sea level, the special processing that most Kenyan coffees undergoes is part of what contributes to its particular flavor profile.
Here’s a general breakdown of how processing happens in Kenya (though, truthfully, there is no one “standard” for how a factory or washing station handles its coffee):
Sorting Kenya coffee
Farmers will bring their cherry to the factory, where it is weighed and put into the hopper with the rest of that day’s collection. (The farmer is given a receipt for the value of the coffee.) The coffee is depulped using one of two types of equipment: A single-disc depulper, which directs all of the coffee into a single fermentation tank, or a pre-grader/multi-disc depulper, which uses multiple water tanks to pre-sort the coffees by density before and after the depulping, which allows the smaller grades to be depulped again as needed. The single-disc depulping is more common at estates than at the factories.
Ferment – Washing and Dry Coffee
Factories will ferment every grade of parchment coffee dry in its mucilage for 24–48 hours, then move the coffee through water channels to separate washing tanks, where the softened mucilage is sloughed off. Premium AA lots are sometimes sent to holding takes to be submerged underwater for an additional 24 hours.
The tanks are drained, and the coffee is given a quick “pre-dry,” or “skin dry,” laid out in full sunlight in thin layers on raised beds for about six hours; this is to prevent the parchment from cracking. The beans are then moved to raised beds where they are spread in thicker layers, and allowed to dry for 7–10 days. The coffee is typically dried to 11–12% moisture.
Grading of Kenya coffee
The grades of Kenya coffee beans include Kenya E (Elephant Bean), Kenya PB (Peaberry), Kenya AA, Kenya AB, Kenya C, Kenya TT, Kenya T, and Kenya MH/ML. The bulk of specialty coffee sold by importers is Kenya’s AA grade, but AB and T are also imported. See Kenya Coffee Grading for more information on each of these grades.
The biggest screen size in the Kenya coffee grading system is E (Elephant), followed by PB (Peaberry) and AA, which means the green coffee bean is just a little more than one-fourth inch (1/4″) in diameter. While AA is the most commonly available on the market, others can sometimes be found but don’t drastically affect the flavor.
The specifications for Kenya AA: Screen 21; retained on 18; diameter 7.2 mm.
See more Grading of Kenya Coffee from Espresso and Coffee guide