The gem of Kenyan coffee

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Kenya is absolutely beautiful and charming country with incredible landscape of green lavish valleys and breathtaking Rift Valley that runs through Kenya from north to south. Kenya is home to 64 of the total lakes found within the continent of Africa. I was able to visit two of them, Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha.

Nairobi as a main commercial hub and the capital of the county is less attractive due to lack of safety concern. There are certain areas where you can walk without having your safety jeopardized but in general conception, use of taxi or Uber is preferable to move around. Nairobi was founded by colonial British East Africa in 1899, it grew so quickly that it replaced previous capital of Kenya in 1907, Machakos. During the time of colonial regime, when Kenya was occupied by British Empire, Nairobi became the center for coffee and tea production. In 1905 Mombasa was the capital of British protectorate, and as British colonists started to explore Kenyan region more and more, they used Nairobi as their first place of entry, or port of call, subsequently moving capital from Mombasa to Nairobi.

Main attraction of Nairobi for those who attracted to the wild life, is Giraffe center where you can interact with those lovely creatures and feed them from your own hands; David Shedrick wildlife trust is an elephant nursery that provides a save heaven to orphaned baby elephants, and of course, Nairobi national park, as the main game drive within the city of Nairobi, for those who want to see wild animals in shorter period and do not have much time to explore the country. KICC, or Kenyatta International Conference Center, the 28 story building designed by Norwegian and Kenyan architects that allows you to view the whole city of Nairobi in 360D with outstanding view of the capital, mountains and valleys.

Kenya is relatively expensive country to visit. $1 is equal to 100 Kenyan Shillings. Most places like restaurants, hotels price everything based on USD where you can easily spend $10 for lunch, $20 for taxi, $50 for gas, $10 for visiting parks, etc., etc.

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Kenya produces absolutely exquisite coffee and well known for SL28 and SL34, unique varietals that rarely found outside of the country. Those varietals grown in high altitude region of Kenya and known for their complexity, gracious viscosity, superior brightness, explosive berry like flavors, softness of mouthfeel, juicy body, and classic dryness of red wine like finish. So, my task in Kenya besides exploring the country, doing safari in Maasai Mara National Park, was to explore the coffee production and possibilities of the future of Kenyan coffee. One thing to note here that even though SL28 and SL34 are well known around the world within specialty coffee community for outstanding taste and remarkable flavors, most farmers try to distance themselves from growing those varietals in their own coffee plantations. SL28 and SL34 were created by the company called Scott Labs, where abbreviation of SL comes from. It happened in 1930 when Kenyan government hired Scott Lab with the main goal to survey and catalog the best suitable varieties in the region that stands for cup quality and productivity for further commercial development. After the task was completed and data recorded, the Scott Lab assigned specific number to varieties, 28 and 34 as the countries best in quality, economically and agriculturally speaking.

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So, to fulfill my task about Kenyan coffee production, I approached to John Makau, Kenyan barista champion of 2007, 2008 and 2009 to help me with organizing visits to the coffee farm and processing stations. I was not able to meet him personally as he was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia doing coffee projects in training and setting up a modern roaster plant. But we stayed in contact all the time, and with the help of his partner, Steve Kirimi, we set the date to discover coffee of Kenya.

John Muli Makau, a barista by profession who has risen from coffee bar to become Kenyan champion. He loves interacting and mentoring upcoming baristas into the world of coffee. John started in coffee in 2006, have achieved the highest award and acknowledgement as a barista champion representing Kenya and Africa in WBC. From 2009 John became a national barista trainer in Kenya and eventually a judge. He works closely in all sector of coffee from farm to cup by innovating and training on the importance of specialty coffee. His future plan is to learn more about coffee processing and sooner not later to open his own specialty coffee shop.

“Africa at large is raising the bar in specialty coffee market and this has improved a lot from farm to barista level due to competition, price competitive and incentives to farmers from different buyers and private investors who contributes a lot in the farm level”, as John Muli said.

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At that time I was at Lake Naivasha, 3 hours drive northwest of Nairobi, which is part of Great Rift Valley, this lake is at the highest elevation of the Kenyan Rift valley at 1,884 meters (6,181 ft) with gorgeous surrounding including over 400 types of bird species and sizable population of hippos.

On December 29, 2017 I met with Steve Kirimi and we drove to Meru region, about 4,5 hours  drive Northwest of Nairobi with distance of 269.9 km away from the capital. With an incredible lavish green field upon my eyes, and stunning landscape it got me more excited to step into the jewel of Kenyan coffee region.

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Finally, we arrived to Deman Coffee Estate run by Mutai. It is the most organized and perfectly set coffee farm on 7.5 acres of land. The main varietals grown here are Ruiru 11 and Batian. I mentioned earlier that some farmers try to distance themselves into planting SL28 and SL34, and the reason for that is leaf rust or “la roya”. Even though SL28 and 34 highly admired in specialty coffee market those varietals are not resistant to fungus which affects Kenya as well and reduces production. And for this reason farmers need to look into alternatives not to jeopardize coffee production and sustain their cash crop that feeds the family. Coffee borer disease stands next to leaf rust that could easily reduce coffee harvest by significant percentage, not mentioning the fact that CBD was first discovered in Kenya in 1922. From there on most coffee region in Central America and Caribbean get the effect of CBD on their plantations that could be devastated if not treated properly.

I have never heard of Batian variety until I got to Kenya. I never had an opportunity to taste or to cup this variety, and I was very curious to find out more. Even though as we know, most high quality coffee leaves producing nations for export, and whatever leftover farmers have is used for local consumption, it is very rear to find good cup of coffee in any coffee producing countries. From what I understood based on my research, Batian variety was introduced to Kenya by Coffee Research Institute in 2010, and genetically it is close to SL28. I also heard that Batian even performs much better on the cupping table then SL28. I cannot confirm that for sure as I never tried it but it becomes very intriguing to taste side by side those varieties in order to distinguish superiority among them. Comparing to Ruiru 11, Batian is true Arabica breeding variety, and it is resistant to CBD and leaf rust. Cherry wise, uniformity and size are much bigger then those found in SL28 with deep red color, and cherry ripening started much earlier comparing to SL28 or Ruiru 11. Production wise, Batian is a high yield variety with what I was told, exceptional quality.

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Ruiru 11 that planted along the Deman Coffee Estate, was developed in the 70’s and released in 1986 in Kenya and it was named so after the station at Ruiru region. Ruiru 11 is resistant to fungus or any other form of insect damage which makes it preferable variety to grow with less money spent for treatment but cup quality is lower and less attractive among specialty coffee buyers due to the fact that Ruiru 11 traces its origin from the cross between arabica and robusta, basically hybrido de timor and rume sudan. The robusta content of Ruiru 11 is what differentiate this variety against Batian with an impact greater then the other. Can Batian revolutionize and transform the quality of Kenyan coffee to the greatest possibility we should just wait and find out.

The major harvest in Deman Coffee Estate is from March to July.  Average production here is between 5 to 10kg per tree. All varietals are planted separately so it would ease the job of pickers not to mix them together but separate properly to maintain quality and distinct taste of each of them. The farm planted with about 1,200 varietal of Batian and 6,500 of Ruiru 11. There are average of 50 pickers during harvest season employed at the estate, and their pay starts at KS250 per person per day, roughly $2.50 in current currency conversion. The estate does not use any chemicals whatsoever, it is 100% organic. Again, the certification means little in terms of understanding organic process vs chemical treatment due to cost most farmers simply cannot afford. Any type of disease can have a very catastrophic impact on agriculture sector by reducing the income and rising cost for treatment. For this reason, Mutai as any other farmers in coffee growing regions take prevention, protection and cautions very seriously in order to sustain economically to generate income in years to come. Boosting production to the highest level, selecting varieties with greater yield then others, spending less on any chemical treatments is the biggest gain any coffee farmer could achieve for their sustainability advantage.

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The best part I love about this farm is all coffee here are shade grown which means no chemical fertilizers required to combat bloody insects that causes disease and threatens the livelihood of farmer. Not just because it is bird friendly, and surrounding nature environment provides natural fertilizers from fallen leaves and decomposition of dead corpses from living creatures, it is also requires less water handling and slow maturation increases the quality of the cup by allow beans slowly absorb the sweetness of the pulp with higher sugar content. Shade grown coffee are healthier (organically grown), promote healthy environment (filtration of carbon dioxide), provides biodiversity by creating natural habitant for birds reproduction. Shade grown coffee are sustainable, and do not suffer from soil depletion or erosion. That’s the benefits of shade grown coffee which gives me more attention and more appreciation when I see farms in every country I travel that provide protection to coffee shrubs and the natural habitant to any living soul.

The main process executed at the farm is washed. After picking coffee cherries go through de-pulping where the skin of cherries removed and beans with mucilage intact move forward into washed fermentation for 2 days. First day of fermentation starts with beans soaked in water, drained the next day and placed into washing tank again for the 2nd day. During this time enzyme process starts breaking the bacteria and mucilage finally separates from the beans. On the 3rd day before drying process begins workers start separating all floaters left behind during fermentation, old water drained out, clean water fills the tank and all quality beans go back to the washing tank for the final stage of washed process. After all steps completed beans removed and placed on the african bed for drying. Drying period takes about 1-2 weeks depends on the weather condition. During the drying process the phase is monitored to make sure the moisture level is between 10-11% before beans removed and send to the milling station. The milling station does the rest by removing the parchment and preparing coffee for buyers. As Mr. Mutai told me that selling price of his lot depends on the grade but when it comes to quality needed to hit the specialty coffee market he does not settle for less then $7 per kg. That is a great achievement for coffee farmer who rewards himself for all labor and time devoted to produce specialty coffee. The quality of coffee as any agriculture product is cherishable, and requires time and dedication. As the consumer we tend to buy quality or spent less by ignoring quality. We have choice to dine in fine restaurant or chose affordable and less expensive one. We have choice to wear designer cloth or find something on the market that less expensive as long as it is good. As wine lover we have choice to open our pocket and treat ourselves with high quality of wine (either Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon), or buy cheap one and regret later on. We all have choices. But when it comes to quality of coffee, specialty coffee we are being part of, we do not have choice but to pursue with perfection and reward the hard labor of those who put themselves into the position to produce the outstanding quality of coffee we consume daily, those type of quality we score with grade higher then another, the quality we cup and wow ourselves for being sold for the highest price at the auction, the quality we chose to participate in barista competition. And for this reason we bow in front of all those farmers to say THANK YOU for everything you do for us, for your sweat, your long hours, your efforts, your perfection, your job, your love and sacrifice you give in order to let us enjoy your labor and admire  it from day to day.

If you would like to try some coffee from Deman Coffee Estate, and compare Batian and Ruiru 11 varietals grown here side by side, or simply want to engage into direct trade for your own business who supports local farmers, I would advise you to contact the owner, Mr. Mutai directly. Email address is: mutai100@yahoo.com

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