So if you didn’t know I spent the last 6 days in Kenya, returning to the UK late Sunday night. The great thing about these trips is that you get very exposed to a country’s coffees along with the opportunity to meet lots of coffee people, amazing people that ask deep questions and provide thoughtful but probing answers to the questions you raise.
I think the thing that I like best about traveling is I always come away learning so much, I have a post in me explaining the way that Kenya sells its coffee, something I’ve been keen to understand for a while, but thats for another day.
The trip was equally split between cupping new coffees (I think I may have found some very special lots for us in the coming year) alongside visiting washing stations and growers.
At the cupping table I was exposed to nearly 200 cups during the short time I was there and I was struck by a number of things, the biggest was the cup profile.
The “Kenya cup profile”
I used to expect a certain profile from Kenya. This would be predominantly blackcurrant, with HUGE acidity, citrus fruits, or a red wine like acidity, full of red fruits and deliciousness. Kenyas have long been one of the highlights for any roaster when the season rolls around.
But the last couple of years, farms and washing stations I knew who used to do a great job have not done so on the cupping table. In fact, I have struggled to find repeat coffees from Kenya for a long time. There are lots of reasons for this, some I’ll explain in more depth below, some down to huge coop’s who deliver coffee at different times from many hundreds sometimes thousands of growers that will all effect the cup profile from year to year. But there are some more issues I’d like to explore in depth
Yield vs Cup Quality
Everyone I spoke to in Kenya is concerned with Yield, how much coffee you can achieve from one coffee plant. This was the top topic for growers, cooperatives and private estates, wet and dry mills owners, agronomists and agronomy companies and exporters. All the way along the origin chain this was top and indeed hot topic.
Visiting a agro company SMS (Sustainable Management Services) they were very proud to tell us how they had taken small holders from 1kg yield per tree to 2.5kg per tree and are aiming for more like 5kg per tree. Impressive, but there are a number of ways of doing this that will impact directly on the cup profile we see from this and other origins. For me this antidotally impacts on the cup quality, when you’re working a coffee tree to its maximum. Now don’t shoot me down here, I’m happy to admit it’s an area I know way too little about and is all conjecture, but even if we discount this, it works the soil much harder, the plant much harder. If we put that into a human idea of working harder with less rest and less food, we tend not to do our best work. We see this across much of agriculture and I have seen nothing that convinces me coffee is the exception.
Estates are disappearing, the COOP is the future
Estates are disappearing. Many of the large estates that once surrounded Nairobi are disappearing and becoming part of the urban sprawl. There is much more profit in building plots than growing coffee, with the average one bedroom apartment costing around £2000 per month in the capital city, you can see why things are going this way. Estates had long been the main source of coffee from Kenya, this is a good and bad thing. Estates generally yield much more coffee per tree (as I said above, I’m not convinced this is a good thing) but they are also much more organised in the lots they put together, and in general the coffee cup profile they produce. This is a sad loss for the Kenyan coffee market and makes it even more important that Coop’s pick up the quality baton, and those estates that do remain need to be rewarded for their work.
Reward for your toils
I think this is something we can all agree on, that it’s important to be rewarded for your toils. We all like to make money and Kenyan coffee farmers, although not rich, benefit from one of the most organised and efficient systems I have seen in a growing country. If what I was told was to be believed (and I have no reason to think otherwise) most growers will receive between $3.00 – $4.00 per lb. Now thats pretty impressive, and the differentials for providing quality are fairly small. So there is a lack of incentive to do anything but increase yield and not worry about cup profile, if I were a farmer I know what would be top of my list. The specialty buyer is in a niche market (i.e. me and my kind) and we are fairly demanding, or to put it more politely, a pain in the backside. I know this I am fully aware of it, and in Central South America, the growers we work with forgive my craziness as we’re able to reward producers with prices above the market price. This makes Pain in the backside Leighton’s visits a bit more bearable, but where the rewards are high and you don’t have to put up with my silly questions and stupid ideas, where is the incentive to do anything but increase yield?
In Kenya as I said I spoke to SMS who give advice to small farmers and were telling them to change their plant stock where they can. Coop’s were doing the same to their members and in fact were actively growing seedlings for them to renew their stock. The general advice seemed to be “rip out the very tasty and much in demand SL 28 and SL 34 varietals and plant Batian and Ruiru 11”.
And why? Well like above, yield is much improved by these and they seem to be better suited to climate change (see below). But whats the effect on the “Kenya cup profile”? Well, from the cuppings I did whilst in Kenya and over the past 18 months I think we’ll see a shift in what we are tasting from Kenyas and I’m not wholly convinced it’s for the better.
It seems no one can blog post about coffee anymore without looking at climate change. Central America is going through a rough time with coffee leaf rust (roya), a fungus that attacks the leaves of the coffee plant and brocca which is a a small beetle from Africa, though its now found worldwide and destroys crops by using the fruit to lay its eggs. Both of these have been rising and much attributed to climate change. In Colombia the effects of increasing temperatures (it’s risen by 1 degree C in 20 years) and the increased rain fall at unpredicted times (effecting the development of the coffee flower) is having an effect. Africa is not immune to these changes and ever farmer I have spoken to in the last 3 years mentions how the harvest time is now unpredictable when you used to be able to set your watch by it. Now climate is playing a bigger and bigger factor in the Yield, the quality of the cup and how the coffee tastes. Things are moving and things are changing and this involves what we should expect from different farms and countries.
So in conclusion…
Is this the end for Kenyan coffee? Will we see everything in the specialty market change? I don’t think so. Tasty coffees were still there on the cupping table and through the doom and gloom there were some real highlights. But I think we will start to see a change in expectations from Kenyan coffee (and others if we look at the market globally), paying more for quality is a good start but we also need to begin searching harder and building better relationships with the people who produce outstanding coffees. The market for quality coffee is growing and the incentive to supply it is diminishing, this can only mean one thing…when demand outstrips supply then prices have to rise. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.