Kenyan coffee growing regions
Aberdare Mt. Kenya Mt. Elgon Nairobi

Kenyan coffee
Kenya is named after its highest mountain, Mt. Kenya, which means ostrich mountains in the various local Bantu languages, apparently because the black-and-white snow-capped peaks are reminiscent of an ostrich’s feathered tail. It is bordered by Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Tanzania. Kenya has long been famous for its teas and coffee has paradoxically only entered it at the brink of the 19th century, despite being a direct neighbour of Ethiopia, the very birthplace of coffee.

Just like in the surrounding countries, the natural environment is basically made for growing coffee. There’s nutrient-rich volcanic soils and mild climate of the highlands, where the highest temperatures are about the same as the ones we’re used to in Central Europe, and the lowest feel like our spring. Couple that with a relatively stable inflow of precipitation during the entire year and you’ve got the perfect mix for growing the highest quality coffee beans.

The most famous coffee growing areas include Ruiru, Thika, Kiambu and Muranga on the slopes of the Aberdare mountains. Then there’s Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Embu, Meru and Tharaka around Mt. Kenya, the Machakos highlands east of Nairobi, the rift valley around Nakuru, the hilly shores of lake Victoria near the cities Kisii and Kisumu and the endless slopes of the huge volcano Elgon bordering Uganda. Currently, more than 6 million people are a part of the coffee sector in Kenya. Typically for Africa, more than 70% of farmers don’t own more then 2 hectares of land.

The only coffee tree species grown in Kenya is arabica. They grow in altitudes between 1400 – 2000 m.a.s.l., around Mt. Kenya and Elgon it’s even higher. Thanks to that, the cherries mature slowly and have enough time to develop the intense and complex tastes, which we love most about the country. That means medium to full body, floral aroma and strongly dominant black- or red-currant taste, all coupled with a pleasant, citric acidity. The strong concentration of nitrogen in the volcanic soil creates truly intense and unforgettable tastes.

Just like in the other countries surrounding lake Victoria, there are two harvests per year, with the period dependent on the precise location. In the most famous locations north of Nairobi, the main harvest begins in October and ends roughly in February. The so called “fly-crop” begins in May and ends in July.

During the entire year, there is a coffee auction happening every Tuesday, or every other week outside the main export season, at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange. There are hundreds of coffee lots being sold at every single auction. These can be inspected and cupped in advance, and then bids are being placed at the auction itself by certified buyers. This system has decades of tradition in the country and supports the sale of the entire coffee quality spectrum, which makes it very popular especially with large multinational corporations. It is no longer required to sell all coffee through the auction since 2016, thanks to the pressure of specialty coffee traders, so now it is possible to trade coffee directly, from the farmer or cooperative to the customer. The auction is still important for direct trade as well though, as a reference point for determining the current prices.

The problem of the current auction system is that cooperatives and farmers can’t access the auction directly, they have to do so through the so-called “marketing agents”, because they are the only subjects certified to enter it. The price of this certification is astronomical, and thus there are only 8 companies which have it. The structure of these companies is absolutely non-transparent, just like their boring and generic-sounding names. Their only role in the market is currently to be the middlemen in the trade, sharing a monopoly over the coffee prices and charging extra margins they keep for themselves.

Kenyan climate allows for both washed and naturally processed coffees, which allows a broader palette of tastes. The vast majority is fully washed though, with only a few lots every years being sun-dried on african beds. A unique thing in Kenya is the so-called “double-washed” coffee. Compared to normal, fully washed coffee, there is an extra night the coffee spends floating in water before being pulped, which warrants a greater water purity during the fermentation following the pulping and thus the removal of unwanted influence on the taste of the coffee beans is minimalized even more.

This step is followed by sorting the beans by shape, size, color and density. That is, of course, typical for all coffee-processing countries, but the Kenyan system is probably the most perfect of them all (read more about it in a special article) and Kenya has also “abused” it intelligently to improve the marketing of its coffee.

The best cofee to come from Kenya is supposed to be the “Kenya AA” - beans 17 to 18/64 of an inch long, which indeed offer the biggest potential in the taste, because such a size of bean means the coffee was grown properly and harvested in the proper stage of ripening. But that is all AA stands for - the bean size, and thus its potential, not its quality. AA can be a perfectly sorted and delicious coffee, just like it can be a defective and distasteful coffee - still sized AA. So, don’t let yourself be tricked by the letters AA subconsciously suggesting good quality, and only always trust the specific source of your coffee.

The selection of varieties one may find on Kenyan plantations is extraordinarily rich. Grown varieties include SL28, SL34, K7, Ruiru 11 or Batian. Especially worth mentioning is the SL28, specimen no. 28 at the colonial research institute called Scotts Agricultural Laboratories. Originally found growing in the Monduli mountains of western Tanganyika, its offspring is now responsible for some of the most exclusive and expensive coffees coming from the African continent with its fabled blackcurrant taste.

Regarding the roasting, you are most likely to encounter a light, at most medium profile. That allows the coffee to keep the most of its specific fruity and floral tastes which Kenya can offer. Considering the fact that Kenyan coffee is usually considered premium and is above the average African coffee prices, they are only used in blends very rarely.

The coffee sector in Kenya is, unfortunately, going through another crisis, as is relatively common. This time, it is caused by the fatigue of a the market being mostly controlled by several multinational corporations. The motivations for the producers to uphold and improve quality is low because of the uncertainty of the market prices and buyers’ loyalties. Luckily, Kenya’s potential to grow amazing coffee is still extremely high despite the pressure of global warming, and the country is full of farmers and cooperatives looking for stable and fair trade relationships. And that is where we come in - to provide such relationships, in order to secure better livelihoods for the producers and to deliver the best Kenyan coffees directly into your cup.

Check our coffee atlas
Our blog articles concerning Kenya

Origins of our Kenyan coffees
Unfortunately, we have not yet found producers in Kenya who fulfil our expectations in environmental protection, social impact and coffee quality. We are doing our best, to bring you such coffee from as soon as possible. We appreciate your patience.

Our Kenyan green beans selection
Unfortunately, we have not yet found producers in Kenya who fulfil our expectations in environmental protection, social impact and coffee quality. We are doing our best, to bring you such coffee from as soon as possible. We appreciate your patience.

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