Last year we went long in our position with coffees from Kenya and they trickled out the door. This year we went short and each lot is barely lasting a month, slight exaggeration. Before we tell you about this week’s release a (long-ish) side bar. (Also, a little wheel reinvention with this post, some of this was covered in a prior post for another coffee from Kenya last season.)
WHY THE RENTS ARE TOO DAMN HIGH
Coffees (green) from Kenya are expensive, the good ones anyway (not the rockstars, just good solid representations of coffee from Kenya. Rockstars are always rockstars, country independent, and have exotic rider clauses and stadium crowd size pricing ambitions.). The reason for the higher price of Kenya coffee, patched together from a few first hand accounts of others and a casual Google search, is due to (i) an extended drought, (ii) coffee growing land lost to other usages (other agro crops, commercial development, drought), and (iii) a relatively small in country coffee consumption habit/practice (no Starbucks saturation). The lack of traceability could also be suggested at this point (more on this below).
The manner in which green coffee is solid is a bit more regulated at the the government level than some other producing countries. Not necessarily sold via an exchange, like Ethiopia, but regulated (*wink). With regulation sometimes comes bureaucratic costs/inefficiencies and maybe corruption; and additionally disincentives to growers (If multiple lots are pooled and there is a price floor (a minimum wage if you will) we can all agree this is a net good, but for those A type personalities that are highly motivated by return and ‘fame’ the averaging out or pooling might prove to be a disincentive -why go the extra mile if it’s all going to get averaged out anyway? Could be a thought.) So all these forces come together (obviously not all of equal weight) and result in production levels that are off more than 60% from 15 to 20 years ago and each year continuing to decline over the last several years.
Coffees are also sold via ‘trade houses’ which I think there are 11 (this is a recalled number from a non-lucid memory, and thus likely wrong, but the point is it’s a very few number of players that can bid on coffees through which someone like a coffee importer or roastery company can then buy from (or if this number (11) is an exaggeration it’s that number of firms that act as gatekeepers to most (70 to 80%) of the market. See for reference http://kenyatrade.org/kenya-coffee-exporters/)).
But scarcity alone does not make for a quality cup and cannot alone dictate price premiums. Coffee from Kenya produces cups of clear, distinct and strong character. And they are uniquely delicious. Most people, lay or coffee professional, just given a quick introduction to coffees from Kenya could quickly begin to call them out on a cupping table or in a tasting flight. The coffees are singularly unique. As with most things, a number of factors create this profile, including the unique SL’s cultivars developed in Scott Labs (no relation) in the 1930s (see http://www.kalro.org/coffee/?q=node/25) or the newer Ruiru 11 (and others), released in the 1980s, terroir, sorting methods, and post harvest processing methods (the double soak method, although I heard this method was an artifact when the high water mark of coffee production in Kenya and that this method is in limited use now. See http://www.kalro.org/sites/default/files/2016-Coffee-Alternative-Coffee-Process-JKMBURU.pdf and for a less academic and better photographs See https://www.fivesenses.com.au/blog/clean-crisp-consistent-kenyas-double-ferment-process/)
YUM. CAN I HAVE SOME MORE PLEASE?
So what’s distinct about a cup of Kenya coffee and what is Sump selling and how can you buy it? Coffees (or at least the ones we look to bring into the roastery) from Kenya unfold as follows. Right from go, an unfurling of dried cranberry (not cranraisins or dried sweet cranberries from Whole Foods) -dried, red and unsweetened; maybe even slightly suggestive of a Rooibos tea; full facings of (or sometimes minor hints) grapefruit, sometimes inching toward pith; and always lurking around every facet of the cup is something savory -some cups tip to full Campbell's tomato soup impressions, others playfully tease softer savory notes, like heirloom grape tomatoes or savory tropical fruits, like a jackfruit; and rounding out the finish is typically a big syrupy mouthfeel, with big sweetness (typical of dark sugars; burnt/caramelized sugar, molasses, browns) with a lingering aftertaste of dried fruit, like raisins, figs or dates. Often there exists small pockets of impressions of black tea and minor savory spices/fruits, like tamarind.
So you’re saying, tell me about this Kenya that you’re selling. Well it comes to us courtesy of Ari at Cafe Imports. (He’s a great guy, separate post on why that is so, but for another time.) We present to you a coffee from the New Ngariama Farmers’ Cooperative Society from the Kirinyaga (central Kenya, basically) region. This lot was graded AA. The coop is comprised of 1800 members. Cultivars include SL-28, SL-34, Batian and Ruiru 11. Finished in the Kainamui ‘factory’. (This nomenclature possibly underscores another reason why coffee production from Kenya has decreased, most other regions refer to this ‘finishing’ step as a mill (dry mill), where the coffees are graded and finished drying. The reference to factory, triggers a recalled statement from someone at origin in Kenya, they said that their group that traveled to the mills (‘factories’) were met with ‘why do you want to see this’ mill managers whereas other coffee origins treat it as a motherlode, once in a lifetime opportunity, coffee amusement park/wonderland, and enthusiastically shepard travelers through the production floor, warehouse, drying patios, dries, sorters, etc. along the way to the cupping table. Maybe, or this could just be some latent Wittgensteinian word play interpretation within us (factory vs mill; and there is no hiding the industrial/machined aspect of finished milling of coffee; factory or mill naming notwithstanding.)
We will be titling this work, Ngariama and releasing it later this week in the shop and online. Hope your Thanksgiving went well.