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Sourcing Trip: Kenya 2021

At Little City we always aim to expand our microlot offerings by regularly bringing in coffees from new origins. And whenever possible we make it a priority to travel to those origins to meet with potential direct trade partners and expand our knowledge of their customs, production systems, and trade models. For years, Kenya has been on the top of our list, and although we’ve had a few offerings in the past and know how amazing and complex Kenyan coffees can be, we’d never been there to witness the harvest firsthand. After reaching out to some friends with more Kenyan coffee buying experience than myself, I was able to connect with a few exporters with access to some of Kenya’s best and set up a trip. 

I spent most of my time in Kenya, visiting farms and wet mills in Nyeri County, a region famous for its intensely complex coffees and high-quality production. Over six days in Nyeri, I visited dozens of wet mills, known locally as “coffee factories.” Most of these mills are owned and operated by local growers groups known as FCS’s (Coffee Farmers Societies). The societies range in size from a few dozen families to a few thousand, and the factories are centrally located to allow members to conveniently deliver their cherries for processing. Most accept deliveries three to four days per week but often expand their receiving hours during peak harvest. 

In visiting these factories it became clear that, aside from the inherently beautiful flavors influenced by genetics and terroir, Kenya’s renowned quality is also the result of an industry of meticulous standards and careful management of post-harvest processing. Best practices, cleanliness, and organization were the norm and were more consistent from mill to mill than many other coffee origins I’ve visited. For the rest of this post I will walk you through, with photos, the typical post-harvest processes observed in most of the mills I visited. Of course there are variations and outliers and large estates that do things differently (look for more on these in a future post), but these photos represent the typical FCS-operated wet mill in central Kenya and help explain why Kenyan coffee’s quality floor is so high—and its ceiling so limitless.

Sorting

Member growers arrive at the FCS mill with freshly-picked cherries. Most mills will only purchase ripe fruit and provide space for the growers to perform additional sorting if the delivery is not up to the mill’s standard. Typical receiving days are Monday through Thursday, but hours may increase during peak harvest.

Receiving

Once approved, the lot is weighed and the grower is issued a receipt. Payments are made digitally and most societies will pay the growers a portion of the total owed upon receipt of each shipment and then pay the remaining amount for all deliveries in a lump sum at the end of the harvest. Payment amounts and timelines vary, but the goal is for both the individual grower and the mill to have some working capital during the harvest so they can continue producing. Then, once all of the coffee has been processed and sold, they will settle their remaining balances.

The Hopper

The purchased cherries are put into hoppers with the rest of the day’s received deliveries until they are ready for pulping. Most mills have multiple hoppers where cherries are typically divided into Grade 1 (ripe) and Grade 2 (overripe) as determined by color and visual inspection. This is one of several sorting steps that will take place during processing.

Pulping

Coffee is run through the pulper to remove the seed from the cherry, then passed through water channels to separate lighter beans from more dense beans, another quality control step. The most common pulper in Kenya is this model of disk pulper, manufactured in the mid-20th century and used to outfit many of the factories built in the 1950s and 1960s in the year’s just before and after Kenya’s independence. This was the period when agricultural reform made it legal for Kenyans to produce cash crops on their own land, as opposed to only on British-owned plantations.

Fermentation

The seeds are transported to fermentation tanks, where they will remain for 12 to 36 hours. During fermentation, naturally occurring microorganisms break down the sugars in the sticky mucilage covering the parchment, allowing it to be easily rinsed off during the washing process. In addition to this function, the fermentation process also contributes to the ultimate flavor profile of the finished product. 

Washing

The parchment coffee is sent through washing channels where groups of workers churn the coffee to remove the remaining mucilage. Washing is complete when the rinse water runs clean and the beans are no longer slick to the touch. There is also a “built-in” quality sorting process here: As the beans move through the channel, the lighter and potentially defective ones float to the top and quickly move through the channel while the denser ones sink to the bottom. In the video below, a piece of wood is used to hold back the dense beans and allow the floaters to pass through to the drying bed. These will be dried separately and sold as a lower quality grade.

Soaking

After washing, the coffee is often moved to a secondary soaking tank. I’ve often seen Kenyan coffee described as undergoing a “double-washed” or “double-soaked” process, and I’ve never been exactly sure what that means or what the intended impact is on the coffee. Now, after discussing it with several producers, I am more unsure than ever! Each had a different answer, the most logical along the lines of, “we leave it in water for an extra day during the high season because the drying beds are full and we don’t have anywhere else to put it.” Not exactly the answer I was hoping for, but practical nonetheless. I will continue to look into the mysterious Kenyan “second soak” and will hopefully have better findings to report next time.

Drying

The coffee is transferred to raised “African beds” where it is dried slowly in the sun, turned regularly for consistent drying, and periodically covered to protect it from rain or too much direct sunlight. 

Conditioning

After drying to the target moisture content of 11 percent, the coffee is stored in conditioning bins where it is rotated and turned regularly to help stabilize water activity and homogenize the beans.

Dry Milling

The coffee is transported to the dry mill where it will be further sorted, hulled, graded, and prepared for export. Kenyan coffee is graded for export by bean size. AA is the largest, followed by AB, and finally PB, or Peaberry. There are additional grades used for the local market, but AA, AB, and PB are typically the only three exportable grades. There is no correlation between screen size and quality, though larger beans will typically command a higher per-pound price.

Traceability

Kenya’s traceability system is unrivaled by many other producing countries I’ve visited. This  is especially impressive given that wet mills may process coffee from thousands of farms and will produce hundreds of day lots, or “outturns,” per harvest. The larger dry mills will in turn accept deliveries from dozens if not hundreds of those wet mills. The photo above shows a tag associated with a completed green coffee lot, ready for sale and export. It includes the grade, weight, and location of the coffee as well as the wet mill name and the outturn number, which denotes the harvest week (week 10 in this case), dry mill name (CK = Central Kenya Mill), and delivery or lot number (0022).

Cupping and Selection

Outturn samples are sent to potential buyers, who may negotiate the price directly based on grade, cupping evaluation, or any other factor they like. Direct trade is permitted in Kenya but is mostly facilitated by the dry mills and private brokers or exporters who have access to broader world markets. The majority of coffee in Kenya is still sold through the weekly auction at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange.

Export

Kenya exports around 750,000 60kg bags of green coffee per year, mostly via the port of Mombasa. This year we’ve decided to air freight our coffee due to the major delays and rising costs of ocean freight—and our desire to have some of the first and freshest arrivals of the season. Stay tuned and look out for some really beautiful new Kenyan offerings coming to Little City very soon.

Products mentioned in this post

Chorongi, Kenya

$19.99
Microlots

Chorongi, Kenya

$19.99
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