It's not hard to love Kenyan coffees: the combination of elegant acidity, rich sweetness, and fruit-forward flavours is difficult to resist. We enjoy working with them because we love coffees that are complex and approachable, and Kenyans never fail to be both. Currently, we have two on offer: Gatina AA, a classic Nyeri fruit bomb, and Kapsokisio, a coffee that shines due to its delicate acidity and soft body: it is both flavourful and restrained, with easily distinguished notes of tropical fruit and green apple, and a lingering sweetness.
The slopes of Mt. Elgon, as captured by our friends at Cafe Imports
Like the majority of coffee from Kenya, Gatina and Kapsokisio come from lots made up by hundreds of smallholder farmers who are usually members of one of the many cooperative societies producing coffee. Gatina is from Nyeri, whereas Kapsokisio comes from Mt. Elgon, a region in western Kenya (bordering Uganda) that has only recently started to gain acclaim for its potential for high quality coffee production. Everybody knows how delicious coffees from regions like Nyeri or Kirinyaga can be, yet Mt. Elgon had stayed under the radar up until a few years ago, when Tim Wendelboe first ventured into the region, and later began investing in its infrastructure through the funding of drying beds.
Drying beds at Kapsokisio FCS, courtesy of Tim Wendelboe
A couple of weeks ago, we invited head of Cafe Imports Australia and good mate, Joe Tynan to tell us about his experience procuring Kenyan coffees. Over a cup of Kapsokisio, Joe shared some insight into what it's like to source coffee in Kenya, and the challenges farmers face as they attempt to produce some of the most delicious coffees in the world.
So Joe, what exactly is your role at Cafe Imports?
I manage the Australian office and do our international sourcing for Kenya. I do a lot of the building out of containers for the Australian market, which is all QC'd and selected through by the main sourcing team, but my primary role (in sourcing) is Kenya. It's good fun!
How long have you worked at CI?
It'll be three years in May. Initially it was Tim Chapdelaine who was working with the Australian market, until Noah Namowicz took it over about five years before I started. I was actually buying from him when I was buying at St. Ali, and Code Black, but eventually it became evident that there needed to be a physical presence in Australia. I was the first on the ground Cafe Imports staff member in Australia; before then, Noah was doing everything remotely.
Seeing as you have a specific role in buying Kenyan coffee, the place must be pretty special to you…
Totally! My "lightbulb coffee" was Kii AA, around 10-12 years go. It was the first coffee that made me go, "Damn, that's really good! I want to know more about that!"
Had you visited Kenya for sourcing prior to your role a CI?
Yeah, my first trip was in 2014. I visited a number of different factories and a couple of estates. I've now been back pretty much every year since.
This is a big question, but how does CI purchase Kenyan coffees?
We buy in a variety of ways. We have a great partnership with Dormans in Kenya, who work with a number of different groups to procure their lots, and own three dry mills. They get a sample of every coffee processed through each mill, and then decide if they will purchase or send to the auctions. When we're there, we get to cup all of those as well and can buy them through "Second Window," which is a pseudo-direct trade system. Basically, instead of having to bid on a coffee (at auction) here we can negotiate back and forth with the farmers to find a price we agree on.
We do purchase some through auction because there are some coffees we really like that aren't processed at any of Dormans' dry mills, like Kii, Gatomboya, and a few others. We have also built relationships with a few farmers over the years, like Boyce Harris of Chania and Oreti Estate in the Thikka Plateau. We visit him every year, negotiate a price and buy directly from him.
There is another avenue which we are exploring, because it's a way to have a bit more input and work more directly with producers, which is to work with smaller estates. Working with one or small group of farmers usually allows us more interaction in how coffee is processed and we hope it will lead to variety selection as well as input on farm practices. Through this avenue we are able to request processing methods and help the producers get a bit more money directly, rather than it going through the factories. We have a few people in Australia and the US who work with us and the small estates, which is an exciting program we’re really trying to support.
Do you remember how Kapsokisio was bought?
Kapsokisio was a stand out lot from one of the hundreds of coffees we cupped while at Dormans in Nairobi. Super different in profile to most regions of Kenya so I nearly didn't pick it, but it was too unique and delicious to pass up!
When you approach sourcing in this capacity, do you focus on purchasing coffees that represent the region or coffees that are unique and different?
It's a unique thing to buy coffees in such a large volume, for such a large company. My history was in purchasing for a roastery, where you need to have that staple Kenyan that follows the "expected profile," and then maybe you'd add something else on top of that that's a little unique as contrast.
In this situation, we are purchasing with the Australian, European, and US markets in mind, and are trying to buy to that diversity of preference and price points. You have to have all of it, or as much of those examples as possible, in a way that looks after the roaster, as well as the farmer or co-op. It's all well and good to have the exception to the rule, but not everyone is looking for that. And vice versa.
CI also runs the ‘Regional Select’ program, which is designed to highlight the individual profiles of particular coffee-growing areas. Do you source a Kenyan lot as part of this program?
Yeah, that's right. That's put together in conjunction with Dormans when we're there. We aim to construct a typical cup profile from each region, because I think it’s safe to say that there is regionality to coffee. We know it in Colombia, we know it in Brazil, and in other areas... In Kenya, I think it's exactly the same, there is definitely region specificity in cup. Our ‘Uteuzi Jimbo’ program is one that works to highlight this diversity of profile and hopefully give roasters a chance to experience each region's potential. Hopefully we're bringing in one more region this coming year, from Mt. Elgon, which is where Kapsokisio is from.
Have you visited the Mt. Elgon region yourself?
I haven't been out west yet, but it's something I'd like to do this coming year, it's definitely on the radar. I think it's a region of great promise! Kapsokisio is obviously the flagship of the region, but given the profile I think it's a very unique area and one I'd like to get into a bit more. There's a few other areas to the west that I've been told still grow a few of the old Scott Lab varieties, which is exciting!
While we tend to focus on that central region of Nyeri, Kirinyaga, and Embu, there are definitely some amazing coffees out in the west. So far what we've tasted from the region is not your typical Kenyan coffee, it's more tropical, sweeter and floral, but still with that same brightness and presence in the cup. It's a different acidity than what people expect from Kenya.
How would you say Kenya has changed over the years since you’ve started visiting?
I think the biggest change in Kenya at the moment is climate. Kenya, along with the rest of the Horn of Africa, is going through a massive drought. Everything's getting dryer and the seasons less predictable. Every year I've gone, it's been different weather. The first year I was there in a CI capacity it was raining the whole time. Last year, it was dry – it didn't rain a single drop. I'm curious to see what the coming year will be like. That unpredictability is really bad for farmers, it throws their seasons off, making their crop smaller every year. Last year was very dry, which lead to a small harvest - that meant there were less AA, AB, and PB lots, and the prices went up because of that. They’'re predicting the same thing for this year, which makes it a hard origin to buy from. Kenya is amazing and the coffees are outstanding, but they are getting more and more expensive every year. The pointy end of the spear is really, really pricey. There were some ludicrously priced coffees at the auctions this past year, it was pretty wild.
When you see the effects of climate change, do you think that will mean fewer good coffees are going to be produced, or…?
I would say that what is produced will continue to be exceptional, there will just be less of it every year until the drought breaks. Coffee will continue to get more expensive because every roaster needs/wants a Kenyan in their line-up - demand has not gone down, it's just the availability. The quality of the top grades should still be the same, which is the important thing to remember. Essentially, through the mill, the coffee is still graded the same way; but with fewer inputs (nutrients), the spread of those grades changes and the higher grades reduce in numbers.
With that in mind, how do you think we consumers should approach these coffees?
I think the biggest thing that anyone that consumes coffee needs to be aware of, is how fragile any agricultural practice or product is. Your potential to support a group of farmers, or a farmer that works on his own, is huge. It's a tough life! Producers are working to make something valuable in a climate that is increasingly harsh and unpredictable. This is making it more and more difficult and expensive for something delicious to be made. The fact that something good has been produced should already be commended, and that's what we recognise as a base level of Specialty Coffee. If it's exceptional, be ready and OK to pay a little bit more so it continues to be available!
Focusing back on Kapsokisio, what kind of tasting notes do you get from this v60?
Long slurp and pause ensues...
Mango, watermelon, white honey… really floral. Not quite black tea, but it's got that rich tannic front as well. The Kapsakisio AA is an astonishingly good coffee!