Again this year, we’re extremely happy to represent the Kieni cooperative wet mill from Nyeri, which we’ve now been buying directly from for 7 years. Kieni is part of Mugaga society and another mill in that society got our attention last year, when it was one of our absolute favorites. We’re thrilled to say this coffee stole the show again this year on the cupping table, proving it wasn’t just luck. We’re delighted to bring back Gathugu as our second Kenya option.
In November, during the peak of the harvest, our co-found Klaus went to visit Kieni and Gathugu, learning more about the farming, harvesting and processing practices. In January he returned together with our bar manager of Jægersborggade, Astrid. To provide some more insight to where these coffees came from, after visiting Astrid wrote a piece about her impressions, which we’re very happy to share here.
Traveling to Kenya for the first time one quickly realise how much Kenya is influenced by its history, such as any other place in the world, but the visible traces here are remarkable.
In a landscape that feels uniquely untouched, with the deep red dusty soil, the highlands seems like no other place in the world, with the beautiful contrast of the red ground and the green vegetation. It seems unreal that this wild nature vegetation is shaped by the history of colonialism.
The roots of the colonial history of Kenya go back to the Berlin Conference in 1885, when East Africa was first divided into territories of influence by the European powers. The British Government founded the East African Protectorate in 1895 and soon after, they opened the fertile highlands to white settlers. Even before it was officially declared a British colony in 1920, these settlers were allowed a voice in government. During this period thousands of Indians were brought into Kenya to work on building the Kenya Uganda Railway Line.
The highlands of Kenya combined a pleasant climate with good quality land. It was thought that the area would be suitable for a variety of cash crops. The railway was completed by 1906 by which time, white settlers had discovered that tea, coffee and tobacco could be grown in the highlands. However, the new farms and plantations would prove to be harder to turn into profitable enterprises than at first realized as diseases and exhaustion of soils took their toll.
Introducing coffee to Kenya the British seeded the sprout, of what would become one of the most aromatic and tasty coffees in the world. But they did not take into consideration that this land and this soil wasn’t originally meant to be growing coffee trees, in the exactly same manner as it is done in the neighbouring country Ethiopia, where Arabica coffee originates from.
In a natural setting as Ethiopia, the coffee plant grows in the understory of tropical and subtropical forests. The Shade-grown coffee cultivation is beneficial for the environment in many ways, preventing soil erosion, shade-grown coffee trees decreases the amount of run-off from agricultural chemicals and reduces water consumption, in opposition to this, most Kenyan coffee is grown directly in the sun.
Our journey begins, in the highlands of Kenya in the Nyeri region, where farmers still fight the battle against the exhaustion of soil and diseases such as Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR), the Antestia bug and Coffee Berry Decease.
While we are driving up in the highlands we pass kilometers of, the almost no longer visible railway track, that haven’t been used in decades, we are inhaling the red dusty soil as we approach Kieni factory, the wet mill where we have been buying beans from for almost 8 years.
Our good friends and colleagues Josphat Muriuki and Charles Gathaiya Murimi greets us at the car.
Josphat is the mill manager and Charles is the Chairman of Kieni factory.
They tell us that this year has been a hard year with drought in Kenya, which has complicated the coffee production, the drought complicates the production for a number of reasons. In general coffee thrives with around 75 inches of annual rainfall but below 30 inches is very stressful and likely to cause low yields and small beans, in addition to compromising the plants’ overall health.
With less water in the soil, the nutrition evaporates faster in the heat and remove crucial nutrition that should otherwise had gone to the coffee trees and berries.
It has been a hard year for the coffee farming in Kenya. But because of the craft behind the coffee production the coffee tastes just as good this year as it did last year and here is why.
Kieni wet mill is a co-operative wet mill with a 900 active member. Kieni wet mill is a part of the Mugaga society and the mill is managed by Charles.
The Kieni members are farm owners, they work hard all year around to care for their coffee trees and their soil, this is their livelihood.
The farmers pick their cherries them self, they try to ensure as high quality in the picking as possible, they do this because they get paid according to quality of the cherrie. This means that they pick the perfect ripe cherries and not the under- or over-ripe cherries. This ends up giving a higher quality of coffee in your coffee cup.
The last couple of years’ coffee from Kieni has had outstanding berry aromas that has made everybody on our side of the world fall deeply in love with the coffee, the greatness of the cup starts at the farm level with the farmers picking the ripe cherries.
From here the coffee is sent to the wet mill Kieni.
Josphat the mill manager oversees every step of the process, from the cherries arrive at Kieni to it leaves to for the dry mill.
First the farmers bring all their cherries to Kieni. Here the coffee berries are delivered to the receiving station where the first selection of cherries happens. When approved, the cherries are put into a large tank. At the bottom of the tanks there is a channel, which leads the ripe cherries to the depulper. The depulper squishes the bean from the cherries and leads the beans to the fermentation tanks and the washing channels.
Fermentation of coffee beans refers to the microbial reaction of yeasts and bacteria breaking down the sugars in mucilage. Especially during the fermentation it is important that the mill manager keeps focused and stops the fermentation at the right time, and this is what Josphat is so good at. He checks the process by rubbing the beans between his hands to feel how the sugars in is breaking down. In washed coffee, you don’t want the coffee to over ferment because this will add taste to the coffee.
After the coffee has been washed in the washing channels the beans are sorted by weight with help from water flow and gravity. The water transports the berries from the washing channels towards small pools, the lighter cherries will float faster than the heavy ones and are guided into one pool while the heavier ones (better quality) are guide into another pool.
From here the drying starts, the beans are pumped by water to the receiving tables, where the first drying happens. From there the beans gets removed manually, by hand, to the drying tables where mill workers, alongside Josphat turns the coffee beans over and over again. The coffee dries on raised beds directly in the sun, so they have to constantly oversee the drying process. At noon when the sun is very sharp, the coffee is covered to protect it from drying too fast.
The process depends on the sun, the heat and the wind, and it is quite important that this is handled the right way. Josphat wants the beans to end up with a moist content in the bean at around 10-11% moist. To determine when to stop the drying, Josphat and his colleagues feel the density of the bean. They don’t have access to high technologically equipment such as moisture meters and other equipment, so they have to rely on their knowledge, common sense and years of experience doing exactly this.
When the drying of the coffee beans at Kieni is over, Josphat and the Kieni factory to move the beans to the dry mill.
It is a time consuming and hard job to grow and produce coffee cherries, the farmers are constantly depending on the weather; that it rains in the right period for the flowering and that it is dry and warm for the cherries to develop into sweet red ripe cherries.
When it comes to the drying of the cherries it is crucial that it doesn’t rain, but it can also be damaging for the beans if it’s too warm. Then the beans are in danger of over drying and cracking.
It demands experienced knowledgeable people such as Josphat and Charles to run a wet mill like Kieni factory, their attention to every detail is remarkable. The way they oversee the process all the way from red ripe coffee cherry to dry green bean, is what makes coffee from Kieni remarkably tasty.
Because of the Brits seeding the sprout of what later came to be one of the tastiest coffees in the world, we can now enjoy a very aromatic cup of Kenyan coffee. Coffee that the Kenyans themselves during Colonialism were not allowed to drink, this is the reason that the coffee farmers today enjoy a cup of black breakfast tea at the times we enjoy a cup of brilliant Kenya coffee.
The Kenyan people have been fighting for their right to their land and their red soil and green vegetation. Today Kieni coffee farmers own their own land and oversee the process every step of the way. They are still depending on the rest of the world to buy their coffee, but not for any price. In order to produce great coffee they need to be paid a higher price according to quality and not according to the marked price. This way they get the means to keep producing high quality coffee in a way that is sustainable for their livelihood.