The drive from Nairobi to the Nyeri region only takes a few hours but the change in landscape is dramatic. Suddenly the terrain becomes hilly and houses emerge sporadically on the ridges where vegetation is less dense. Most people here are farmers growing several crops such as maize, beans, potatoes, tea and coffee.
The coffee fields are often visible from the road and while these were the first coffee trees I had ever seen, the mere abundance made your eyes adjust to the scenery rather quickly. This made room for new impressions like the occasional whiff of fresh coffee cherries being depulped as we got closer to one of our main stops on the trip: Kieni.
We have visited and bought from the Kieni factory for 8 years now. One of the reasons for paying a visit in November is that the main harvest is at its peak. It is the perfect time to witness how fresh cherries are processed and just how much attention it requires during all stages. This includes adjusting the depulper according to cherry size and assessing the amount of remaining mucilage (a sugary layer on the beans) during fermentation. The latter is a critical stage which is purely assessed by hand despite being very dependant on weather conditions.
Charles (chairman, board member of Mugaga Society) and Josphat (Kieni mill manager) are very skilled at making the right calls at the right time but also open to discuss how to keep improving quality. This time we discussed the benefits of acquiring a moisture meter to monitor when the coffee has dried sufficiently and the pace at which it is doing so. This is commonly done by biting into a bean or shaking a handful using sound cues to indicate the moisture content.
One could draw a parallel to measuring the strength of brewed coffee to double check at which strength a given coffee tastes the best. We do this daily in our bars to ensure quality and consistency. The combination of sensory skill and simple quantitative tools could perhaps be useful for Kieni too.
We usually get to meet a few farmers on our trips. This time Charles and Josphat took us around on foot which was a nice change after having been driving a lot. Once again you find yourself on hilly dirt roads with a feeling of being fenced in by the surroundings.
This only gets more intense when you enter the coffee fields. Scattered tall trees serve as your only waypoints but I did not think about that until much later. Instead, I fumbled my way forward using both hands to get the branches away. I had to crouch a lot which did not make things any less disorientating. Charles and Josphat had been out of sight for a while at this point but you could hear them chatting to farmers somewhere nearby.
It was early in the day but several buckets had been filled with cherries already. Producing high quality coffee involves endless selective efforts at all levels of the production and it all starts during picking. Only fully ripe cherries should be picked as over- or underripe ones will contribute to a less favorable taste which will then lower the price.
Some farmers hire pickers to harvest more effectively but if you do not have the means to do so, you might not have enough hands to pick all cherries when they are perfectly ripe. As a result the cherries could end up overripe and thereby of less value. This is no reason to discard such cherries as there is a market for all grades but you cannot help but wonder what these farmers could have produced if they were paid higher prices in the first place.
When looking closer at the coffee trees, the next challenge immediately presents itself through rusty looking leaves and hollow, dried out cherries. These are signs of diseases which often makes varieties the topic of discussion. What excites us the most about coffees from Nyeri is the deep sweetness, the juicy mouthfeel and complex, fruity aromas.
These unique characteristics are mainly a result of being very skilled at wet processing the famous SL28 and SL34 varieties. Despite being continuously impressive on the cupping table, these varieties are in turn highly susceptible to a number of diseases. This makes high quality coffee from Kenya with organic certification impossible to come across.
When a farmer needs advice or a pesticide to counter disease related issues, he heads to the factory management. They then assess how to approach the issue and supply the appropriate chemical for the job if needed. This approach to farming might seem unsustainable in our part of the world as the demand for organically farmed produce is on the rise, but from a farmer’s perspective it makes a lot of sense.
When your income is modest and your yield of coffee cherries depends on weather conditions, disease outbreak and a number of other things, changing the core of your farming practice might not be top priority. Furthermore, as a small-holder coffee farmer in Kenya the paycheck is issued just once a year when all the coffee has been sold. These layers of uncertainties arguably has an influence on one’s ability and incentive to experiment with alternative ways of doing things.
Nowadays it is common for farmers in Kenya to grow more disease resistant varieties like Ruiru11 and Batian alongside SL28 and SL34. They are known to perform well in terms of yield but overall cup quality seems inferior to SLs. Deciding how to balance this quality/ quantity trade-off vary between farmers and must be tricky to tackle since roasters and exporters sometimes wish for different things. New research will hopefully clear up some of the speculation that often dominate our conversations on the subject.
Our trip ended at a private coffee estate which is essentially a farm with its own processing station and drying tables. Uche reclaimed this family property just a few years ago and has a lot of interesting ideas on how to manage his total of around 15,000 coffee trees. He is a modern day naturalist with a strong urge to enforce nature conservation in his local community and experiment with organic coffee farming.
Instead of discussing pesticides, we were now talking about soil, managing diseases through biological control, grazing, plant genetics and composting. It will be very interesting to follow his progression over the coming years. Even in what feels like the most remote places, ambitious and innovative ideas clearly thrive.