Hey! I’m back with a profile on another one of our fall featured coffees: Kenya Kapsakisio. Last time we spoke (I consider these blog posts to be conversations between us where you’re just weirdly quiet all of the time) I told you the story of Fredy Ochoa, his farm and the direct relationship we have with him. This coffee is quite a bit different. Due to the nature of how coffee is produced and purchased in Kenya it’s not possible for me to profile one farmer. The Kapsakisio was processed and sold by the Kapsakisio Farmers Cooperative Society, for which it is named, and would have been sourced from anywhere up to 800 or even 1000 small scale farmers. So instead we’re going to talk about Kenyan coffee as a whole and also the region this coffee was grown in.
Feel free to jump in at any time.
The story of the Kenyan coffee industry is one of resilience, community, and independence.
Though it may have a much shorter history of coffee production than other African countries like Ethiopia or Sudan, Kenya’s story is rich and complicated. As in really, truly, overwhelmingly complicated.
Every article I read while doing research for this blog mentioned Kenya’s past as a protectorate and colony of the British Empire and Britain’s controlling interest in the coffee industry, but would usually do so in a fairly passive way. I decided to dig a little deeper into Kenya’s colonial history and what I found was eye-opening in that disturbing kind of way that requires way more nuance and tact to talk about than some sassy guy with a coffee blog possesses. At the same time I think it’s really important to acknowledge the historical power structures that have shaped this industry. Not doing so would do a disservice to those who lived through it and those who are still feeling the effects of it.
In fact, much of the landscape of Kenyan coffee today is the result of Kenya’s journey to independence.
The traditional way most of Kenya’s coffee is sold is at auction through the Nairobi Coffee Exchange. The NCE was formed due to the Coffee Act of 1933 which returned control of sales and marketing of coffees to the Kenyan people. While Kenya remained under colonial rule until 1963 a majority of land ownership and control of production were returned to the Kenyan people in the 1950’s during a time of great civil unrest. Civil unrest is, I apologize, a very mild way of framing the situation. This redistribution of farms and estates lead to the current reality of Kenyan coffee ownership. There are between 700,000-800,000 farmers in the country but the overwhelming majority of them own small lots under 3 hectares with 80-200 coffee trees. Most small-scale farmers supplement their income by also growing teas, beans, yams and other vegetables.
Because of this saturation of small farms many farmers belong to cooperative societies. These organizations pay farmers for their cherries by volume at delivery and after they sell at market. The co-ops also run their own factories that handle processing, washing, fermenting and drying of beans. Once the green beans are ready to be sold they’re handed off to marketing agents who sell them either at auction or directly to buyers such as exporters or roasters.
Prior to these auctions marketers create catalogues of what coffees will be available for sampling to allow buyers as much preparation as possible. Buyers need to arrive as soon as coffee is ready and be prepared to drink a. lot. of. coffee. Sometimes sampling between 1,000 and 1,400 in one week. I did the math on that and it would mean slurping from at least 142.857 coffees in a single day. My eyeballs are sympathy buzzing.
Legislation passed in 2006 that allows certain licensed marketers and producers to sell directly to buyers through what is called the “second window.” While this is designed to cut down on middlemen an estimated 85%-95% of Kenyan coffee is still sold at auction.
Cafe Imports sources coffees from four regions of Kenya: Embu, Kirinyaga, Nyeri and Mt. Elgon, which is where these beans come from. Each region is known for its own flavour palette. While less established than more central regions Mt. Elgon is more associated with the “classic” Kenyan profile of sweet, savoury and tart. Think notes of raisin, lemon, currant and even tomato.
Sitting on the border of Kenya and Uganda, Mt. Elgon is East Africa’s oldest extinct volcano. The Kapsakisio Farmers Cooperative Society represents farmers from the mountain and operates a processing factory in nearby Bungoma county. The fertile soil and elevation of Mt. Elgon creates a unique terroir for the coffee grown there. I’m really grateful that this conversation we’re having is happening over text because while using a word like “terroir” makes me feel like a fancy lad I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce it. Like it would be really embarrassing if you could hear me now I’m sitting in my office saying “terr-wah” over and over again and I think I’m just getting further away from it. Teh-roy-er. No.
We’ve created a roast profile for this coffee that, in contrast to our sweet Honduran, highlights that Kenyan tang with juicy notes of lemon and toffee. I made a small batch of cold brew for myself with it that ended up extracting some really interesting savoury notes of ripe red tomato. Cuz coffee is friggin cool.
This is a complicated coffee from a complicated place that deserves to be celebrated. It can be really easy to forget the size and scope of the coffee community. I forget all the time. I think the story of Kenyan coffee serves as a powerful reminder of the amount of care, time and effort that goes into putting bags of beans on our shelves.
Next time you have a cup of coffee take a moment to appreciate that.
Thanks for talking with me.