The Death of Coffee: Kenya

This is at least the third time I’ve tried writing this blog post. For as long as I’ve written on this blog, I’ve never had such difficulty forming my thoughts coupled with such a desire to express them. This subject tears me. It is for me one of the biggest coffee stories of 2010, yet it gets little conversation, for several reasons. I readily acknowledge that compared to many I am very much a relative newcomer when it comes to exposure to the highest end of speciality coffee. My bank of taste memory, though I try to fill it with as much variety as I can, is only a few years old. Yet it is old enough to appreciate vintages, it is experienced enough to recognize increases or dips in quality from year to year.

The story which I talk about is the steep drop in quality in Kenya this year compared to last.

If you follow me on twitter you will have heard me mention something to this extent on a couple of occasions already. I apologise for the repetition, but with every new Kenyan I taste this feeling grows stronger.

That isn’t to say I haven’t had tasty Kenyan coffee this year, I have. The early arrivals were the worst, but as the year has progressed I have encountered several Kenyan coffees that were in fact good. It is hard to accept “good” though, when you have become accustomed to “great”, it is hard to cheer for “good enough” when you were hoping for “best”. The dilemma with Kenyan coffee is that even underperforming, they can be so strikingly different than coffees from most other origins that they stand out… and impress.

Well, sort of.

This is one of the reasons why this perhaps hasn’t gotten huge discussion. We have become satiated by a superficial replica, by a reasonably competent impersonator, who has a couple of well rehearsed routines which cement the deceit. After all, Tim Wendelboe just won the Nordic Barista Cup with… a Kenyan. You’ve no doubt read about Ritual’s Kiandu. Even my own Twitter stream, which if I cared to look back through, no doubt contains ample examples of my glee at finding Kenyans rising above those early season disasters. All’s well perhaps?

Even Tim, who has given me my two favourite Kenyan’s of the last two years will tell you that all is very much not well.

If I was a cynic (and I am), another obvious cause for the lack of discourse might be economic. I don’t know many business people that talk down their own product, especially when they have plenty of it to sell. I don’t blame roasters at all for this. Who would choose to undermine their product on one hand while trying on the other hand to empty the shelves?

Though I must wonder, in sidestepping the issue, instead of putting it in the spotlight are we paving the way for future problems?

If you care to look, plenty of sources have referenced severe weather problems in Kenya affecting this year’s crop. Both droughts and heavy rainfall (at different times) have reaped havok. Ominously, some have suggested next year is going to be worse. Production forecasts have been revised downwards again and again in the face of worsening conditions.

This has resulted in a poorer quality cup across the board. It’s hard to quantify, but if I were to take all those coffees I’ve had from this year’s crop and last years crop and rank them, I would certainly have none of this years crop in the top 5. I’m not even certain I could squeeze any of them into the top 10. This isn’t, however, just about the very top end Kenyans either. It seemed most roasters, whether bleeding-edge speciality or not carried a pretty good Kenyan or two last year. This year I have drank far, far too many completely passable Kenyans. Last year’s average-to-good Kenyan has become this years prized lot, and roasters have scrambled to buy them, forcing prices higher.

Kenyan coffee seems particularly prone to weather-borne problems. Whether this is due in part or full to man-made climate phenomena or not is hard to say (many will argue that it is). Either way it would seem the unpredictability is here to stay. Add to that Kenya’s relative political instability, corruption, diminishing plant stocks, lack of investment, the difficulty and low yield of growing the SL28 and SL34, and even the economic lure of just selling up the farm to be used as development land perhaps prophesises an ever increasingly uncertain future for what we currently recognise as the best in Kenyan coffee.

Coffee can die. I don’t mean the physical plants. I mean to say, Kenyan coffee could die as we know it. It’s persistence is not a formality. Look to Ethiopia, the Ethiopian microlot has all but died, or at the very least it is in a coma. Look at the massive difficulties in Colombia…

I have cast aspersions in the writing of this on this year’s crop of Kenyans. Nonetheless I will say this, go out, and track down the best of this years crop and drink them. While they only achieve a semblance of the previous year’s heights, with ever increasing uncertainty, 2010 may well be the best Kenyan crop for some time.


12 thoughts on “The Death of Coffee: Kenya

  1. You know I hear this nearly every year, Kenyans have gotten worse, Kenya’s are best they have ever been, droughts are ripping through the quality of Kenya’s etc.

    I of course acknowledge that this may all be true, but I have never known an origin get so much exposure to this kind of treatment. Its not something I tend to hear about El Salvador’s or Brazil’s.

    I think the cup profile of Kenya lends it self for us to be to easily tempted into these kind of sweeping statements, but I am not 100% sure its true. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince (not of the mark variety)

    I think its interesting you say that some of the early arrivals were not so good, I have harped on about seasonality being not just when the coffee arrives but when it is at its best, and I have found some early season samples I rejected back on my cupping table a few months later and have seen them grow in a huge way, so much so I have two on there way to me in the next couple of weeks.

    Great post as always pal, dam clever so and so .

  2. Rasmus Helgebostad says:

    I think this is an even bigger problem with coffee from Boquete, Panama. While most roasters I talk to will agree Kenya is having a bad year, a lot of respected cuppers still score Esmeralda 100 – when i think it’s obvious it’s not even close to the 2008 picking.

    I also think you’re touching on another important issue when it comes to marketing. Roasters (especially american ones, but Square Mile does this very well as well) will sell in coffees in a way that sure makes you want to taste them. Fruit explosions, massive caramel sweetness, juicy berry notes – it sounds amazing and I’m sure it wins over more costumers. However certainly all our coffees cannot be the best we’ve ever had at all times. The credibility of our quality judgment is by large what we sell, what makes us different from those who don’t take coffee as seriously. Admitting when we’re delivering less than the best we’ve had can be a nice and humble play to keep that credibility.

    On Kenyas – have you had S&Hs Kiunyu?

    • I agree on the Esmeralda. 2008 was the last time I was seriously impressed by an Esmeralda (that one was from Terroir).

      I did have S&H’s Kiunyu, a few months ago, kindly forwarded by Mr Brattas.

    • I’ve tasted every years Esmeralda since 06, and this years best of panama lot was for me the very very best, so although I agree the watering down of the brand has had a negative effect on the coffee as a whole it is still possible to produce truly amazing coffees from Esme

  3. George Howell made an excellent point about overcoming the shortcomings of taste memory with by deep freezing green beans at this year’s Nordic Barista Cup. You can listen to the full lecture over on Sprudge (link here, but the idea is pretty self evident.

    Once deep frozen, green beans retain their flavor for years, so it is very possible to compare a 2008 Kenyan (say Mamuto) vs a 2010 Kenyan (also Mamuto) at the same time. Memory is, of course, such a fickle tool.

  4. My understanding, based on a few conversations with knowledgable coffee buyers, is that one of the peculiarities about what we love about glorious Kenyan coffees… is that the producers there don’t really have a very good handle on how to reproduce the phenomenal characteristics that blow us away. There’s some fairly good year-to-year consistency from most farms and mills, but Kenyans seem to vary most greatly. Again, just gathered from what I’ve heard.

    Stephen: Freezing works. No doubt. Whether you want to invest in it is a separate issue, but it works. I’ve had some phenomenal 3-5 year-old coffees that were frozen as green. It’s real!

  5. Though I have a relatively small basis of experience from which to judge, I would venture that it’s entirely possible that as your palette becomes more experienced it will take more to wow it.

    Obviously the seasonal nature of specialty coffee makes it incredibly hard to judge these things clinically when you consider that tasting itself is a subjective and personal experience and add in the (possibly) romanticized memories of previous years.

    It’s easy to blame disappointment on external forces, and when you have a memory of the first time you tasted lemon in a coffee then, I think it’s easy to presume you don’t drink that coffee for 11 months until the new crop appears and it’s zestiness doesn’t hold up to your memory it could be down to a retrospective look with rose-tinted glasses.

    Certain coffees I used to adore have been wiped off the slate, not from decreasing coffee, but from a more trained (I hope) palette and greater experience.

    It may be glib to cast a sweeping statement that across the whole coffee community but disappointment coupled with a mass-effect of people saying there’s a decrease in quality etc. is, atleast to some degree, imaginable.

    That effect coupled with even a slight list towards mediocrity could magnify the shortcomings of a coffee hugely.

    Of course everything I’ve just said is merely my observation and opinion and is most likely entirely wrong.

    • Hi Alex, sure palette fatigue, and maturing palettes do factor, but considering a lot of last year’s crop held around well into the first quarter of this year (and beyond in some places) I’m afraid I don’t consider that to be the case here. For instance I was still drinking some of Kaffa’s Tegu when the first of the new crops were arriving.

      • That’s fair enough, I’m fully willing to admit I might be over-simplifying the issue.

        I should also note that I was, aside from your post, commenting on the long-term trend of “Kenyan coffee is struggling” and en masse the affect may have more weight than on an individual.

  6. zane says:

    prior to last year it had been some time since the (limited number of) kenyans (i have access to) had tasted really sublime. i think it was you who coined- ‘last year was the year of kenyans as the year before had been ‘the year of’ natural ethiopians’. were the kenyas not as topnotch at that time, or were we just focusing on the WOW coffees? possibly a bit of both, but some five or six years ago i had really really lovely kenyan coffees, and had really noticed a dip in perceived juicy goodness until… last year. so maybe kenyas are really pretty good most of the time with the occasional sensational crop?
    your points on maintaining production quality are spot on though, even great coffees can die. some time since we had a really great yemen for example

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