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.