Coffees from Kenya are unlike any other. The country has a rich history of coffee production, and many farms utilize a regionally unique system of double fermentation processing that adds to the splendor and complexity of the beans. What the heck does that mean? Coffee comes wrapped in a cherry-like fruit (called a “coffee cherry.”) Many producers in Kenya remove most of the fruit, let the beans soak in water (or “ferment”) for a day or two, rinse them, then ferment again before allowing the product to dry.
The double fermentation method is used widely throughout Kenya, but it’s not the only thing that sets these beans apart. As with wine, terroir has a profound impact on a coffee’s expression in the cup. Many of the coffee producing regions in Kenya have rich, mineral-dense volcanic soil. There are also a ton of phosphates in the soil, which amounts to a higher-than-usual phosphoric acid concentration in many coffees produced in the country. Phosphoric acid plays tricks with our perception of flavor — it has a tendency to make other flavor compounds pop and sparkle in ways that they ordinarily wouldn’t. It’s a primary ingredient in carbonated colas and is part of what makes these sodas taste so uniquely awesome (and so bad for your bones.)
We often describe Kenyan coffees as having grapefruit notes, currant-like qualities, or sweet vegetal or tomato flavors — but coffees from the country are really diverse. Despite a few general trends in processing and soil quality, Kenyan coffees vary in flavor from growing region to growing region and by bean variety. Two varieties in particular, known as SL-28 and SL-34, are widely favored throughout the nation for their complexity, but many other varieties are grown there as well.
We sampled an array of locally-available options from a smattering of Kenyan growing regions to bring you this report. Our conclusion? Kenyan coffees are amazing. They’re damn near impossible to mess up. They’re spectacularly special, and you should take full advantage of them while they’re still fresh.
Press Coffee Roasters - Kenya Nyeri Kiamabara (available at all Press Coffee locations)
Let’s break down the name really quickly: Kenya = country of origin. Nyeri = region of origin. Kiamabara = the cooperative that brings together small-scale farmers that produce the coffee. This cup, comprised of both SL-28 and SL-34 varieties, should not be missed. Our barista brewed it on a Clever dripper, a method which she asserted would “maintain the cup’s savory qualities while bringing out a lot of subtle nuances.” Her assessment was spot on. The Kiamabara was floral, with strong notes of grapefruit, fresh summer herbs, and an unthinkable effervescence. A real tongue-tickler.
Four Barrel Coffee - Kenya Kiangoi (available at Giant Coffee)
Four Barrel’s Kenya is also comprised of SL-34 and SL-28 beans, but takes on an entirely different character than its Press Coffee counterpart. Produced in Kirinyaga County (Nyeri’s neighbor to the east), this particular cup highlights the more herbaceous qualities that Kenyan coffees might possess. When batch brewed on a Fetco system, this coffee had a dense body, with overtones of macadamia nut and a musky tropical fruit sweetness (think Acai). As it cools, this coffee’s brightness and complexity become even more pronounced.
Cortez Coffee Roasters - Abundancia Kenya (sampled at King Coffee)
Cortez’s version of Kenyan coffee had a more subdued sparkle than the other two we tried, but was impressive nonetheless. Abundancia Coffee is produced at the base of Mount Kenya, in a town called Kagundo. A vibrant peach-like quality dominates the cup, with hints of vanilla bean, toasted almond, and cocoa powder. Our barista at King Coffee brewed the cup on a ceramic Hario V-60 pourover dripper, and we were really impressed by the clean, full-flavored results.
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