From the Road: East Africa Continues - Kenya!
Directly after Rwanda, I made a quick trip to Kenya. Kenya is home to one of the most respected coffee traditions in the world, and Kenyan coffees are famous among coffee connoisseurs for their unique quality. Even within the country of Kenya, there is a particular region from which the most famous coffees come: a few hours north of Nairobi, in the foothills to the south of the majestic Kirinyaga (also called Mt. Kenya), coffee farms produce absolutely spectacular coffees filled with winy fruitiness, mouthwatering savory character, and clean perfect coffee flavor.
It is to this area that I drove, immediately after arriving in Kenya. I spent the night in Nyeri Town, the capitol of this region. I didn't stay at the Hotel Starbucks, in nearby Karatina Town. This really must be coffee country – Hotel Starbucks!
It is an exciting time in Kenya. Historically, Kenyan law required that all coffee be tendered to a state-run open auction. Samples were available to licensed bidders, who vied for coffees at the famous Nairobi Coffee Exchange. We've been active in the auction for years now, buying and selling straight auction lots, unblended. 3 years ago, however, a new law was passed in Kenya allowing farmer cooperatives to sell their coffee directly to exporters and roasters, bypassing the auction. This became known as the "second window" through which coffee could leave Kenya, and it set the stage for developing more direct, long term relationships with coffee farmers. As a brand new thing, the second window was not immediately embraced by farmers or exporters, and it is only this year that we bought our first coffees direct. We, and a handful of other roasters, paid such a high price for these direct coffees, that it has created some excitement among farmers. It is with this in mind that I was visiting some of our favorite cooperatives, to explore the idea of buying more coffee directly in the coming year.
Anyway, first thing in the morning, I went to visit with the Thiriku cooperative at their coffee washing station (which are called "factories" here in Kenya). I first visited Thiriku in 2005, while I was in Kenya teaching cupping classes. That year, some of the best coffees at the auction came from Thiriku, and they have a reputation for being a well-run cooperative. Upon arrival, I shook the hands of Thiriku's board of directors, some of whom I recognized from 3 years ago (that's a good sign). Their spirit, however, is much different now! They have had a pretty successful few years, and they are proud of the prices they have paid the farmers of the cooperative. They were especially happy that I had made a return visit, that I would return twice was proof to them they were doing a good job. The first deliveries of coffee were being washed while I was there, and we talked about Thiriku's approach to quality and farmer outreach as the day broke. I have a good feeling about Thiriku, and if the quality pans out like I think it will, we may very well see some coffees from them in late 2008.
I had to say goodbye to Thiriku in order to make my meeting with Tekangu, the association of cooperatives that includes the Tegu, Karatina, and Ngunguru cooperatives. The most astute among you may recognize these as some of the all-stars of Kenyan coffees – and many (including me) have the indelible memory of a certain Tegu lot from the 2004 crop. I headed right for the Tegu factory – the last time I visited here was in 2006. Amazingly, even though the coffee from this factory has at times achieved greatness, it is not consistent: coffee has sometimes been just mediocre from Tegu. Embarking on a direct relationship will entail partnership and quality feedback, which will (hopefully) help to get our hands around quality control here, and make those great lots intentional rather than accidental. At the same time of my arrival, farmers were arriving with the very first cherries of the 2008 harvest. /div>
Farmers were bringing in literal handfuls of cherries, in small plastic bags, carried for miles. It is amazing the amount of work these farmers do each year to bring their coffee to market. Tegu's management took the opportunity to explain to me their new quality initiative – which has to do with bringing ONLY the ripest cherries into the mill. We crouched on the ground with the farmers, picking out slightly ripe, underripe, and overripe cherries in an attempt to really focus on the best of the best – for that is what is going to make it possible for us to pay the really high prices. Ripeness equals sweetness in the cup, and the full, fruity flavor is a great Kenyan is impossible without perfect ripeness. I believe Tegu is on the right track here. They have also divided their farmers into two groups: the "A" group has very well-managed, well-tended farms. Group "B" are farms which have had quality issues in the past or which are less well-managed. Farmers bring their cherry in on different days, allowing Tegu (and us) to keep the best separate, and reward those farmers who are producing the best quality (since those best-of-the-best lots will be sold to us at a premium). I had a great time hanging out at Tegu, filming movies, and planning out the harvest with the leaders of the co-op. I hope for a long, direct relationship with Tegu and the rest of the Tekangu group.
We went from Tegu to the Karatina factory, where the Tekangu association offices are. We were met by the rest of the Tekangu leadership, and they proudly shared with me the events of the past few years; they have successfully sold a number of the highest-priced lots to the auction, and they are eager to enter into a direct relationship with us, knowing that we have been a great buyer of their coffees in the past. Very exciting! We toured the factory, which was busily being prepared for harvest time. We'll be seeing samples from all three of these factories during the harvest, and giving feedback to the cooperatives. And if greatness emerges, we will be right there and ready to bring the lot home to roast! These would be the first Kenyan coffees which could theoretically qualify for our Direct Trade certification!!
It's an exciting time, all right.
After a friendly goodbye to the Tekangu leadership, I headed back to Nairobi and then homeward.
Until next time,