by Aleco Chigounis and Christopher Schooley
What goes into Producing Top Kenya Coffee
Kenyan coffees are masterpieces. They're the total package. My favorite aspects of Ethiopian coffees are their floral aromatics and balance. Colombian coffees are high up on my list for their weighted mouth feel and tremendous sweetness. The very best Kenyan coffees have all of these flavor components and unmatched acidity to boot. A few ideas are responsible for the phenomenon that is top Kenyan coffee.
1. Processing: I'd lay claim to the idea that Kenyan coffees are quite literally the cleanest coffees on the planet. Parchment in the storage facilities across the Central Highlands is pristinely white with no off coloring or tainting. Every last solid is removed from the parchment during what is the most extensive wet process in the industry with 2 fermentations, 2 washings and a soaking before the drying stage. The flavor profile of these Kenyan coffees are as pure an expression of their varietal and terroir as any coffee you'll taste.
2. Varietals: There is a lot of hubbub these days about varietal playing the most critical role in the flavor profile of coffees. I disagree. While certainly a critical component I'd lend a nod to micro climate, soil content and possibly even altitude to that of varietal. I mean come on, how similar is a Caturra in Colombia to a Caturra in Costa Rica? They're two different flavor profiles altogether. There is more similarity to Bourbon in Guatemala and Pacas in Honduras than there is to Caturra in those two countries. All of that said the Kenyan SL varietals are something special. As descendants of the French Mission, our Bourbon as we more commonly know it, these SL varietals have been bred and selected for their quality and disease resistance. When combined with the micro climates and soils of Mt. Kenya they provide a burst of fruit like nothing else coffee can provide us.
3. Packaging: The Kenyans, one particular exporter of note, are responsible for revolutionizing the vacuum packaging system as we know it in the coffee industry. Most coffees, Ethiopia being the glaring exception to the rule, have a lifespan of anywhere from 3-6 months. By lifespan I mean that they taste vibrant and fresh for that period of time. Most coffees with very few exceptions begin to lose their luster and develop a "faded" or "woody" or "papery" taste after 6, 7, 8 months. Maybe even before that in some cases. The Kenyans have changed the game by perfecting their vacuum packaging systems and ensuring longer shelf life for their green coffees. As the new harvest begins crawling to a halt in the next month or so we still have beautiful, remarkably fresh Kenyan coffee to get roasters through the winter.
Roasting and Tasting coffees from Kenya
All of the things that Aleco mentions that make Kenya so remarkable and crystal clear with amazing flavor profiles also make them a pleasure to roast. High grown, immaculately prepared and processed well-bred varieties roast up evenly and beautifully and can be incredibly forgiving to a variety of roast profiles. The most common Kenyas for a long time were the AA's, but now AB's and Peaberries are quite prevalent. The issue was that many considered this "grading" to be just that, a quality grade, when in fact it is only a size separation.
Coffees from each of these grades can have the quintessential Kenya qualities, and while there can be differences between how a peaberry and an AA take heat and move into and through first crack, they're subtle differences since all of these grades have substantial density. The main thing with roasting a Kenya is that you want to really bring out the sweetly fruited acidity while also showcasing the creamy or juicy (weighted) mouthfeel. Because of the brilliant acidity in coffees from Kenya, many roasters roast these very very light in order to try to promote it, but the truly sweet berry-like acidity beyond the citric lie just a little bit deeper into the roast and can even be still quite prominent in an Full City roast. In fact, very light roasts of Kenyas can be starchy with strong notes of banana esters and citric brightness, and malty and cereal-like in the finish. Full City roasts can be loaded with caramel and cocoa or even tootsie roll type sweetness while still showing some berry-like acidity through to the finish, but City and City+ roasts are where these coffees truly shine. At the City+ roast level the fruited notes can have the crystal clear brightness with berry notes, tropical fruit notes from phospheric acids, or even sparkling white grape. The floral qualities of Kenyan can be intensely aromatic, and in some cases meld together with spice note, creating a floral clove flavor. In Kenyas with these spice notes, roast plays a large role in integrated those flavors into the whole experience in a way that that keeps them from being too percussive and instead add complexity to the sweetness.
One of the keys to a really well roasted Kenya lies in the drying stage of the roast. By doing a slightly slower drying stage at the beginning of the roast you can push the sweetness as well as help develop the mouthfeel. You can also help the mouthfeel by making sure that you have a robust first crack but to not rush through it. The first crack is the point of the roast where the cellular structure of the bean is at its most elastic and there is a breakdown of the carbohydrates that lend themselves to mouthfeel.
I did some roasts of Peaberries and AB coffees from the same coffee factory for this article, and without question the roasts with a slightly extended drying stage were not only more weighted in the mouthfeel, but this also lead to more expressive fragrances, aromas, and flavors in general. These roasts with the extended drying stage also where much more open and bright on day one out of the roaster than the roasts with a shorter drying stage. On day 2 out of the roaster the sweetness was intense and candy like. This is one of the most important things to consider when tasting Kenyas, that the coffees really need at least 2 days of rest out of the roaster to really show everything they've got and can continue to open up while retaining their brilliance over the next couple days as well.