Kenya Coffee Visit, Coffee Estates, Part 1 of 3 November 2007
I visited Kenya this late November for the first time since 1993 when I ran The Coffee Connection. It is the first of many visits to come. I was in Kenya for an intense four days. These photos were taken with a camera in one hand and note-taking in the other. They are shot through a moving car's windshield, at locations where time did not permit any preparation and often at less than ideal photo-opportunity times. For those interested in coffee, and in Kenya coffee in particular, I hope these shots will provide some interest. I plan to return soon and build on these photos as well as my knowledge!
My special thanks to Jeremy Block, Bridget Carrington, Kit Gulliver, Martin Ngare, Philip Kamau, Michael Gitau and Walter and Patrick Mathagu for their time and valuable input!
The heart of Kenya coffee production and quality is concentrated in south-central Kenya, between Mt. Kenya and the capital, Nairobi. The equator passes right over the Mt. Kenya area. See the detail, next shot....
The great coffees grow in stream-fed hills gently rising from the 4,500 foot central Kenya plain. The area extends from Nairobi, in the south, along the eastern edge of the Aberdare mountains to the southern slopes of Mt. Kenya. Nairobi is about 75 miles south of Mt. Kenya. The coffee quality-producing districts are: Kiambu, Thika, Murang'a, Nyeri and Kirinyaga.
I was the guest of C Dorman Ltd., a Kenya exporting company specializing in the finest qualities. I have been working with them since the days of The Coffee Connection. This is one of their cupping labs.
This is C Dorman's main cupping lab. At the height of the coffee buying season several hundred coffees might be cupped in a single week. There are two cups for each coffee lot. Finer coffees may be roasted and cupped several times.
C Dorman warehouse & mill. Each bag of green coffee weighs 132 lbs.. These are coffees from the fly crop, harvested this summer. The main crop is harvested in November-December and produces the qualities that have made Kenya famous among coffee connoisseurs.
Gridlock in Nairobi, a common occurrence....
Metalware market on the road out of Nairobi.
View through the windshield as we drive into the countryside.
Driving past coffee estates. At over 5,000 feet the land rolls gently.
Coffee estates can be quite large. They are much more productive than small farms but, as a general rule, produce lower quality. There are occasional exceptions! We had very fine coffee from Rioki Estate two years ago.
Kenya has two crops per year. The fly crop is flowering now.
The Arabica coffee plant is self-pollinating.
Coffee cherries at Yadimi Estate have been picked and most unripes sorted out, seen here.
Over-ripe, ripe and still quite a few unripes sit in the receiving tank ready to be depulped. This will not make a great lot....
After being depulped, the beans are still coated with a thin layer of fruit called mucilage. They must ferment (the mucilage will rot, essentially) for up to 36 hours. Then turbulent water can wash away any fruit coating. If great care is not taken the odor of rotting fruit will be absorbed by the bean and coffee drinkers will taste it in their cups.
Next, the coffee is dried on racks. It had just been raining, so the coffees are still wrapped in plastic. Five minutes later it started to rain again. The main harvest is also the time of the "short rains" when mornings are often overcast and wet, giving way to partly cloudy intense sunshine in the afternoon. Kenya is right on the equator.
Kenya Coffee Visit, Mamuto Farm, Part 2 of 3
We first introduced Mamuto last year in September, 2006. I believe it was the best lot auctioned in Kenya that year (all Kenyan coffee lots were auctioned through 2006; this year the system was “liberalized,” permitting direct sales as well as auction coffee). In November it received Coffee Review’s first-ever score over 95. We now have Mamuto’s best lot from the most recent harvest, November-December of 2006. We purchased this lot directly and without hesitation; it was, again, the most outstanding lot we tried this past buying season and we always cup the cream of the crop!
Mamuto grows at 5,000 feet elevation in the district of Kirinyaga, beneath the slopes of the usually overcast seventeen thousand plus foot Mt. Kenya, looming above to the north. The soil is a deep red-orange volcanic loam in a very gentle undulating terrain.
The owner, Walter Paul Mathagu, was an agricultural officer serving the government of Kenya for seventeen years before retiring in 1987. During that time Mrs. Mathagu managed the farm (when I visited their farm last week, she was in Nairobi and so I was not able to meet her). He has thus been able to provide much skill and knowledge to developing the coffee trees on his farm. Taking inspiration from their family Mr. Mathagu explained to me that he and his wife named the farm by combining the first two letters from three words: his name, Mathagu, as the father; Muthoni, his wife’s maiden name, as mother; and toto, meaning child or children in Swahili: thus Mamuto. Mr. and Mrs. Mathagu have six children - three boys, three girls.
Besides coffee the Mathagus maintain a herd of dairy cattle and grow bananas, maize, beans and macadamia on their 21 acre farm. Thirteen acres are dedicated to coffee.
Farmer: Walter Paul and Muthoni Mathagu
Altitude: 5,000 ft.
Rainfall: Low to moderate+
Soil: Volcanic loam
Arabica variety: 95% Bourbon SL 28 and SL 34, 5% Ruiru 11
Size of Farm: 21 acres total; 13 acres of coffee
The next day we take off for Mamuto Farm in Kirinyaga. We descend very gently to 4,000 ft where there are rice fields.
Higher up again and nearing Mamuto Farm, with Mt. Kenya to the right.
Nearing Mamuto Farm we are back up around 5,000 feet. Mt Kenya, over 17,000 ft., looms before us.
Walter Mathagu and his son Patrick who is taking over the farm. Walter was a colonel in the army; it shows! He is engaging, anxious to inform, direct, and carries himself with natural authority.
View of receiving, depulping and drying racks.
Cherries ready for sorting. The harvest is just beginning at Mamuto. Towards the middle of the harvest the cherries will be more consistently ripe.
Depulping and two fermentation tanks are under the roof.
Walter Mathagu checking the fermentation of the coffee beans. Fermentation can take up to 36 hours.
Once the beans are ready to be washed a stream of water from the faucets above the tanks carries the beans through a long concrete channel. Men will paddle the water opposite the flow, creating turbulence and thereby also separating beans by density. The denser coffees are better. They will go to the soaking tanks, seen at the far end, where they will stay another 24 hours.
Soaking removes all residual fruit.
Then the beans are dried.
Sisal is used to absorb moisture and to cover the beans when the sun is hottest.
It is the same material used to bag the coffees for transport but of a coarser weave for good bean ventilation while drying.
Ventilated conditioning bins. Beans will lose another 2 to 3 % moisture. There are four bins for four qualities.
The beans must not touch the walls or the ground! This largest bin is for the top quality. From drying racks to these bins the coffee will have been dried from 65% to around 10.5% moisture at which point it is stable.
Explaining the process.
In this section of Mamuto the cherries are reaching maturity.
Ripe coffee cherries
The importance of maintenance and fertilizing: neighbor's coffee plants on right.
At just a slightly higher elevation on Mamuto Farm the cherries are not ripe yet. Two more weeks...
Kenya Coffee Visit, Small Farmers Cooperatives, Part 3 of 3
I visited Kangocho and Kahindu on the same day. Both factories were very familiar to me since in the days of The Coffee Connection they had produced amazing qualities. It was a thrill to once again offer their coffees. The harvest was still just getting started and so activity was limited (next year I will go a bit later!).
Best $79 deal ever - with breakfast. Outspan Hotel, Nyeri.
A view of the countryside from Kangocho Factory in the Nyeri district.
At the Kangocho Cooperative Factory small farmers sort their cherries. Only ripe cherry should be pulped for the best quality.
Unripes and over-ripes are separated out.
The first cherries of the day go into the receiving tank from where they will drop through the outlet below to be depulped.
Coffee cherries are released out of the receiving tank. Recycled water (from the fermentation and washing still to come) carries them towards the pulper disks.
This depulper has four disks stripping the fruit skins off. Everything then goes into a bath where what floats is removed as a lower grade and what sinks, being denser, continues on as the higher grade. This system is common throughout East Africa.
Floaters are poor quality and separated. Denser beans sink.
....The denser beans continue to the fermentation tank.
The beans are still coated in mucilage. Fermentation will allow easy removal with turbulent water.
The beans go into the fermentation tank.
The fermentation tanks are under the blue roof. The beans will stay in one set of tanks overnight, for twelve hours. The next day they are washed with clean water, with wooden paddles and bare feet, and then rinsed and moved with clean water to a second row of fermentation tanks, also under the roof and just below the first set of tanks. They will stay there the rest of the day and that night (24 hours) and then be washed again, this time in concrete channels (next photo). After this second more thorough washing the beans will once again go into a tank, further below and without a roof, where they will soak in very pure water for 24 hours.
Washing off the mucilage after 36 hours of fermentation. Wooden paddles go counter current, thus washing off the mucilage. With the use of water and barriers they separate different bean densities, the densest being the best quality.
After being washed in the channel, the beans are soaked in very clean water for 24 hours or more, removing all fruit residue.
Soaking tank. If there is a holdup at the drying racks the beans can remain here at least another day without losing quality, so long as the water is changed.
Stripped fruit will be used as mulch. The spent water is first recycled in the beginning stages of processing, as shown earlier. Afterwards it is kept in lagoons for long periods of time permitting the water to be cleansed before re-entering the environment.
Aerated conditioning bins, the last step in the drying process. Coffee enters these bins at about 14% moisture content, and loses another 3+% before stabilizing. Here, too, sorters have been removing blemished beans from the piles. As you can see sorting is done all along the chain!
Blast from the past! Kangocho won 1st place in the Coffee Connection competition in 1993. I was the first to sign their guest book.
Scenes on the road: police inspections are fairly common. Would love to be in on the conversation!
Small farmers grow coffee (dark green) and tea (bright green) on slopes side by side.
This is Central Kenya Coffee Mills (CKCM), brand new and in the heart of coffee growing country.
CKCM prepares the coffee for market. It cleans parchment coffee of all foreign matter, then hulls away the parchment (skin), sorts the beans by size and by density and then bags them.
CKCM's cupping lab monitors quality. CKCM also offers agricultural supports for farmers. The introduction of such mills in coffee country and of competing services should help improve farmers' lives.
We pass by a cooperative small farmer coffee factory below - on the road. These "factories" dot the countryside. A single cooperative may have several such factories, each one within walking distance of those farmers who use it.
Tea and coffee fields.
Speaks for itself....
Because of low world prices, past (hopefully) endemic corruption, and poor agricultural practices many farmers barely keep their trees alive. Today Kenya produces less than half what it did in 1988. Recent reforms are hopefully resuscitating the coffee sector.
Back in the 1980's, I believe, shade trees were removed from coffee farms in an effort to increase production. This may have worked for well funded estates but for small farmers it has been harmful, overall. Coffee trees without sufficient shade require far more fertilizer while soils are more prone to erosion. When farmers cannot afford these inputs production plummets. This is now being addressed.
Shade trees reduce the coffee trees' need for fertilizers and other costly inputs.
Kahindu Cooperative Factory. Two banks of fermentation tanks under roofs are seen here. People are hand sorting newly washed coffee beans at the drying racks. These "manicures" take place at every opportunity throughout the chain of transformations.
Agricultural diversity around Kahindu. Lowest grade coffees are visible at bottom right of this photo. The lowest grade is consumed at origin. Better exportable qualities are to the left.
Cooperative meeting. The discussions were lively.
Back to Nairobi!