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.

Yadini Estate

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.

It takes 7 to 10 days for the beans to dry. Racks allow ventilation from below to even out and to quicken drying. The beans are protected from occasional rain by a plastic covering ,which can quickly be put over them or removed

Coffee still has skin, called parchment, which protects it.  As the beans inside dry, they shrink, leaving the skins loosely covering the beans and easily removable when the time comes.  In the meanwhile the beans are well protected by the parchment.

Ordinarily one would see people standing over the beans and hand sorting blemished ones out. It was just a few weeks away from the presidential election, however, and management was complaining that many were out in the town politicking. At the small farm cooperative processing centers (part 3) we would not see this, since there the farmers' livelihoods are on the line.

Man with 5 buckets, or "debes".

Women lifting dried beans into conditioning bins above.

More estates as we return to Nairobi.

It is dark before we get back.  On the highway...