Plainspoken Coffee. A Coffee Review for Ordinary People by Ordinary People, #45.
In my exploration of coffee growing in Kenya, I discussed how little organic coffee was produced in the county. At least two factors account for this. First is that there is little governmental support or official policies regarding organic agriculture in the country . Another factor is the prevalence of various diseases and pests, including coffee berry disease (Colletotrichum coffeanum), coffee leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix), and coffee berry borer (Hypothenemus hampei). The severity of these problems has been blamed, at times, on the lack of integrated pest and farm management, and has resulted in very heavy use of pesticides and fungicides. In particular, the overuse of copper fungicides has exacerbated pest problems (although some copper solutions are actually permitted under organic standards) and contaminated the environment .
According to interviews with coffee-growing small holders in the vicinity of Nyeri , farmers have little knowledge of what products are considered eco-friendly, even though they acknowledge more birds and wildlife are present when they do not spray their crops. They also indicated that the mills to which they sell their coffee have strict regulations that include spraying regimes and prohibitions on intercropping with shade trees. Without institutional support, organic farming may never gain momentum in the country.
Although Kenya currently exports around 50,000 tons of coffee annually, only about 400 tons are organic (2008 figures, ). So when I saw that PT’s Coffee Roasting had an organic coffee from Kenya, I knew this was a coffee with a story that I wanted to review.
PT’s Coffee Roasting Co.: Kenya Kia-Ora Organic
There was little to be found online about Kia-Ora Farm. PT’s Jeff Taylor put me in contact with the importer, InterAmerican Coffee. Their information was roughly the same as was being reported on various roaster web sites: the coffee was intercropped with macadamia nut trees at 1600 to 1900 m in Kirinyaga. Not much to go by. The InterAmerican bean bio had one tidbit that helped me track down the source: it was certified organic by one of the handful of agencies working in Kenya, Soil Association Certification Ltd. out of the UK. A dig through documents on their site revealed that Kia-Ora Farm was owned by Kenya Nut Company (KNC).
KNC is one of the world’s top five macadamia processors. Macadamias are native to Australia, and were introduced into Kenya in the 1940s. In the early 1970s, the Kenyan government tasked KNC to develop the industry. KNC is a Kenyan/Japanese joint venture; the chair is Pius Ngugi, one of Kenya’s most wealthy businessmen. KNC has now expanded into cashews, tea packing, wine production, and arabica coffee. Overall, the company operates seven farms on over 8,000 acres, and is also supplied with raw product by thousands of smallholders.
Coffee supplied to KNC is processed in the Thika Coffee Mills (one of the handful of “factories” that handle coffee in the country), a KNC company, for both export and the local market. KNC also roasts and packages its own blends of coffee under its trademark “Out of Africa”.
The specifics about Kia-Ora — size of the farm, organic history — remain elusive. One roaster indicated the farm grew French Mission (Bourbon) and SL varietals. If anybody has further details, please drop me a line or leave them in the comments.
PT’s treatment of this coffee was a light roast, no oils on the surface of the beans. A lot of people tried this coffee, and some were new to the wine-like Kenyan profile. That can spell trouble for some distinctive coffees, but everybody but one panelist enjoyed it.
Surprising was the malt flavor a couple of people detected on the front end when very hot out of the French press; this was not found in samples brewed on the Technivorm. Either way, the coffee had a resonant, tart, wine-like acidity so often admired in Kenyan coffees. Grapefruit overlain with honey seemed to be a dominant player, but one taster noticed a hint of savory on the palate, reminiscent of tomato (that’s a flavor I’ve seen in coffee descriptions, but never connected with until now; it’s way better than it sounds!).
More than one person thought that the Kia-Ora’s tartness was starting to veer off into sour territory, especially when made at concentrations at or above 1 gr coffee to 15 gr water*. I like this characteristic acidity, but it was this sharp forwardness that unsettled some panelists that weren’t familiar with it. Thus, the overall rating worked out to just over 3.5 motmots, but there were many people who scored it higher (one gave it a 4), and those that preferred a heavier bodied, lower acid coffee dragged down the average. Experimentation with the ratio of coffee to water should help people find their sweet spot (low concentrations stripped it of character, however) and Kenyan coffee aficionados should really enjoy it.
We also tried this coffee provided to us by Strongtree Organic Coffee Roasters (although they didn’t know we’d be reviewing it). They took the roast just a tiny tad farther. This seemed to take the edge of the sour note, and steadied the acidity. Importantly, the coffee consistently maintained all it’s good qualities between the two roasters.
Much, perhaps most, of Kenya’s coffee is grown in the sun using (a lot) of chemicals. The fact that a major company is investing in and exporting high-quality organic coffee (and nuts), probably on a relatively large scale, is encouraging. It was particularly impressive to me after reading about the struggles in both the Kenyan coffee and macadamia sectors.
Some coffee varieties that have fungal-disease resistance are being developed, which would help farmers maintain their yields, and farms, as well as support organic production. However, if these varietals are viable, the question remains — can they produce the same cup quality as heirloom varietals? Historically, that hasn’t been the case, and a lowering of quality may equate to lower prices to farmers, and subsequent abandonment of coffee as a crop, as has happened in the past.
When coffee prices declined in the 1990s, some farmers switched from coffee to macadamia. In fact, KNC has worked to encourage small farmers to grow macadamias to decease overall dependence on coffee and tea. Now, the nut crops are threatened by major fungal outbreaks. Integrated pest management and good cultural techniques can help minimize these outbreaks , but should farmers again turn to certain fungicides, organic certification could be jeopardized on coffee farms that also have macadamia.
These struggles have helped fuel a sell-off of agricultural land to developers in Kenya. For instance, the 1,000-ha Tatu City, is slated for a former coffee farm outside the town of Thika, about 40 km north of Nairobi.
With Kia-Ora, KNC has proven that good quality, organic coffee can be a commercial success, even as a specialty coffee export. Let’s hope this achievement is recognized and built upon in the years to come.