Origins: Kenya Coffee
Does It Really Taste Like Pop Rocks?
Kenya coffees can have such effervescent, candy-like fruit that our coffee buyers sometimes compare them to Pop Rocks or Jolly Ranchers. With their juicy mouthfeel, lively acidity, and sparkling, sweet-tart tropical and stone-fruit flavors, they really can burst.
At Blue Bottle, Kenyas are so prized, we tend to offer them as single origins. If we blend them, we treat them as an accent, a small fraction of the total. Like a maraschino cherry on a sundae, they help the blend shine. A key exception is our 2019 Summer Blend—a dream blend for our coffee team, where a Kenya coffee makes up a whopping fifty percent.
For those who prefer more classic ‘coffee’ flavors of chocolate or brown sugar, Kenya coffees can be polarizing. For some, they taste too acidic, too adventurous, and too unfamiliar.
But that’s what draws us to them—they widen the spectrum of what’s possible in coffee flavors. Often when we have them on the cupping table, we save them for last, like dessert.
Where do they get that incandescent crackle? We speculate it has to do with Kenya’s surprisingly short yet thrilling coffee history, which gave the country so many elements all its own: Its own cultivars, auction system, processing methods, even its own inactive volcano, which together likely endow their coffees with their exceptional phosphoric shine.
Geographically speaking, Kenya sits next door to coffee’s birthplace, Ethiopia, but it took roughly a thousand years for coffee to make it across the border. It had to travel around the world first. Kenya didn’t start growing coffee substantially until the 1950s. French missionaries first brought Bourbon to Kenya in 1893, but it was under British colonial rule that coffee cultivation spread. From the early 1900s onward, British-owned estates flourished, selling their harvest in England where roasters used the brighter coffees as a kick to blends made with more chocolatey South American coffees.
Leading up to the 1950s, two things happened that forever changed Kenya’s coffee story. The first had everything to do with botany, the second came down to politics.
In 1929, Scott Agricultural Laboratories (or SL for short), the British-run agricultural research center located in Kenya, sent an entomologist, a plant breeder, and a mycologist to scour Kenya and its neighbor to the South, Tanzania, to isolate coffee trees that could resist drought and disease and produce better fruit. Over the next four years, the team isolated forty-two cultivars. After several years of tests, in the 1950s, they introduced two in particular that proved so successful, they now dominate Kenya coffee production: SL-28 and SL-34.
This came from a single wild tree found in Tanzania; along with its tendency to make coffee with spectacular fruit in the cup, it has an almost superpower-like ability to survive years of total neglect, only to return to productivity under the proper care.
Discovered on an estate in Kabete, Kenya, SL-34 was given the misnomer “French Mission,” based on an incorrect assumption that it had descended from the original Bourbon cultivars brought by French missionaries. Like so many origin stories, this one has more to do with romance than facts: recent genetic tests show that SL34 is more closely related to another more common cultivar, Typica.
Kenyan Coffee Board
The 1930s to the 1950s also saw the transfer of coffee production from the British to Kenya, which ultimately helped drive a unique focus on coffees of quality that made Kenya a model for coffee growing countries around the world. Like so many colonial coffee economies, under the British, local labor and resources supported the colonial power rather than Kenyan farmers, who had little access to land ownership or profits. In 1933, the Coffee Act established the Kenyan Coffee Board and moved the sale of Kenyan-grown coffee back to its source, setting up the national auction system that’s become a global model. Though corruption and other shortcomings plague the auction system, it has helped position Kenya as a coffee powerhouse, not only by putting a price premium on the best lots, but also fostering a multigenerational workforce of farmers whose coffee knowledge has led to a more consistent approach to farming across the entire country. The resulting effervescence of Kenya’s coffees owes much to this.
It takes more than cultivars or quality-driven auction systems to make coffee great. The landscape in which the SL cultivars grow also plays a role. We mainly source from the regions surrounding Mount Kenya, an inactive volcano with mineral-rich soil. On its southwestern side, Nyeri County is home to some of the oldest and highest-quality producers, and boasts terroir that makes the Kenya upcountry so famous: volcanic loam the color of adobe and misty highland air that gives way to burning hot sun. With elevations from 1,400 to 2,000 meters above sea level, on Mount Kenya the sun’s rays become more diffuse in the thin air. The resulting cooler temperatures, especially at night, stress the plant in a delicious way, so more sugars develop in the cherries, which translates to complexity and sweetness in the cup.
Coffees from Kenya also tend to have more phosphoric acid, an inorganic compound which some link directly back to the minerals present in that volcanic soil. Phosphoric acid does not have a flavor like citric or acetic acid do. It’s used as a flavor enhancer in fizzy cola. Kenya coffees often stand apart for their effervescence and sharp clarity; phosphoric acid is likely to thank.
Like an edenic landscape, Mt. Kenya’s many rivers feed the watersheds where farmers live. Natural water sources abound, and many factories use their closest river or spring for processing their coffee, which in Kenya is used more in greater volume than anywhere else in the world. In Kenya, all coffees are washed not once, but twice. Called Kenya-style wet processing, or double fermentation, that second step is credited by many coffee professionals for adding clarity to Kenya’s lots.
At Blue Bottle, our green buying team sometimes say tasting a coffee from Kenya is like tasting the idea of ripening. Such fruit-laden coffee may not be for everyone. For people who drink coffee for a living, that liveliness is refreshing. But even for single origin novices, Kenya coffees excites with unexpected arcs of flavors that are all but unmissable.