Kenyan coffee is renowned around the world for its vibrant flavors and juicy profile. Are you curious about trying some of the world’s highest-quality coffee beans?
This guide aims to provide you with all the information you need to make an informed decision when buying Kenyan coffee. From its unique history to the different coffee growing regions and flavor profiles, this article will help you appreciate the exceptional qualities of Kenyan coffee beans and find the best Kenyan coffee for your taste buds.
So, let’s dive into the world of Kenyan coffee and discover its rich history and flavors.
- Despite being a neighbor to Ethiopia, where Arabica coffee originated, coffee was only introduced to Kenya in 1893.
- Kenyan coffee is typically processed using the washed (or “wet”) method, which allows for a clean, bright flavor profile to develop.
- The most commonly grown coffee varieties in Kenya are SL-28 and SL-34, which were developed by Scott Laboratories in the 1920s and 1930s.
- Kenyan coffee beans are known for their bright and complex flavor profiles, with a range of notes that can include citrus, black currant, berry, and floral flavors.
What Makes Kenyan Coffee Special?
While Kenya is a relatively small country, it ranks as the 16th largest coffee-exporting country in the world. (1) Kenyan coffee is widely regarded as some of the best in the world due to its unique and complex flavor profile. Grown at high altitudes in nutrient-rich volcanic soil, beans grown here develop a rich, bold flavor with a bright acidity and notes of berry and citrus.
The famous SL-28 and SL-34 varieties of Arabica coffee are tied to Kenya’s history and are known for their quality and high yields. In the 1920s and 30s, Scott Laboratories, an agricultural research center, explored 42 different varieties that would thrive in Kenya and help boost the economy.
SL-28 became known for its drought resistance, high yield, and cup profile, while SL-34 was found to grow well in high-altitude areas with a good amount of rainfall. (2)
These two varieties have become synonymous within the Kenyan coffee market and are prized by the specialty coffee industry. They tend to result in full-bodied coffees with pleasant acidity and flavors of fruits and nuts.
David Mathenge, a Kenyan coffee grader, adds that there is often a “floral and spicy” fragrance when these two types of coffee beans are ground. (3)
Brief History of Kenyan Coffee
Despite being a neighbor to Ethiopia, where Arabica coffee originated, coffee was only introduced to Kenya in 1893. It came from a group of French missionaries called the Holy Ghost Fathers, who introduced coffee trees near Nairobi.
When the British colonized Kenya, they quickly realized that the country’s unique climate and soil conditions proved ideal for growing coffee. Soon, the industry began to thrive. By the 1950s, Kenyan coffee had obtained recognition for its quality worldwide.
This was in big part due to the colonial British government establishing Scott Laboratories in 1922. They trained farmers and developed various strains of coffee that would continue to thrive in Kenya for years to come.
However, the industry faced many challenges in the following decades, including fluctuating prices, political instability, and changing weather patterns. In the 1960s, outbreaks of coffee berry disease and leaf rust destroyed crops throughout the country.
In the 1980s and 1990s, coffee production in Kenya declined significantly again, leading to a drop in exports and economic hardships for many farmers.
In recent years, however, the Kenyan coffee industry has experienced a resurgence. The government has implemented measures to support coffee farmers, including improving infrastructure, providing training and resources, and implementing quality control measures.
Additionally, many coffee roasters and consumers around the world have recognized the quality of Kenyan coffee, leading to increased demand and higher prices for Kenyan coffee beans.
Today, Kenyan coffee is considered one of the finest and most sought-after coffees in the world. The industry remains an important contributor to Kenya’s economy and a source of pride for the country’s farmers.
Some Facts About Kenyan Coffee
Most of the coffee in Kenya is grown on small farms by individual farmers who work closely with cooperative societies to ensure high-quality production and fair trade practices.
Kenyan coffee is typically processed using the washed (or “wet”) method. This involves removing the outer layers of the coffee cherry to expose the seed, then fermenting and washing the seeds in tanks of water to remove any remaining mucilage (the remaining sticky fruit residue).
These fermentations can take up to 36 hours. Farmers then place the coffee beans to dry on raised beds before being milled for export.
This method allows for a clean, bright flavor profile to develop. The most commonly grown coffee varieties in Kenya are SL-28 and SL-34, which were developed by Scott Laboratories.
Common Arabica Varieties in Kenya
- SL-28: This is a highly sought-after coffee variety in Kenya, known for its bright acidity and floral and fruity flavor notes. It is often described as having a complex flavor profile that includes notes of black currant, citrus, and blackberry, with a delicate and tea-like body. SL-28 is also known for its intense aroma and sweetness, and is often used in blends to add a bright and acidic note.
- SL-34: Another popular coffee variety in Kenya, SL-34 is known for its bold and full-bodied flavor profile. It has a rich and smooth taste, with notes of dark chocolate, caramel, and citrus. SL-34 is also known for its strong and lingering aftertaste, as well as its low acidity and high sweetness. It is often used in espresso blends to provide a strong and flavorful base.
- K7: Developed in the 1930s as a hybrid of two other coffee varieties, this variety is known for its smooth and mellow taste, with a subtle acidity and a nutty flavor profile. K7 is also known for its low bitterness and sweetness, making it a popular choice for those who prefer a more mild and balanced cup of coffee.
- Ruiru 11: Ruiru 11 is a hybrid coffee variety that was developed in Kenya in the 1980s. It is known for its high yield and disease resistance, but is also prized for its flavor profile. Ruiru 11 has a balanced and sweet taste, with notes of citrus and red fruit. It also has a medium body and a clean finish, making it a popular choice for those who prefer a more straightforward and approachable cup of coffee.
- Batian: Batian is a relatively new coffee variety in Kenya, developed in the early 2000s as a hybrid of two other coffee varieties. It is known for its high yield and disease resistance, as well as its unique flavor profile. Batian has a bright and juicy taste, with notes of blackcurrant, red fruit, and tropical fruit. It also has a medium to full body and a long and lingering aftertaste, making it a popular choice for those who prefer a more complex and layered cup of coffee.
General Flavor Profiles
As seen above, Kenyan coffee is known for its bright and complex flavor profiles, with a range of notes that can include citrus, black currant, berry, and floral flavors. Kenyan coffee is often described as having a lively acidity and a bold, full-bodied taste. “Juicy” and “vibrant” are two words commonly associated with Kenyan beans.
The unique growing conditions in Kenya, including high altitudes and volcanic soil, contribute to the distinct flavor profiles of Kenyan coffee.
In terms of roast level, Kenyan coffee is best enjoyed at a light to medium roast. This allows the coffee’s complex flavor profile to shine through while still maintaining a smooth and balanced taste. Lighter roasts emphasize acidity and more delicate, floral flavors, while darker roasts will encourage more sweetness and body to come through.
Since Kenyan coffees are usually naturally full-bodied, a lighter roast will work well and preserve the most flavors and aromas.
While under-roasting can leave the coffee tasting sour or acidic, the perfect light-to-medium roast will highlight that fruity acidity perfectly. As with any coffee, the ideal roast level for Kenyan coffee is a matter of personal preference, but the best Kenyan coffees I’ve had have all been a light roast or a medium roast.
Coffee Growing Regions
At this point, you’re probably wondering what makes Kenya such a great place to grow coffee. In addition to coffee varieties being created specifically to thrive in the area, Kenya’s climate, soil, and altitude all make it that much easier to grow amazing coffee plants.
Kenya has a tropical climate with plenty of rainfall, ideal for coffee production. The high altitudes ranging from 4,000 to 6,900 feet above sea level provide cool temperatures which help slowly ripen the coffee cherries and develop more complex and delicate flavors.
The soil is also predominantly volcanic and rich in nutrients. Black cotton soil is a particular type of volcanic soil found in some coffee growing regions like Nyeri and Kirinyaga. It’s known for its high water retention capacity and helps provide coffee plants with the nutrients and moisture they need to grow.
The five main coffee growing regions of Kenya are:
- Nyeri: Located in the central highlands of Kenya, Nyeri is known for producing some of the most complex and flavorful coffees in the country. The region is known for its high altitude, cool temperatures, and rich volcanic soil.
- Kirinyaga: Another region located in central Kenya, Kirinyaga is known for producing a coffee bean with bright acidity and a full-bodied taste. The region’s high altitude, abundant rainfall, and rich soil contribute to the coffee’s distinct flavor profile.
- Kiambu: Located in the south-central region of Kenya, Kiambu is known for producing coffee with a balanced and mellow taste. The region’s warm temperatures and fertile soil make it an ideal location for growing coffee.
- Machakos: Located in eastern Kenya, Machakos is known for producing coffee with a delicate and tea-like flavor profile. The region’s high altitude and cool temperatures create the perfect conditions for growing high-quality coffee.
- Kisii: Located in southwestern Kenya, Kisii is known for producing coffee with a fruity and floral flavor profile. The region’s abundant rainfall and rich volcanic soil contribute to the unique taste of Kisii coffee.
Kenya AA Coffee Beans
A quality rating system is used to classify Kenyan beans based on their size, shape, and density. It is a measure of the size and density of each coffee bean, with AA being the highest grade.
The grading system is based on the screen size of the coffee beans, which refers to the size of the sieve used to sort the beans. AA Kenyan beans are the largest and heaviest, with a screen size of 17 or 18. The next size down is AB, followed by PB (Peaberry) and C. (4)
The grading system is important because larger coffee beans are believed to have more complex flavors and aromas, due to their longer maturation time on the coffee tree. Additionally, a denser coffee bean is believed to produce better quality coffee due to its ability to retain moisture and flavor during the roasting process. The care that this process takes to group beans of similar size and density together makes roasting them that much more consistent.
Overall, the Kenyan AA grading system is used by coffee buyers and roasters to ensure they are purchasing the highest quality Kenyan coffee beans available.
Where to Buy – Best Brands to Try
Alright, now that you know all about Kenyan coffee, you’re probably itching to try some. Here are three of our favorite Kenyan coffee brands with delicious roasted coffee beans available to order online. Note that all of these brands we recommend use Kenya AA coffee.
Volcanica Kenya AA Coffee Beans
This medium/light roast features Kenya AA beans with notes of raspberry, cranberry, redwood, and alyssum flowers. Volcanica offers this coffee in many sizes and as whole beans or ground to use with your favorite brewing method.
These beans have a bright, fruity acidity balanced by a wine-like sweetness with a full body. If you like to enjoy filtered pour-overs like a Chemex or V60, this is a Kenya AA coffee that you shouldn’t pass up.
Fresh Roasted Coffee LLC
If you like your coffee a little less acidic and your roasts a bit darker, this medium-dark roast of Kenya AA coffee might be for you. It uses four different coffee varieties – including SL-28 and SL-34 – to create a bold brew with notes of peach, orange, and black tea… without the vibrant acidity that is sometimes too much for some coffee drinkers.
Expect this coffee to taste sweet and fruity without too much “tang”. I recommend trying this Kenya AA coffee as an AeroPress or French Press to maximize the sweetness even more.
Screen 18 Specialty Grade Premium Kenyan AA Coffee Beans
This medium-dark roast gives you another chance to try Kenya AA beans without too much acidity. Grown above 6,600 feet above sea level, this coffee is packed with sweetness and juicy berry flavors.
A screen size of 18 is one of the largest sizes that a coffee bean can fall under. This Miami roaster specifically ordered these green coffee beans pre-sorted so that the roast process creates an even cleaner, more consistent fresh roasted coffee. Try these Kenyan beans ground or order whole beans. Whichever you choose, expect high quality from this single-origin Kenya AA coffee.
Frequently Asked Questions
In coffee, your taste preferences will always determine what you like better. That being said, Kenyan coffees are known for their bright acidity and bold, juicy flavors. Ethiopian coffee is known for its floral and tea-like notes, often presenting themselves more subtly than Kenyan coffee tasting notes.
Many people consider Ethiopia to have the best coffee, as it’s the birthplace of the Arabica coffee plant and is famous for its floral and fruity coffee. Kenya is also known for its bold, bright, and juicy flavors, in addition to the high-quality “Kenya AA coffee”. Other African countries such as Rwanda, Tanzania, and Burundi also produce exceptional coffees. Ultimately, the choice will depend on your personal taste preferences.
Alright, that’s a wrap on everything you need to know about Kenyan coffee beans!
In this guide, you learned the history of coffee in Kenya, the regions it grows best in, and why Kenyan coffee tastes the way it does. We even gave you a few of our recommendations for the best Kenyan coffee beans (specifically AA) to try.
We hope you enjoy the smooth and delicious Kenya AA coffee that this country is known for.
- EXPORTS OF ALL FORMS OF COFFEE BY EXPORTING COUNTRIES TO ALL DESTINATIONS – https://www.ico.org/prices/m1-exports.pdf
- Coffee varieties: A roaster’s guide to SL28 & SL34 – https://mtpak.coffee/2021/12/coffee-varieties-roasters-guide-sl28-sl34/
- Exploring popular Kenyan coffee varieties: SL-28 & SL-34 – https://perfectdailygrind.com/2021/02/exploring-popular-kenyan-coffee-varieties-sl-28-sl-34/
- Kenya Coffee Grades: Exploring the Coffee Grading System – https://library.sweetmarias.com/kenya-coffee-grades/