I can’t wait any longer to share the highlight of our Kenyan honeymoon–well, of the share-able highlights, I should say. It’s completely out of order, and I will surely be reprimanded for spoiling the ending, but I trust that we will get back to posting about our week on the beach in Malindi, safari in Tsavo East, and camping near the Rift Valley’s Lake Naivasha.
For now, you can read about (and see) our last days in Kenya, spent touring a magnificently beautiful coffee plantation and mill. Go on…reading is caffeine free! Plus, you might learn something.
The beginning of this story is actually quite dramatic. I had planned for months to stop by a coffee farm while in Kenya (indeed, it was part of the goal of honeymooning there). Networking through the internet had gotten me no useful contacts, and I eventually decided our best bet was to talk to folks in-country, who could point us in the right direction. And talk to them I did! But, by Friday, two days before our flight back to Jo-burg, I was no closer to getting onto a farm than when I arrived.
As a last ditch effort, Lea and I were prepared to show up in Nyeri–a popular coffee growing region–and browbeat someone into letting us wander through their rows of trees. Before we resorted to that, as luck would have it, I made one final phone call to a random number I had jotted down from the East African Fine Coffee Association. I explained our quandary to the unfamiliar voice on the line–“Yes, sir…tomorrow is our last day in Kenya and only chance to do this”–and to my surprise he said we could show up the next morning at 8:30am, sharp!
We had a little over 12 hours to get to where he was (in Ruiru), so we decided to get up early the next morning and hire a driver to take us. Luckily, our taxi driver from days before was okay with short notice, and the next morning, promptly at 6am, he showed up in a three piece suit to escort us to coffee-land.
When we arrived, we learned that we were actually on the grounds of a coffee mill–one of only three or four in Kenya, and the person I had talked to on the phone was the boss of it. He patiently explained as much about the Kenyan Coffee Industry as we ever wanted to know–where the coffee is grown, what kinds of plants are used, who mills the coffee, and how it is sold at the famous Nairobi Coffee Auction, etc.–for over 2 hours!
Next, we were treated to a mill tour from the Mill Manager. Here he is pointing out the huge silos where the partially processed coffee beans (called parchment) are loaded at the beginning of the milling process.
The mill looks huge and industrial, and I guess it is, but what all those intimidating machines do is really quite simple. The coffee comes in from the farms, where it has already been partially processed (more on that later), and passes through two phases. In the first phase the crusty layer of yellow parchment is removed to leave only the green coffee bean.
Next, the beans are sorted by size and density. In this step the mill machinery does what seems like a tedious job in minutes, by separating tons of coffee into one of over 15 different coffee grades. That’s right, instant coffee drinkers, all coffee is not created equal!
The grading process is quite interesting. All of the green beans are shaken through a series of smaller and smaller screens. At each screen, the beans that don’t pass through are the largest in that group and thus the coffee is separated by size. It works roughly the same way as sifting flour. The bran flakes don’t pass through the sifter when you’re sifting whole wheat flour because they’re bigger.
Next, the beans are sorted by density. Here, our guide is explaining how the density separator works. Essentially, it’s a big vibrating bed (no honeymoon cracks, please) that shakes all of the skinny kids off. As the coffee passes onto the vibrating separator, the heavier beans (and therefore denser, because they’ve already been separated by size) stay put while the lighter ones slip off the edge.
In Kenya, the bigger, denser beans usually command the highest price. You may have heard of Kenya AA coffee. Well, AA is the second-largest coffee size (the largest is E, for Elephant, and usually inferior) and generally associated with a superior bean.
Finally, the beans are labeled and bagged, ready to be taken to the auction warehouse, where samples of every single coffee produced in Kenya sit, waiting to be tasted before the weekly Tuesday auction.
Speaking of tasting, the mill we visited did a bit of that, too, and Lea and I were not about to pass up a chance to cup coffees with the pros! This is a picture of heaven, er, I mean, the mill cupping room, where Ezekiel, Master Liquorer, does his magic.
Whoa, that’s a lot of coffee! But, anyone who has been to a cupping at the Shaver house knows what it’s all about. In the middle you can see samples of both the green beans and the roasted beans of each type of coffee. The “liquorers” (as they’re called in the ex-British colonies, as opposed to “cuppers” at home) make comments based on the look of the green beans and the quality of the roast.
In front of that are two cups of each sample ready to be tasted–crust already broken, in this case. Since it’s true that one bad bean can spoil the whole damn cup, they have to sample two cups to ensure that their results are consistent with the overall quality of the coffee.
No one had to tell me what to do here! Lea and I grabbed a spittoon (would you swallow the coffee if it meant downing over 75 samples a day?!) and went to work. Here I am with Ezekiel, the Head Liquorer, explaining to me how to identify coffee that has that famous “Kenyan kick.”
It was almost painful to leave the cupping room, but we had more ground to cover. We were headed off to see the actual plantations where the coffee is grown and the first stage of processing. For this part, we were guided by the technical manager, who had personally overseen the care of many of the coffee plants on the farm.
We learned more about growing coffee than anyone reading this post could ever want to know, so I’ll keep it simple. First of all, coffee grows on little trees (sometimes called bushes) that look like this:
They are very labor intensive plants to harvest because the beans (or cherries, as they’re called before they get processed) ripen at their own leisure. As you can see in this picture, some of the beans are red (ripe) while most of them are still green.
In Kenya, there are two harvest seasons–the smaller around June/July, and the much larger harvest coming in the months before Christmas. Throughout the year, but especially during the harvest seasons, workers comb the fields looking for red cherries, which they pick by hand.
Just like any crop, coffee is susceptible to nature. Rainfall, disease, animals, erosion, and temperature all affect the final product. So, too, does the age of the tree. The plantation I visited practices “stumping” of their coffee plants to encourage maximum healthy yield. Adult coffee plants don’t produce the same number of cherries each year. In fact, during their first year they produce very few.
The yield grows with each passing year until the plant is five, at which point the number of cherries declines again. After the fifth harvest, the coffee plant is cut down to its stump to refresh itself and begin the cycle again. In this way, an average plantation can have plants that are 50, sometimes even 100 years old, but which produce consistently strong numbers of cherries.
What you see above are coffee plants at two different stages in this 5-year cycle. Those on the left have been recently stumped (<1 year old) and those on the right are in their second year.
So what happens each year to the cherries that are picked, you ask? Technically, it depends on where you are in the world. Your cherries will either be dry processed or wet processed near the farm where they were grown, and different countries prefer one or the other of those methods. For Kenyans, it’s wet processing almost exclusively.
There are a number of layers around the green bean itself. The thick red layer that looks like a grape is called the hull, and around the bean is a slimy transparent film called the mucilage. In a wet processing mill, the beans are “hulled” by machine to remove the thick outer layer before being soaked overnight (but not too long, otherwise the bean ferments and gets sour!). This soaking loosens the mucilage from the bean and makes for easier processing later on.
A bean at this stage is typically very moist (with a moisture content upwards of 50%). In order to go to the mill, however, it needs to be drier (roughly 10% moisture). Luckily, Kenya is blessed with a sunny, equatorial climate, and the beans can be laid out to dry for weeks at a time on these “tables.” Workers (typically women) move the beans around daily and check their moisture content to make sure that everything is proceeding according to plan. When the beans are dry, they are carried in to be shipped to the mill (see below). You already know what happens after that!
Thus our tour ended, and we were quite exhausted (as I’m guessing you are, if you even made it this far).
As if to underline our good fortune in finding this place, the mill boss was kind enough to let us stay in his guest cottage overnight. He fed us well and even sent his driver to take us to the Nairobi airport the next day to catch our homebound flight. What a guy!
His only request was that I spread the good news of Kenyan coffee throughout the world, which I hope I have done here! The next time you’re sipping your cuppa joe, you can think about the labor of love that went into getting it to you.