Kenya has some of the best coffee in the world. In fact, cup connoisseurs commonly refer to Kenyan coffee as “the perfect cup.”
The country cultivates Arabica plants, which you know yield better overall quality than Robusta. In recent years, Kenyan growers have been experimenting with some hybrid varieties as well, and they’re trying to create disease-resistant plants.
The taste profile of Kenyan coffee is complex, featuring berry, citrus and wine-like notes with fruity flavors and intense aromas. It’s much brighter and more acidic than most varieties.
The coffee beans come in different sizes and are graded. We’ll cover those later in the guide.
Although the country produces some of the world’s finest beans, it exports much more than it consumes. Believe it or not, most people in Kenya drink tea instead of coffee. Tea has long been the favored pick-me-up drink of the country.
Kenya’s coffee history isn’t as lengthy as some other top-producing countries. It dates back to the 1890s when missionaries brought Brazilian coffee there. Coffee was grown in a few different regions by the 1900s. At the time, Britain controlled Kenya.
Locals weren’t allowed to grow and sell coffee until the 1950s. The original growing practices were unfair, allowing only settlers to grow coffee. Some of the best coffee you’ll find today comes from small growers in Kenya.
Today, delightful Kenyan coffee beans are cultivated in several regions, which we’ll cover next. At the end of this guide, you’ll know how to pick the right type of Kenyan coffee to suit your own tastes.
Kenya Coffee Growing Regions
One of the aspects that affects the flavor profile of Kenya’s coffee beans is the growing region. However, the bigger variations come in the grading factors of the beans. These are the main regions.
This region includes the counties of Muranga, Kiambu, Kirinyaga and Nyeri, and it includes the town of Thika. About 60% of the coffee grown in Kenya comes from this region. At one time, Kiambu was called the Brazil of Kenya because of its plentiful production and multiple estates.
The region includes the Aberdare area and the slopes of Mt. Kenya, which both have rich and volcanic soil. As you may know by now, that’s a big contributor to a quality cup of coffee.
The flavor profiles for the sub-regions vary slightly. If you’re looking for something specific, you may prefer a single-origin coffee from a sub-region.
Coffee from Thika, Kiambu and Muranga has a hint of grapefruit in its taste, and it has a more well-rounded acidity. If you prefer a sharper citrus acidity, coffee from Nyeri or Kirinyaga is better. It has a fuller-bodied taste with notes of chocolate and blackcurrant.
This region includes the counties of Embu, Meru Central, Tharaka-Nithi, Machakos and Makueni. The most arid of these areas include Machakos and Makueni.
Although there are slight variations in beans from different counties, the overall dryness of the region produces beans that are fruitier. The coffee they produce also has a silkier mouthfeel than those from other regions.
The counties of Vihiga, Bungoma and Kakamega comprise this region. Some of the beans come from slightly higher altitudes in this region, which gives them a brighter acidity.
Many of the beans come from the slope of Mt. Elgon. Vihiga County is one of the busiest coffee production areas in the region. It’s one of the most favorable places in the country for coffee production because of its ample rainfall, plentiful sunlight and acidic soil.
Former Rift Valley Region
This massive valley spans thousands of miles through parts of Africa and the Middle East. Coffee growers cultivate their plants on the highlands in the areas of Trans-Nzoia, Nandi, Baringo, Kipkelion and Nakuru.
The region’s soil is very fertile and volcanic. It’s considered “young volcanic,” and you can still see lava that isn’t completely covered by vegetation in some areas. The soil, mild temperatures and moisture make it a great area for cultivating coffee beans.
Since the highlands have similar conditions and soil quality, the coffee beans have similar flavor profiles in most areas of this region. They produce a medium acidity, fruity overtones, a chocolatey taste and a full or medium body.
The one notable exception you’ll find is with Trans-Nzoia coffee beans. Also known as Kenya’s corn belt, this area produces coffee beans with a fuller body and a sharper citrus acidity. It’s similar to the citric and acidic qualities of coffee beans from Nyeri or Kirinyaga in the Central region.
The former Nyanza province includes the counties of Nyamira, Kisii, Kisumu and Migori. Kisii’s highlands are especially favorable for growing coffee because of ample rainfall and rich soil.
Coffee from this region produces a medium body and perfect sweetness. It has a creamy and smooth feel, and the flavor is nutty and toasty with some hints of fruitiness.
Kenya Coffee Bean Sizes
When it comes to flavor, bean size matters. Kenya has such a variety of bean sizes that they’re graded. These are the main grades:
- Elephant, or “E” beans, are the largest and are a result of a genetic defect, which includes two seeds in one coffee cherry.
- Peaberry, or “PB” beans, are part of the E grade and are very large.
- AA beans are grown above 6,600 feet and are considered some of the world’s finest beans.
- AA+ is a grade to provide distinction for AA beans that are grown on an estate.
- AB is a mixture of A and B beans, and it includes those that fit through a 6.8 mm screen and a 6.2 mm screen.
- C beans are simply thinner B-grade beans.
- T beans are faulty, thin, small or broken, and TT beans are lighter beans that are air-extracted from AA, AB and E batches.
- MH/ML beans are those that remained unpicked or fell from the plant on their own.
E and PB beans will give you a much bolder and stronger cup of coffee. In the case of Kenyan coffee grading, the biggest beans are not always the best in terms of taste.
AA beans are considered the pinnacle of excellence among Kenyan coffee beans. They have a fresh and crisp acidity and are still somewhat lighter in body than other large beans. You’ll notice wine-like and passionfruit tones and a floral aroma. The exceptional quality and complexity of AA beans produce a consistently scrumptious result.
AB beans still produce a delicious cup of coffee. However, grades below this, including C and T grades, do not yield as much body or flavor. They still have their region’s qualities, but it’s not as noticeable as it is in a cup of AA-quality coffee. MH/ML beans tend to be distinctly sour.
Processing Coffee in Kenya
While some countries use a variety of processing methods, Kenya predominantly uses wet processing. The good beans sink to the bottom of the water container, and the bad ones float. This allows processors an easier way to use quality beans and remove debris.
Wet processing brings out the natural citrus hints in Kenyan coffee beans, and it enhances its natural acidity. Overall, it’s an ideal approach for processing.
A few smaller producers may sun-dry their beans and hand-sort them. You may find these varieties in artisan coffee shops or from gourmet sellers.
Flavor Factors With Kenya Coffee Beans
Now that you know what to expect from different bean sizes and regions, it’s important to consider two other factors. They are altitude and coffee type.
If you’ve done a little research about any type of coffee, you probably know that beans from higher elevations produce a better overall taste. Fortunately, Kenya makes it easy for you to pick beans from the highest elevation based on its grading system. Aim for AA or AA+ if you’re after top-quality beans from the highest elevations.
Kenya’s coffee regions are all HG and HB. This means that they’re high grown and hard bean, both signifying higher altitudes.
Now, the second factor is coffee type. There are single-origin coffee products and blends.
A single-origin product includes only one type of bean, and it’s usually from one region or one area within a region. For example, you’ll often find estate-grown AA+ coffee varieties that are single-origin from one estate.
A blend may be a mixture of bean sizes, regions or even countries. For example, you may find an African blend that has beans from Kenya and Ethiopia.
Blends can be better if you want a more well-rounded flavor and body. Single-origin coffee is better if you want something specific, such as the sharp acidity of a certain growing area in Kenya. If you want a good blend, be sure to research the origin and attributes of the beans.
Brewing Kenyan Coffee
You can use any brewing method for Kenyan coffee. However, the ideal method is a high-quality drip machine or a pour-over. A pour-over device helps bring out the bright acidity of the coffee and its body quality based on bean size.
If you like the boldest outcome and a strong flavor, a French press is better. Some coffee connoisseurs also recommend an aeropress.
The ideal brewing method also depends on the roast level and coffee drink type you prefer. For example, if you want iced coffee, it’s better to use a cold brew method or light-roasted beans.
If you want a warm and citrusy flavor in a hot cup of coffee, a medium roast is better. A dark roast is ideal for the boldest flavor and the fullest body.
If you’re not familiar with roast levels, here’s a brief recap. Light means that the beans weren’t roasted long. Because of this, they’re light in color and aren’t oily. Medium-roasted beans are just slightly darker and not oily. Dark-roasted beans are dark in color and have a visible oiliness.
For optimal results, remember to grind the beans according to your chosen brewing method.
Now that you know about bean size, regions, roasting and everything else, you’re all set to go find your perfect cup of Kenyan coffee.
Related readings: Ethiopian Coffee, Single Origin Coffee vs Blends.