As I mentioned in my first post, one of the primary reasons I wanted to go on this Chazen trip, was because to learn more about its coffee industry and have an opportunity to visit a coffee farm. What I did not know before the trip was that Kenya actually produces and exports more tea than coffee and in fact exports more tea than any other product. When the official Chazen trip ended, I took advantage of already being in the country to tack on an extension with a couple fellow Chazeners to Nyeri county, a region about 3 hours north of Nairobi and lying in between the Aberdare Ranges to the west and Mt. Kenya to the east. I had seen it as a region designate on some coffee I had purchased in the past and figured it was a good place to start our quest. Both coffee and tea plants thrive in this region’s fertile, volcanic soil. Arabica coffee bean trees in particular do quite well in high altitudes like those found here.
After our bittersweet departure from the rest of Chazen, we headed north on the A2 – East Africa’s largest infrastructure project to date – a massive, $360M 6-8 lane highway between Nairobi and Thika to the north. We flew down its still new tarmack at lightening speeds compared to the gridlocked traffic in Nairobi, until we passed the Del Monte factory in Thika. Here, the roads again turned country, lined with scores of fruit stands offering golden pineapples, juicy ripe mangoes and bananas by the bushel.
Traffic turned the supposedly 3 hour drive into 4, but the discomfort of the trip subsided when the gates to Sangare Gardens opened and we drove down the driveway lined in native flora and fauna to the warm compound and a table set with local treats (pumpkin soup, braised chicken from the farm, rice, smashed peas and potatoes (irio), sauteed kale). You can imagine our giddy surprise when it turned out that Linus Gitahi, former CEO of Nation Media Group, which we had visited 4 days before, also happened to be staying there! Our Chazen experience was really coming full-circle!
After a sunrise run with Linus and his friends, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast of samosas and mandazi (beignets, these ones laced with cinnamon and sugar) before driving to Dekan Kimathi University. Dekan Kimathi is primarily an engineering university, but offers several coffee technology programs as well. Our contact, Mochiri, was kind enough to meet us on a Sunday showing us everything from the coffee tress (full-fledged and nursery) to the tree tomatoes and happy pigs.
All of the coffee trees are Batian a promising new cultivar which produces beans of superior flavor and aroma while still being resistant to CBD, a fungus that attacks many coffee trees in Kenya.
Once church let out, Chuaga, the university’s master taster, greeted us in his lab to teach us how to properly ‘cup’ (taste) coffee. First he explained the grading – showing us how a tower of screens separated the beans into grades of varying sizes from Elephant (too big and not preferred), AA (best), AB (very good), Peaberry / PB (unique for its round shape due to being the only bean inside the coffee fruit), C and finally T (both of which were not preferred). We tasted through beans of varying grades, ages and roasts and washing methods.
On the way to the airport the next morning, we stopped at the Mugaga Farmers wet mill in Karatina. The main harvest season ends in December in Kenya, so we were not able to see any of the wet-processing (where the red cherry is stripped away from the bean), we did see the machines and the mostly empty drying beds.
Only the ‘mbuni’ beans were left on the drying beds. These are beans where the cherry fruit has not been washed away, but has been left to dry and ferment around the bean. Traditionally considered inferior and left only for domestic consumption, these beans are in high demand in many hipster neighborhoods with a thriving coffee culture (and usually wine culture). As mentioned in my first post, there are similarities between natural wines and naturally processed (ie., non-wet processed) coffees and it is interesting to see the beans formally considered garbage now charging a premium.