Kenyan coffee is considered to be some of the best in the world. But with a diverse array of beans, regions, and flavor profiles from the country, it can be hard to know where to start. In this post, you'll learn about the history, geography and regions, beans and brands from Kenya.
Kenyan coffee is grown in Kenya in Eastern Africa. Its Arabica coffee is among the best in the world. Most brews are known for a medium to full-bodied, rich flavor, and higher-than-average levels of acidity. The beans are divided by grade, size, and class before they go through wet processing.
If you’d like to get the inside scoop on the best Kenyan coffee, we’ve got you covered. Below we’ll trace it to its origins and break down how it's grown, sorted, and processed for consumption. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be ready to grab your favorite mug and give this delicious coffee a try!
The History of Kenyan Coffee
Coffee first arrived in Kenya on the heels of Missionaries in 1893, who brought with them Brazilian bourbon coffee. It would be seven more years before coffee would actually be grown in the country and even then its growth and exports would be primarily controlled by British colonists.
In fact, in those days Kenya was known as the East African Protectorate and coffee was only allowed to be grown in certain areas for the benefit of the British colonists. The name of the country wouldn’t change until the 1920s.
Further, the cultivation of coffee was not allowed by actual citizens of Kenya until the Mau Mau Uprising that took place between the ’50s and ’60s.
Until that time and beyond the real control of coffee in Kenya would pass through a number of different regulatory bodies including:
- CB (Coffee Board), 1933: This was the first solid regulatory body developed by the colonists to monitor licensing and inspections to marketing and sales.
- CMB (Coffee Marketing Board), 1947: Primarily geared toward the marketing of the coffee Kenya produced.
- CBK (Coffee Board of Kenya), 1971: The role of CBK was solidified in 2001 with the Coffee Act. They’re in control of policies surrounding everything from licensing to production and sales.
Today in Kenya, coffee is mostly cultivated by small operations and cooperatives before being sold in auctions. Currently, a whopping 70% of coffee production is carried out by these small operations and cooperatives. Despite the small operations, today Kenya ranks as the 16th largest producer of coffee in the world.
Kenyan Geography & Coffee Growth
Kenyan coffee tends to be grown in volcanic soil at the high altitudes between Nairobi and Mount Kenya.
The soil itself is deep and fertile, accounting for their coffee’s acidic qualities.
Additionally, Kenyan coffee benefits from a climate that receives a fair amount of rain and is neither too hot nor too cold. These conditions are nearly perfect for growing coffee plants and largely account for the quality of their brews.
4 Kenyan Coffee Regions
There are four major regions in Kenya that produce coffee, including:
- Eastern Region includes beans harvested Embu, Machakos, Tharaka, Makueni, and some of the upper parts of Meru Central.
- Western Region includes beans harvested from Bungoma, Mt Elgon, Kakamega, Vihiga.
- Coastal Region: Taita Taveta is largely considered the coastal region.
- Central Region is perhaps the heart of coffee production and includes beans harvested from the Mount Kenya area.
5 Types of Kenyan Coffee Beans
There are five basic varietals of Kenyan coffee beans that are divided by flavor profile and quality.
Technically each of these varietals falls under the heading of Arabica coffee. Meaning each of the varietals they can be divided into should share some qualities such as sweeter flavor, smoother body, and higher acidity.
- SL 28: The name of these beans originates from the company Scott Labs. They are known as some of the best available because of their quality flavor and ability to survive droughts. However, these beans can be susceptible to fungal diseases, making them more difficult to cultivate.
- SL 34: Another one of the highest quality beans, SL 34 are known for making a delicious cup of coffee but still being susceptible to fungal diseases during cultivation.
- K7: While the SL 28 and SL 34 beans grow at high altitudes, K7 beans grow at lower altitudes. These beans are not considered to have the quality of their SL relatives, however, they are much more resistant to diseases.
- Ruiru 11: Grown at lower altitudes Ruiru 11 beans are similar to K7’s in that they aren’t considered top quality but are relatively resistant to disease.
- Batian: This varietal of beans was actually announced by the Coffee Research Foundation in Kenya. It is easier to cultivate due to how quickly it matures coupled with its ability to resist rust and disease.
Coffee Varietals in Kenya
Here is a nice overview of the coffee varietals in Kenya, by Boyce Harries, a Kenyan coffee farmer. He discusses the varieties above, along with the heirloom variety of French Mission, developed by French missionaries in Nairobi in the late 1800s.
Visit to a Kenyan Coffee Farm
See the process of harvesting, grading, fermenting, and sorting coffee berries from a coffee farm with Arabica trees more than 100 years old. Report by VOA Africa, based in Kenya.
8 Kenyan Coffee Grading Categories
Kenya is home to 8 different grades of coffee. The beans are graded by size with the largest being Kenya E (Elephant). The beans are then sorted before roasting to give them a more even cook.
It’s important to note that several different grades of bean can be harvested from the same plant. Though the larger beans are more sought after they can all range in quality depending on where and how they were grown.
Kenyan coffee grades are:
- Kenya E (Elephant)
- Kenya PB (Peabody)
- Kenya AA
- Kena AB
- Kenya C`
- Kenya TT
- Kenya T
- Kenya MH/ML
How Kenyan Coffee Beans Are Processed
Generally, wet processing is used to prepare Kenyan coffee beans. Wet processing works by taking the freshly harvested fruit and separating the beans from their shells while they still retain moisture.
Wet processing tends to prevent the body from feeling too bold while not sacrificing any flavor. It potentially even may play a part in why Kenyan coffee maintains such high levels of acidity, though that is still primarily due to the soil.
What Does Kenyan Coffee Taste Like?
Kenyan coffee tends to be medium to full-bodied with a mixture of complex flavor notes.
Because of the soil it’s grown in, Kenyan coffee carries notes of fruity flavors with a sweet-acidic profile that some have likened to wine.
Learn more about poop coffee – yes, really. From civets, birds, coatis and elephants.
3 Best Kenyan Coffee Brands
There’s no shortage of great Kenyan coffee beans available today. You can buy them ground up or as whole beans depending on your own preferences. Below we’ve outlined our picks for the best three Kenyan coffee brands you can find on amazon.
- Volcanica Kenya Whole Coffee Beans: You’ll find these at the top of many different countdowns for the best Kenyan coffee for a reason. Sold as whole beans, these AA beans will provide you with a strong-bodied coffee with high levels of acidity.
- Screen 18 Kenyan AA Single Origin Premium Crafted Coffee: These too are grade AA beans that are packaged whole and ready for use. They provide a medium/dark roast and acidic flavor notes that include fruit and berries.
- Henry’s House of Coffee: Kenya Beans: We’d be remiss if we didn’t provide one light roast for those out there who like their coffee smooth. These beans come whole with hints of chocolate and peanut to complement their easy flavor.
Have you heard about white coffee? Here's are the beans, benefits, and recipes for white coffee.
Which Kenyan Coffee Will You Try?
Kenyan coffee is perfect for the person who likes a medium body and acidic fruity tones of flavor. The climate in which it is grown coupled with the wet process by which it is prepared churns out some of the most unique and delicious cups of coffee in the world.
With so many options when it comes to Kenyan coffee, the only question left is which one will you try first?
Bryan Haines is a co-founder and writer on EnjoyJava! – and is working to make it the best coffee blog in the world. He is a travel blogger at Storyteller.Travel and photographer at Click Like This. He is also co-founder of Storyteller Media, a company he started with his wife, Dena.