Kenyan Coffee: The Myths and Facts in your Cup

Ask anyone in the west, Europe or Asia on what they know about Kenya, and chances are you will not miss an answer that mentions the greatness of Kenyan coffee. Nearly all internet searches on Kenyan coffee will pop out praises on the unique characteristics of the Kenyan coffee beans that will mention the full body, balanced acidity and the distinctive fruity notes for the cupping enthusiasts. It is no surprise that the crop keeps bagging international awards and always featuring among top choice for roasters and baristas across the globe.
The irony in all this is the contrasting treatment accorded to the bean locally by Kenyans. This is no surprised since Kenyans have for a long time been cultured around tea, thus making it their preferred beverage. But what really makes coffee unpopular amongst a country that has one of the best beans in the world? Is it just a culture thing or there is more than meet the eye?

Unraveling the Myths

Having worked in the coffee industry for a number of years, I have noted with concern some myths shrouding the coffee sector which I largely attribute to a non-robust value addition chain that has not “shouted enough” to the locals about their “black liquid gold”. Chats with local beverage consumers reveal a population with little information on this heavily regulated crop. It is no surprise that a huge number of Kenyans have never seen coffee in its green bean form. With this in mind, I will take a look into some of the glaring myths that I have encountered around the country about coffee.
 

Coffee in its different forms: Clockwise; Coffee berries, coffee parchment, milled green coffee, roasted coffee beans and roasted ground coffee powder.

Myth 1: Coffee is an expensive beverage for the rich

In Kenya, coffee is considered a social drink for the rich and the middle class. In fact, majority of coffee takers actually consume the beverage in posh coffee houses and restaurants in urban areas. Since there are very few tea houses for comparison, most Kenyans tend to believe that coffee drinking is an expensive affair reserved for the rich. This is all mythical since in the same coffee houses and restaurants, there is hardly a noticeable difference in the prices of coffee and tea.  Arguments on the shelf price of coffee compared to other known beverages will tend to suggest that coffee is far more expensive in local stores. However, if you take a keen look, you will notice that different qualities of coffee will fetch different prices, which is also the case with tea, cocoa or drinking chocolate. You will find a packet of 250g loose leaf tea going for about ksh 120 whereas a similar pack size of coffee will cost you ksh 125. It all boils down to the quality one is seeking.

Myth 2: Boiling coffee is difficult and time consuming

Yes; I deliberately said ‘boiling’ because that is what most people do to this lovely beverage and end up ruining its taste and flavours. First, coffee is brewed and not boiled. Seems obvious, but that is what evades most Kenyan coffee drinkers. Ever wondered why your home-made coffee tastes different from that in your favourite coffee joint? If you ask how Kenyans make their coffee, most will describe a crude way where water is boiled simultaneously with milk and coffee until boiling point. The argument may be lack of coffee making equipment which are out of reach to many; but again, there is a simple concept which is effective without the sophisticated equipment. Just boil the water separately, put it in a mug, add ground coffee and cover for about 2 minutes then sieve. Add hot milk and sugar if desired; and there you have it. Your perfect cup!
An artistic barista made Latte coffee cup


Myth 3: All good Kenyan coffee is exported overseas and imported back as expensive instant coffee.

Well, Kenya could be a key coffee producer, but you will be surprised that it is nowhere near the top 10 biggest producers in terms of quantity. It might even sound absurd that our neigbour Uganda produce 5 times as much coffee as Kenya. According to the International Coffee Organization, Brazil is the leading producer with an average annual production of 2.5 million metric tonnes, followed by Vietnam (1.6 million), Colombia (0.8 Million), Indonesia (0.6 million), and Ethiopia closing the top five with 300,000 metric tonnes. Kenyan coffee is however highly regarded for its unique quality and thus it is used to improve other coffee beans by blending. Instant coffee is mainly made from Robusta coffee which is not popularly grown in Kenya. Kenya produces Arabica coffee which is mostly brewed. The instant coffee we get in the market is thus not made out of the best quality Kenyan coffee exports, but the large quantities of the inferior Robusta coffee from different other parts of the world.
Green Coffee beans in a warehouse


Myth 4: AA is the best quality coffee grade

Kenyan coffee is graded according to the size and shape of the beans. The grades include E, AA, AB, PB, C, TT, T MH and ML. 
Coffee grades
 
The general rule is that the bigger the beans, the higher the grade since the beans are more mature and have enhanced flavours and aroma. AA is considered the highest grade of Kenya coffee based on bean size and completeness and freedom from physical imperfections. But this does not mean that any AA bean is the best quality. The Coffee directorate has a class system in addition to the grading system that allocates class 1(lowest) to 10 (best) upon the grades. This means that you can have a class 10 AB that is far more superior in quality than a class 2 AA. The only way to decipher the quality of coffee would be to do a cupping analysis by professionals who are specifically trained on this.
 

A cupping session preperation table

Myth 5: Coffee is not good for your health

Much has been said about coffee and its health effects on humans. The health argument for the layman is usually centered on caffeine. There is no doubt that the caffeine content in coffee is higher than that in tea. This however does not mean that coffee is more harmful than tea. The key to taking coffee is moderation. Recent research has indicated that people who drink an average of 500ml of coffee every day can extract numerous health benefits from the beverage which include reduced inflammation, lower diabetes risk, low rates of heart disease and prevention of colon cancer. There are much more health benefits of coffee, but just like any other food, it must be well moderated to unleash its full potential.

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  56. Emma said:

    Dont forget we were colonised by Britons who take tea , so naturally Kenyans take tea. Coffee is mostly an American beverage. Most British colonies take tea.

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