The story of any cup of coffee begins in the soil.
We are sitting in the living room at the farmhouse at the Kaigwa Coffee Estate in Mukurweini, Nyeri County, with Uche Kaigwa-Okoye. We are here to talk about the journey of Kenya’s “Black Gold”, from the plantations upcountry to your strong morning cup of brew. Kaigwa-Okoye, who has been running his family’s coffee estate for the past two years, is busy sifting through a pile of black kidney beans. He tells us that he intends to plant the beans underneath the coffee bushes because they add nitrogen back into the soil which conditions it and prevents the sun from scorching the ground. From cherry to cup, Kenya’s coffee travels a unique journey. This journey, and the production process along the way, is what creates the perfect AA Arabica that makes Kenya’s beans some of the most sought after in the world. “My family has been planting Arabica for four generations,” Kaigwa-Okoye tells us. “As I’m sure you know, Arabica is the finest quality of coffee you can get. It’s the high-grade stuff: when you close your eyes and think of coffee, that’s the smell you should be imagining”. According to Kaigwa-Okoye, the reason that Kenyan coffee is so highly prized, is because the whole region around Mount Kenya has volcanic soil and is incredibly fertile. The altitude combined with the year-round twelve hours of equatorial sunlight, makes the area perfect for coffee cultivation. “It’s an alpine climate in a tropical region on the equator,” he explains. “Who could ask for more?”
“Of course our berries are hand-picked,” says Kaigwa-Okoye. “The Nyeri area in particular is so mountainous, there are no machines that could actually do the job. And anyway,” he adds, “when you pick beans by hand you only pick the ripe ones. From a cluster of twenty beans you might only get ten but those ten are ready and you can always come back for the rest after a couple of days”.
On the Kaigwa Estate, coffee is processed at the wet “pulping station” where beans are separated from the pulp, sorted based on ripeness and size and then moved into a fermentation tank where they are rinsed and dried. The berries must be left to dry for a month or more before they can be sent to the mill. Milling is done by machine and includes hulling the coffee bean that is hidden inside the husk. After that comes the polishing and then grading and sorting. At this point the green coffee beans are ready for sale and then roasting. The first Kenya Coffee Auction took place in 1938 and has since been a time-honoured, weekly tradition. “I love going to the auction house” smiles Kaigwa- Okoye. “Everything reeks of old money there. They have these pictures on the walls that have been there since the fifties and each chair is equipped with an ashtray and a button that emits a sound when pressed”. After the purchased beans are collected from a storage warehouse, they are brought to the coffee brand’s factory to be roasted. Some will be roasted to a medium roast and some to a dark roast depending on their blend. Thereafter the beans can be packed as is, or they are moved up to a grinder, which will produce either a fine grind or a medium grind, depending on the way the coffee will be brewed.
“When I drink coffee I like to have a light medium roast which I finely grind at home and then filter” Kaigwa-Okoye tells us. “Generally I will let it sit for a while and drink it black with no sugar, as I need to taste it and see if it fermented properly. However,” he concludes, “I do like a sweet cappuccino once in a while. The Italians really do know how to make a good coffee!”