Though bordered on the north by Ethiopia (considered the birthplace of coffee), coffee didn’t arrive on the scene in Kenya until 1893, when missionaries brought coffee trees originally from Réunion Island, (previously called Bourbon) via plantings in Brazil. Other tales credit the British with introducing coffee here. Origins may be a bit obscure, but what is evident is that once coffee found the red-orange, loamy soil on the flanks of volcanic Mt. Kenya, it flourished, and soon the world tasted its intense vibrant flavor and wanted more.
Coffee cultivation edged out tea in the early 1900’s, and after the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, production primarily passed into the hands of the Kenyan people. What can now be seen as admirable foresight and planning, Kenyans structured their coffee industry around technically sophisticated production practices, efficiently run cooperatives of small holders, and the key component of an open auction model for export industry. In this weekly government-run auction system, there is no insider trading. The highest bidder gets the coffee, and this transparency rewards higher quality with higher prices, encouraging growers, processors, and co-ops to continually improve their operations. Small farms, cooperatives, and estates make up the coffee industry, involving approximately six million Kenyans in one aspect or another from growing to exporting.
In Kenya, October signals the end of one coffee growing year and the beginning of the next. As the year’s crop reaches its peak before the onset of the rainy season, coffee producers fertilize their trees in order to coax from them the next multitude of flowers. November and December see them harvesting their current crop, and in January they prune, often applying additional fertilizer in the form of manure. February is the time to spray against coffee leaf rust, and in March, farmers fertilize again as the trees begin to bloom through the month of April as well. Coffee cherries begin ripening from May to July, and then again in September and October, with the bulk of the year’s crop ripening in those last few months of the year.
Here coffee grading is considered an art by the Coffee Board of Kenya. 10% of Kenyan coffee is graded PB--peaberry. Beans of screen size 18 are AA, while the next lower screen size is AB, (approximately 30% of Kenyan coffee). Grade E, (Elephant) beans are the largest, and C-grade beans are too small for AB. TT size is below C, and T is the smallest, which contains mostly broken pieces. A final grade is Buni--coffee unpicked coffee that ripened and fell from the tree to be gathered later. Buna coffee brings a low price and comprises about 7% of Kenya’s annual coffee production.