A Light in Midwinter

Nights in midwinter are long and spring is so. far. away. But there is a spark of warmth on the horizon. With New Crop Kenya selection season upon us, and arrivals expected by May, we thought we’d explore some of the coffee varieties that have helped give the country its reputation for amazing coffee.

Something Borrowed, Something New

It is sometimes tempting to write a detailed list of exactly what you’re looking for in a great Kenyan coffee. While knowing your needs and likes can be a reliable way to find a good coffee choice, sometimes your new favorite can be found where you least expect it.

Every year, SL varieties in Kenya are on everyone’s wish list. We get it. The SL28 and 34 varieties have a great reputation for quality; however, you may find that expanding your search to other popular Kenyan varieties may just surprise you.

The Rise of SL Varieties in Kenya

Scott Agricultural Laboratories (SAL) was founded by the Kenyan Colonial Government (run by the British) in 1903 as a research institution to study a variety of agricultural products. SAL released several important cultivars and the name of the laboratory is immortalized in the two most popular varieties: SL-28 and SL-34, where SL stands for “Scott Laboratories.”

SL-28 and SL-34 were just two of the cultivars released by SAL in the 1930s and 1940s. They soon became the cultivars of choice for most growers due to their deep root structure that allows them to maximize scarce water resources and flourish even without irrigation. SL varieties also had higher yields than the French Bourbon rootstock that they replaced and were known to be somewhat more disease resistant.

Soon, SL varieties were ubiquitous across Kenya. However, despite being more resistant to Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR) and Coffee Berry Disease (CBD) than French Bourbon, SL varieties are still quite susceptible. Many farms experienced increased difficulties with scourges of CLR and CBD as the coffee sector developed. As Kenya experiences bi-annual rainfalls coinciding with harvest seasons, the problems of CBD attacking the ripening cherry was especially exacerbated. When the Kenya Coffee Research Institute (CRI) (which replaced SAL after independence) released Ruiru-11 in 1985, the coffee sector was primed. Ruiru 11, a hybrid of Catimor and SL cultivars, was both CBD and CLR resistant, plus it could be planted at a much higher density than the SL varieties, making optimal use of small plots of land.

Ruiru 11 slowly ‘took root’ across most of Kenya’s coffee growing landscape. The only issues were that with a shallower root structure, many farmers found the plant less hardy in drought conditions, and the trees required a more intense feeding program. Over time, farmers have found that by grafting Ruiru-11 to SL varieties they could take advantage of SL trees’ expansive root system and still reap the increased yields and higher immunity to disease of Ruiru-11.

SL variety (on left) and Ruiru 11 (on right) – illustrating why many producers have chosen Ruiru 11 in recent decades.

 

Due to the grafted Ruiru-11’s growing popularity, most farms in Kenya today, both big and small, have a mixture of Ruiru-11 and SL varieties. As SL trees age, many farmers are opting to turn more towards Ruiru-11 (or the grafting solution) thanks to its ease of use and higher resistance to diseases.

Other farmers are experimenting with Batian, as well, a relatively new variety introduced by Coffee Research Institute (CRI) in 2010. Batian is named after the highest peak on Mt. Kenya and is resistant to both CBD and CLR. The variety has the added benefit of early maturity – cropping after only two years. Some challenges (such as vegetative structure) have prevented it from becoming widespread so far, but its popularity is certainly growing.

Revisiting Your Wishlist

Customers sometimes ask us for 100% SL variety coffees. However, while most farms still have the traditional SL varieties, most also have Ruiru 11 and, increasingly, Batian. Most farms are far too small to be able to handle lot separation by variety. This means that most lots coming out of Kenya – whether single estate or smallholder group – are a blend of SL, Ruiru and (sometimes) Batian.

It is understandable to be wary about a new variety’s potential to change the classic Kenyan profile. However, we have a bit more of an optimistic outlook.

Show Me the Evidence

Michael Sheridan, formerly of Catholic Relief Services, led a study in Colombia that evaluated two popular Colombian coffee varieties, Castillo and Caturra. The situation in Colombia is strikingly similar to that in Kenya where an older variety renown for specific flavors and a consistently high quality is increasingly being replaced by a newer variety that is more resistant to diseases but with an unknown impact on quality.

Before we get into the nitty gritty, it’s important to note that while the situations between Colombia and Kenya are similar, we won’t know the whole story about variety changes in Kenya until a similar study is done in Kenya. However, the Colombian study can help us draw some initial hypotheses.

What the Colombian Study Tells Us

Sheridan presented his results at the 2015 SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America, now SCA) Symposium. You can find his recap of his findings here as well as a more detailed explanation of the study itself and its findings, also written by Sheridan, on the SCA website.  

Sheridan wrote that: “For farmers choosing between Castillo and Caturra, what they choose to plant may have less impact on cup quality than where and how they grow it.”

What he means, he explains, is that there was little significant statistical evidence that Caturra consistently produced a higher scoring cup than Castillo. Instead, they found that, “The data from both the cupping panels…show that cup scores are more strongly correlated with environment and management than with variety.”

This finding suggests that rather than choosing to plant one variety over another, “Growers may do more to increase cup quality through more active soil and shade management, careful harvesting, and improved post-harvest practices.”

Drawing Initial Conclusions

As we said before, the findings of the Colombia study cannot necessarily be drawn in direct one-to-one correlation between the variety changes in Colombia and those in Kenya. Nonetheless, the study does suggest that farming practices—and even microclimate—may play a more significant role in the final cup score than the variety.

That’s not to say, of course, that a carefully cultivated Robusta will necessarily outperform a badly cultivated Gesha. But, within reason, coffee variety may play a smaller role in the final result than we had thought up until now.

Sheridan also notes that while cup scores are comparable between both varieties, cupping notes can vary significantly. This suggests that while good agricultural practices can improve a harvest’s cup score, it might not produce cupping notes wildly different than the traditional notes for that variety.

Kenya is renowned for its “blackcurrant bomb” profile. Some people have posited that in recent years, that flavor is less distinct and that this could be caused by the switch from SL varieties to Ruiru-11. Either way, the Colombia study suggests that even if the profile of Kenyan coffees does change a bit, we can still see coffees of comparable quality coming from the country.

Kenyacof is Leading the Charge for Better Practices

In order to ensure that we continue to see high quality coffees emerging from Kenya, regardless of the variety grown, we’re committed to helping farmers reach their full potential.  Our sister company in Kenya is investing time and resources into helping farmers improve all aspects of their farms, from learning better chemical application techniques to properly pruning trees to improving post-harvest processes.

Wycliffe O.Murwayi, from our sister company, Sucafina Kenya, has noted that training in harvest techniques can also make a significant difference. “In our relatively short history of working as service providers to small scale farmers in Kenya, we have found that the major challenge with growing a mix of SL and Ruiru 11 varieties has to do with the picking of the coffee,” he says. “They simply don’t ripen at the same time. While SL varieties can be picked at a light red color, we find that Ruiru 11 has to be picked at a near purple color to perform well in the cup.” Training can significantly improve cup quality from the moment the cherry is picked.

We’ve even gone one step further and focused on a previously untapped resource in the Kenyan coffee industry: small-to-medium sized estates. Smaller estates in Kenya have typically been under-appreciated and with their new dry mill, Kahawa Bora Millers, our sister company is changing that. In addition to working directly with small estate owners to improve growing and processing techniques, Kahawa Bora solves a major stumbling block in the supply chain that made it difficult for small estate owners to mill their lots and maintain single-origin traceability.

Read more about our sister company’s work.

The Proof of the Pudding Is in the Tasting

Our 2020 Kenya selection starts soon. Kenya offer samples will begin rolling in later this month, and we are expecting a fantastic selection of coffees with flavor profiles that will tick every box. Call us to order samples of our offerings and know exactly what you’re getting before you open the bag.

You can get in touch to discuss your wish list with us now, and we will go on the hunt on your behalf. We can put some special lots in front of you as soon as late February, and we will be hosting a series of Kenya cupping events throughout March to help you with your selection. Watch this space!

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