Cupping in Kenya is a scaled up process. At our export partners Dormans', we taste hundreds of coffees in search of the perfect cup. It’s about speed, efficiency and trusting your palate.
Cupping is method used by coffee professionals to appraise coffee in a controlled environment using a series of sensory analysis techniques. The equipment, roasting method, brewing ratios and time are all standardised which increases the reliability and validity of the results. The coffee is assessed and scored on sensory categories such as aroma, acidity, body and aftertaste. Repeatability and comparison are key.
Back in the UK, we regularly hold a Cupping Club at our shops in Cornwall and London. These are intimate experiences where a wide array of coffees are tasted and discussed. In Kenya this process is much different. Coffee professionals taste hundreds of samples and must quickly decide on whether they think its suitable or not.
WHY SO MANY COFFEES?
The supply chain in Kenya works differently to many other countries. The farm owners we work with grow on land less than a hectare in size, often next to other crops such as tea, corn and tobacco. Their coffee is purchased by local cooperatives who sort, pulp and wash the coffee and send it to Central Kenyan Coffee Mill (CKCM) for processing who sorts them into ‘lots’. These cooperatives serve as many as 3,000 farmers. Coffee roasters will then work with an exporter to purchase the coffee from the cooperatives.
Dormans’ are the main exporter we work with in Kenya. Established over 70 years ago, they have developed a reputation for providing quality coffee at a fair price for both buyers and sellers. Here, we work closely with our trader Raphael, who based on our preferences and previous purchases, presents us with 800 cups of coffee to sample over the 2 days.
The typical Kenyan coffee profile is one of the most recognisable tastes in speciality coffee. Think distinct fruit and berry flavours, often with wine-like acidity and a full, juicy body. SL-28, Ruiru 11 and Batian are almost the only varietals grown in Kenya. The land is often very flat with limited shade. Compare this with the vast mountainous landscape of Central America and it becomes clearer why diversity of flavour is sometimes more difficult to find in Kenya.
At Origin, our aim is to showcase the very best in speciality coffee, to find cups that celebrate sensory diversity. We are always looking for something special, something unique. These were our thoughts ahead of visiting Kenya.
After meeting Raphael, he leads us into the cupping room at Dormans’ where we see our first 50 cups of coffee lined up across a long wooden table. A worker is finalising the setup, carefully positioning the bowls of coffee and trays ready for us to taste and inspect. Just like we would do back in the UK, we follow the different stages of coffee cupping.
First, we smell the ground coffee assessing its aroma and fragrance. Hot water is then poured into the cup and the coffee is left to brew for 4 minutes. During this process a crust forms, which is then broken and the wet aroma is evaluated. The coffee then cools for around 10 minutes which is when the tasting commences. We taste each coffee twice.
With such a high-volume coffee, we have to move quick and be decisive. Along each stage of the coffee cupping process, if a particular cup stands out with an exceptional sensory aspect, we make a note of it and move on. Conversely, if there is a coffee which has a characteristic that doesn’t appeal to us, we make a note and move on.
Having the coffees ranked side-by-side assists us in making an accurate decision. We know the coffee placed in front of us is to a high standard, now it’s about finding the lots which have the most unique qualities. Something that’s goes way above the expected. When tasting each cup, we focus on maintaining concentration and subjecting each cup to the same mental deconstruction and objective analysis. At the rate of about one cup every 2 - 3 seconds, we rifle through the coffee’s flavour, acidity and mouthfeel, making a mental note of the strength or weakness of each attribute.
After the tasting is finished, the results are analysed. Collectively as a sourcing team, we discuss the coffees and usually there are a few exceptional cups which stand out. These coffees are then shortlisted and tasted again. Here a more detailed sensory evaluation takes place. Once in agreement, the lots that we want to discuss further with the trader are put into the ‘main pot’.
As soon as we finish tasting on the first table, the next table is already being set-up. We walk across the lab where the next 50 coffees are ready to go and repeat the process - it’s relentless. At the end of the 2 days and after tasting around 800 cups of coffee, we have a shortlist that we hope to bring back to the UK to add to our feature coffee portfolio. This is where negotiations take place with the coffee trader.
Tasting this amount of coffee can be overwhelming, even for the most experienced. Avoiding palate fatigue is crucial, where taste buds and sensory tools get exhausted through hours of slurping and coffee tasting. It reduces your ability to make unbiased judgments and differentiate between flavour notes.
There are few ways to help prevent this. First is to ensure you take regular breaks, give your brain a chance to switch off, momentarily at least. During our time at Dormans’ we would try have a short break each hour. Experience and strategy are also key. Being able to trust your judgement after just one or two interactions with the cup will reduce unnecessary tasting. Using spittoons, staying hydrated and eating are also important in avoiding fatigue.
When searching for the best coffees in Kenya, professionalism and experience are key. You must employ strategy and be very efficient in your actions to ensure every cooperative that is represented gets a fair analysis. Finding the best and most exciting coffees has always been our goal in Kenya. We are confident that when these are released later this year our offering will represent some of the finest this year’s harvest has to offer. We look forward to sharing this with you.
View our latest feature coffees here.