Kenya Coffee Frankenstein!

The Coffee Research Foundation’s new Kenya coffee variety could single-handedly destroy the reputation of one of the world’s best coffees. This morning, I received the following press release:

Kenya’s Coffee Research Foundation (KRF) has released a new variety of coffee.
The variety known as Batian is high yielding and is expected to boost coffee production in the country. Coffee Research Foundation (KRF) Managing Director Dr. Joseph Kimemia said the new variety, named after a peak on Mount Kenya was resistant to coffee berry disease and leaf rust. It is also fast maturing with farmers expected to harvest within two years after planting.
Dr. Kimemia said the variety nicknamed ‘peak of excellence’ also produced high quality coffee and was expected to help Kenya regain its lost glory in the international coffee market. He predicted that Batian which will be released to farmers later in the year, was likely to outshine Ruiru 11 which was widely grown in the country.
Coffee production in the country has been on the decline due to unfavourable prices with Dr. Kimemia saying it is way below the expected target. By September it is expected that only 50, 000 metric tones of coffee will have been produced in the country and Dr Kimemia is now urging farmers to double production to reach the target of 100, 000 metric tones per year. This would be in tandem with increasing demand with coffee consumption around the world increasing at the rate of 2.4 % .
KRF had set a side aside funds to renovate coffee factories to enhance their capacity to process quality coffee. Meanwhile tourism assistant minister Ms Cecily Mbarire is urging the government to write off coffee farmers’ debts in Embu district. Mbarire said the farmers were unable to repay the debts due to mismanagement of the industry and low production.

This appears to be an advance of the already horrifying introduction of bad scientific coffee bean hybrids in order to make sure Kenya can grow lots of bad coffee using sloppier farming methods. Forgive me, but a little background is in order. Coffee was planted centuries ago in Kenya. Kenya has some of the best volcanic soil for growing coffee, and its mountains reach high enough to produce some of the highest altitude beans. At its best, Kenya coffee is among the best. Now, Kenya could take this advantage two ways. One path is to do whatever it can to encourage farmers in the right geography and elevation to be educated, to use the best growing, picking, sorting and processing methods and become just one killer coffee in the world marketplace. Or, they can do things like introduce quality-cutting methods to help increase the yield of mediocre coffees that will allow those coffees to carry the label Kenya, but be nothing like the truly great Kenya coffees. Due to the previously earned reputation for greatness, these new hybrid coffees will fool enough people in the marketplace to increase sales. However, long term, all Kenya coffee sales will fall. Those farmers who’ve done the right things to maximize their coffee quality will suffer greatly due to the cheapening of the brand in the name of yield. This has been done before time and time again. It is in the interests of no one except the scientists who earn a living developing branded coffee hybrids in these pyramid schemes, government officials who want to make career gains by delivering short-term crop gains (names listed in press release) and the lowest purveyors of the coffee roasting industry who will be able to put out a Kenya coffee varietal at a low price that tastes almost nothing like the real thing. That will fool the public for about one minute.

I think this is just about the worst thing Kenya could do for its coffee industry. It is going to a bad out-of-date model for how to fix your coffee business, as if Hills Brothers was still the goal. There are some clues to tip us off as to how bad this stuff is: They promise it is resistant to coffee berry and leaf rust disease. This is almost certainly due to a genetic splice with the low crawling Robusta variety to me, in some form. Their naming the variety Peak of Excellence is perverse rip-off of the esteemed “Cup of Excellence” awards given to coffees of all nations that meet certain taste standards. I be there’s not one coffee from any of these botanical Frankensteins that has ever qualified for a “Cup of Excellence” and the coffee industry has got to get better at protecting its trademarks. But, that’s off topic here.

The only other real benefit is that Kenya will be able to sell more coffee…. commodity coffee. But, they will never be able to compete with industrialized commodity coffee countries like Brazil or Viet Nam for geographical reasons alone. Those countries have inherent advantages due to their flat expanses chopped down into huge coffee growing furrows. Meanwhile, Kenya risks losing brand equity. The coffees from Viet Nam and Brazil are sold as no-name coffees and so will the Kenya coffees. Meanwhile, I know roasters who carry high-quality Brazilian specialty coffees and they tell me they must do a lot of reeducation to get consumers past their understandable trepidation at paying a premium for what they expect will be average coffees.

Kenya should get rid of the existing Ruiru 11 (yes, it’s as ghastly tasting as it sounds), after admitting it was a bad chemistry experiment and make sure the only coffee grown there is the few highest quality varieties of Arabica. That way, the name Kenya gets its cache back and Kenya can join the ranks of Guatemala, Hawaii, Costa Rica, Sumatra and Jamaica in guaranteeing that the coffee with these names on them are reliably great coffees.

As a social justice aside, it’s touching that Ms Mbarire is urging the government to write off coffee farmers’ debts, but this appears as simply a one-time bribe to get farmers to risk killing their specialty industry, and sullying a great name. They should forgive the farmers debts who replant their Ruiru 11 trees with high quality Arabica growths. Kenya should cancel their debts owed to these mad food scientists as well.

A great Kenya coffee is a joy to behold. It has a true raspberry aroma and flavor note and has both a winey acidity and deep, rich body. It is unique. I think the best coffee I sampled during producing the Coffee Brewing Secrets DVD was Allegro Coffee’s Kenya AA, when Christy Thorns demonstrated cupping coffee. While, I’m sure Allegro and other top coffee roasters will still find and deliver these coffees, I’d like to see Kenya recognize they will benefit more from building their brand than cheapening it.

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About coffeekevin

Kevin Sinnott, host of the how-to video “Coffee Brewing Secrets”, author of The Art and Craft of Coffee and curator of www.coffeecompanion.com website is America’s foremost consumer coffee authority. His groundsbreaking newsletter THE COFFEE COMPANION was the first-ever consumer publication about finding and brewing the world’s best coffee. The COFFEE COMPANION, which achieved a readership of more than 10,000 coffee lovers, offered Sinnott’s unbiased evaluations of what he calls “hardware” – all the equipment necessary to brew great tasting coffee, from water filters to coffee bean grinders to brewers. Since then, he’s made more than 100 media appearances, in USA TODAY and The Chicago Tribune, OPRAH WINFREY, 20/20, and The FOOD NETWORK and has done countless talk radio shows. Kevin Sinnott lives with his wife and three sons in Warrenville, Illinois.
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One Response to Kenya Coffee Frankenstein!

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