This month we’re excited to present two coffees from very different parts of the world, where quality is created in very different ways.
In El Salvador, dedicated producers use their experience to farm, harvest and ferment in a quality-focussed manner.
In Kenya, many producers contribute to cooperative lots, so quality is normally found through selection, sorting and separation.
The first coffee is a returning favourite from the Kirinyaga region of Kenya, processed at the Karimikui mill, with crisp lemon and blackcurrant notes backed up by a sugar cane juice sweetness.
The second coffee is from three experienced brothers at Finca Tres Potros in the Ahuachapan region of El Salvador. Here, tropical fruit aromas are followed by creamy milk chocolate and a crisp berry-like acidity.
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This month, we’re excited to share two coffees which showcase the production of high quality lots in their respective growing regions. Kenya and El Salvador work in very different systems, while both are inhabited by many dedicated producers who produce high quality varietals in fertile soils at high altitude, the method by which quality coffees are created is rather different.
In El Salvador, these lots are normally the work of independent and dedicated producers, who create micro-lots. This requires a knowledge of the varietals grown, the care each requires in the field, and the ideal way in which to ferment to create the desired flavour profile. In the case of the highest quality lots, this is a rather deliberate and organised process, honed over years of often multi-generational experience in coffee. Farms are split into pockets of land best suited to the varietal that grows there, the pockets that produce the top lots are known in advance, and the fermentation method of these lots has been carefully experimented with in order to reliably produce high quality coffees. This is surely the case at Finca Los Tres Potros, named for the three Mendez brothers who tend to the farm. Their family has been farming coffee for as long as they can trace back, and their experience shows here.
Kenya operates on a similar system to neighbour Ethiopia where small-holder farmers deliver their harvested cherries to central wet mills to be processed. While in Ethiopia these mills are often privately owned, in Kenya most are owned by cooperatives, which each contributing farmer is a member of. The cooperative then pays a price to each farmer for their cherries, depending on the quality and quantity they delivered to the mill, and on the price they receive from green coffee buyers for the processed product. Therefore the method of producing quality coffee is rather different here. Members of the cooperative can have very many different levels of quality, possibly due to the varietals that they grow, or a lack of access to knowledge on high quality production, but all will contribute to the finished lots. The method of producing quality here is all about cherry selection, separation of lots, and meticulous sorting at every stage of the process. Cupping through each of these day lots towards the end of harvest can be a rewarding process, finding patterns of quality, and uncovering the gems of the harvest. Cooperatives often employ a mill manager, a very important role, as they are ultimately responsible for the quality of the mill’s output. Their stewardship of the coffee fermentation and sorting process is a huge factor, but the quality of raw cherries arriving at the mill is also important to control. Careful sorting can help, but often managers will reject damaged or unripe cherries before they even enter the mill. Many cooperatives also pool their resources to provide support to their members, such as visits from agronomists, and low interest loans for investment in farms. This can also improve the quality of cherry arriving at the mill, increasing the price the cooperative can receive and therefore the bonus paid to each member. Our first fresh crop Kenyan coffee of the season is a returning favourite, from the Karimikui mill in Kirinyaga. Karimikui is owned by the Rungeto Farmers Cooperative Society, who own the Kii and Kiangoi stations in addition to Karimikui, both of which also known for their very high quality output.
First coffee - Kenya
Blackcurrant, Lemon and Cane Juice
(250g / 8.8oz)
We purchased coffee from the Karimikui washing station first in 2016, and have always enjoyed tasting the new harvest. We visited the Kirinyaga region most recently in 2017, and were inspired by the beautiful landscape and dedicated producers. It was also a difficult trip, there is often a lack of transparency and traceability in the Kenyan system, making working as a buyer here rather frustrating. In recent years we have seen some swings in quality in Kenya, and the reasons for these are quite difficult to ascertain. Finding the best lots has been a matter of cupping everything we can find, often a rather daunting task. However we were happy to find this lot on a blind cupping table from importer Nordic Approach, and relieved to find it came from a familiar name like Karimikui. There’s a few reasons why we think this lot has returned as one of the best we’ve tasted from Kenya this year. The small region in Kirinyaga that the Karimikui mill serves, surrounding the village of Ngairiama, was until recently a mainly tea-growing area, so most of the plant stock is rather new, but was planted just before the rise of hybrid varietals in Kenya. This means that 99% of the farmers that deliver to Karimikui grow SL28 and SL34, with only about 1% using rust-resistant varietals like Ruiru 11 or Batian. Another reason we are confident in this coffee is down to the pedigree of the Rungeto cooperative, who also own the Kii and Kiangoi mills. Their cherry selection, fermentation, sorting and separation is of incredibly high quality, leading to excellent coffee. The cherries are first depulped mechanically, as soon as they arrive at the factory. The cherries should arrive for depulping as soon as possible after picking, hence why cooperatives make a great effort to have factories located close to concentrations of smallholders. After depulping, the seeds are covered in a layer of sticky fruity pulp, or mucilage. The mucilage is fermented in large tanks for between 12 and 24 hours, breaking it down to a point that it can be thoroughly ‘washed’ from the seeds, using long washing channels. Then, before drying, the cherries are taken to another set of fermentation tanks, and fermented again under water, normally for a shorter time, between 10 and 12 hours. This ‘double soak’ is popular in Kenya, and is useful not only for enhancing the cleanliness and intensity of the final cup, but also as a second opportunity to sort for lower density floating seeds, as these are often of lower quality, or from unripe cherries. Each lot that is processed is kept separate throughout the process, allowing each to be cupped separately. This allows the management of the mill to assess patterns of quality and continuously improve. There is always a degree of unpredictability however, so cupping continuously is the only way to find the finest lots of the harvest, especially in recent years as hybrid varietals have increased in use, and many mills have increased capacity in an attempt to cash in on record prices for Kenyan coffee.
This lot from Karimikui is tasting every bit as clean and crisp as we remember from previous years, with zesty lemon aromas followed up by fresh blackcurrant notes and an intense sugar cane juice sweetness.
Second coffee - El Salvador
Pineapple, Milk Chocolate and Blackberry
(250g / 8.8oz)
The three Mendez brothers purchased the land that became Tres Potros in 2001 as young men, so named the farm for themselves, translating to ‘three young stallions’. The family have been involved in coffee production for generations, and now own three properties surrounding their wet mill, Benificio el Carmen. The farm sits between 1400 and 1500 masl on the far western slopes of the Santa Ana volcanic range, providing fertile soils for the farm. There are numerous species of native shade tree on the farm, interspersed with orange, mango and avocado trees. These provide an extra income for the farm, and are also used to put food on the table for workers during harvest season. This is one of the main reasons the Mendez brothers are so passionate about what they’ve been able to build, they can see the effect their business has on the local economy of the small town, Concepción de Ataco, the farm is based just outside. Providing sustainable employment for members of the community is a big motivator for them. They also feel a great degree of environmental responsibility; they’re very keen on keeping a high level of biodiversity, and have fitted solar panels to many of the farm houses. This level of dedication also extends to quality, and the brothers have a pedigree here too, having previously won several Cup of Excellence awards. Their selection of varietals, including typical Salvadorian varietals like Bourbon and Pacamara, is aimed almost purely at creating quality. This particular lot of Pacamara was processed using a careful honey process, leading to enhanced body and fruit characteristics. Here this translates into tropical fruit aromas of pineapple, with a creamy body reminiscent of milk chocolate, punctuated by a crisp blackberry acidity.
We feel that these two coffees showcase the production of high quality lots in their respective growing regions rather well. Kenya and El Salvador work in very different systems. While both are inhabited by dedicated producers like Rungeto and the Mendez brothers, who grow high quality varietals in fertile soils at high altitude, the method by which their highest quality coffees are created is rather different.
We hope you appreciate their fine work over the next month.