The vast majority of the coffee bought and sold in Kenya is traded through the national auction system, where marketing agents enter cooperatives' and estates’ coffee and traders come to bid. The main buyers from this auction system are large multinationals, who then offer the lots to importers and roasters. Unfortunately, this has been the only way to purchase Kenyan coffee for a long time and we’ve become frustrated with the lack of transparency, poor service and price volatility. In the last couple of years we have started buying directly from the auction using a local Kenyan company, who bid on the coffee on our behalf, after we have cupped through auction samples filtered by a local cupper. This was not only a conscious decision to support local, Kenyan businesses, but also to make the supply chain more efficient and save money, in order to pass on those savings to roasters. We hope that these savings help increase the presence of Kenyan coffees on roasters’ menus. This is intended to be the first part of a plan to work on the transparency limitations in Kenya and ultimately the goal is to avoid using the auction system at all, by working directly with farmers’ associations, cooperatives and small estates, and not through a marketing agent.
The Thunguri factory is located in the Kirinyaga county in an area of lush green valleys that produce tea, often alongside coffee. It is affiliated to the Kibirigwi Farmers Co-op Society of which there are seven factories in total. There are now 1,500 active members of the Thunguri factory and each member has on average around half a hectare of land for coffee growing alongside macadamia, beans, banana, tea and maize. The area has deep, well drained and fertile red volcanic soil at altitudes of between 1,700 and 1,800 metres above sea level.
The Thunguri factory consistently produces some very good coffees year in, year out. The coffee is handpicked by the smallholder members and delivered to the Thunguri factory where it gets pulped. This initially separates the dense beans from the immature ‘mbuni’s (floaters) using water floatation which means the denser beans will sink and be sent through channels to the fermentation tank.
This first stage of fermentation will last for around 24 hours, after which the beans are washed and sent to the secondary fermentation tank for another 12-24 hours.
Once the fermentation process is completed, the beans enter the washing channels where floaters are separated further and the dense beans are cleaned of mucilage.
The washed beans will then enter soaking tanks where they can sit under clean water for as long as another 24 hours. This soaking process allows amino acids and proteins in the cellular structure of each bean to develop which results in higher levels of acidity and complex fruit flavours in the cup - it is thought that this process of soaking contributes to the flavour profiles that Kenyan coffees are so famous for. The beans are then transferred to the initial drying tables where they are laid in a thin layer to allow around 50% of the moisture to be quickly removed.
This first stage of drying can last around 6 hours before the beans are gathered and laid in thicker layers for the remaining 5-10 days of the drying period. The dry parchment coffee is then delivered to a private mill and put into ‘bodegas’ to rest – these are raised cells made of chicken wire which allows the coffee to breathe fully and dry further to the desired moisture content below 11% ready to be packed and exported.