Kenya began serious coffee cultivation in the early 20th century. In the short period since, its coffee has become one of the most sought after in the trade, respected for its exceptional quality. Arabica coffees are grown in several areas of Kenya, from the slopes of Mt. Elgon to the far west bordering Uganda, where the Blue Mountain variety (brought back from Jamaica) is grown. The greatest coffees of Kenya, however, have always come from a small crescent zone just north and northeast of Nairobi, along the gentle slopes of the Aberdare Mountains to the west and along the south-facing slopes of Mt. Kenya to the north. They are grown on tiny farms averaging half an acre in size, dotting the landscape at altitudes ranging from 5,500 to 6,500 feet.
No other groups of small farmers anywhere in the world have come close to producing consistently extraordinary qualities the Kenyans do, year after year. This is due not only to the generous combination of equatorial sunlight, red-orange volcanic loamy soils, unique moderate climate and special varieties of Arabica originating in Kenya and still unique to East Africa (the SL28 being the best), but also to the organization of the farmers into small, craft-oriented, cooperative processing centers. These cooperatives are spread out so that one is always within walking distance of any farmer. Each day’s harvest is separately processed into small boutique lots of finished green coffee that are then sold individually at auction in Nairobi. Auctions are the answer to a quality seeker’s prayers; unblended lots of extraordinary quality can be found and purchased by relatively small but high-quality buyers willing to pay the price.
All quality coffees are washed, and then carefully sorted. The highest grade is AA, which consists of large, high-density beans, followed by AB, slightly smaller beans. The grade AA is no guarantee of quality; an AA coffee can vary from mediocre to spectacular. AB can also be of very high quality, but, in my experience, never attains the heights an AA can.