October 08, 2020

Guchienda: A Different Kind of Kenyan

By Jamie Isetts
Guchienda: A Different Kind of Kenyan

Kenyan coffees are known for their intensity—high-voltage winey acidity, full body, and strong flavors. They are a coffee geek’s coffee. Because of this potent flavor, they do best as a temporary treat and we typically purchase them in small volumes. Kenya’s lot-specific set-up routinely delivers small, excellent “top lots” to coffee importers in the US.  

So why would we complicate a system that clearly delivers awesome coffee?

Answer: Transparency.

One serious pick of Guchienda farmer Edwin Kamau Mati...

...and one with a little more levity.

Communication with our multi-year relationships in Guatemala, Burundi, or Colombia is truly a collaboration. We have constant dialogue via phone, email, and Whatsapp; strategize far in advance of shipment; and see the same people each time we visit.  We take risks and reap rewards together.

A typical Kenyan buying experience is completely different.

Traditionally, exporters purchase lots from the Kenyan auction or through a pre-arranged screening with marketing agents acting on behalf of cooperatives. This system produces excellent coffee, but insulates producers and roasters from the possibility of direct negotiation. This article from importer Royal Coffee lays out the challenges in more depth. Origin travel to Kenya is typically a marathon of cupping hundreds of these top lots at an exporter’s lab, dissecting the quarter-point differences of that year’s lots with no possibility of tracing back to the individual growers for repeat purchases. It’s not how we like to work.

Our limited purchasing volumes and Kenya’s entrenched market structure are major hurdles to making contact with specific farmers or groups.  It has been our goal for years to establish a direct, repeatable relationship with an excellent Kenyan producer. But even in-country partners are understandably skittish about messing with this politicized system.

When distances are so broad and challenges so big, we go to our industry network. Our peers at Counter Culture Coffee inspired us with their coffees from Kenya’s Kushikamana cooperative. With arduous, patient work, they developed real connections that benefit from the feedback loop between those who roast the coffee and those who grow it. In 2019, they connected us with Edwin Kamau Mati of Guchienda Estate. This “Estate” is only 4.5 hectares, very small by Latin American standards but mid-size among Kenyan producers. We were able to directly negotiate pricing, get the story of the farm in Edwin’s voice, and safely move the coffee in the midst of a pandemic with exporter Sucafina. For 2020, Guchienda will be our only Kenyan offering.

The coffee itself is unique, as well. Its provenance of Embu County has a distinct, autumnal profile of orange zest, black currant, black tea, and incense-like aromatics. Check out Guchienda while it lasts!

Cherries mature before ripening on Edwin's farm.