Kungu Maitu Estate Kenya
- August 2018
- Written by : Geoff Watts
Vice President / Green Coffee Buyer
There are a few things you need to know about Kenyan coffees. The first is that they tend to sing louder and with more dynamic range than those from other origins. These coffees are not known for being subtle.
The second is that most coffee professionals are crazy about them. Their complexity and depth of flavor combined with soaring sweetness make them a cupper’s delight.
And the third is that we don’t often come across Kenyan coffees that have been produced by single farmers. The majority of Kenyan coffees represent the work of hundreds of small farmers, day lots from individual farms bulked by cooperatives at washing stations.
Like most small-scale farmers in the region, Mary delivered coffee to a local cooperative for many years, from the time she started growing coffee in 1992 until 2006, when she and her husband made the decision to work independently and commit to quality. The first investment was in their own wet mill. From that point onward, they have been growing slowly and steadily, investing to add more trees and more land to their farm every couple of years. Today, Mary has several distinct blocks within her farm, each dating to a different period of the farm’s expansion. Over the past three years, she has doubled-down on quality, turning her attention toward refining her fermentation and drying protocols.
Small-scale independent farmers who process coffees themselves enjoy certain advantages over those who only sell whole coffee cherries to washing stations. Perhaps the most important one is that they are in a position to control every quality variable directly, from harvesting through to fermentation, drying and parchment sorting. The coffees that emerge after all the work is done reflect Mary’s personal level of commitment to managing the small details that influence whether or not a coffee reaches its full quality potential.
There are some trade-offs, however. It is more costly to manage the post-harvest handling of coffees on a small scale without the efficiencies of centralized pulping. And hiring and training staff requires an additional investment of resources. But farmers like Mary continue to invest in processing when they have the means because the probability of producing exceptional quality on a consistent basis is far higher when a farmer is able to take full ownership over her own coffee process.
In addition to its coffee, the Manyeki family also grows tea. Kenya has a long tradition of tea cultivation and it is not uncommon in this region to find coffee and tea growing side-by-side. The age-old question, “Coffee or Tea?” doesn’t resonate here the same way it does in other places. Fortunately for us, Mary’s fascination with tea has tipped the balance of the family’s focus decisively in coffee’s favor.
Her enthusiasm is as obvious as it is contagious. Walking the coffee fields with Mary and listening to her talk about her trees and approach to caring for them, it became apparent to me quickly that she loves what she does, and in speaking to her team it is clear that her passion transfers fluidly to the people she employs to help at the farm.
We’ve been working closely with Mary and her son Kevin for three years now, and this is the second consecutive harvest season we’ve showcased her coffee as a stand-alone single-origin offering. Last year it came out swinging, quickly becoming one of our staff favorites and taking home some hardware in the first-ever Extraordinary Coffee Competition — a global coffee quality contest among Intelligentsia Direct Trade partners held as part of our annual Extraordinary Coffee Workshop. Mary won Best Smallholder Coffee, an award designed to recognize the most outstanding quality from a single small-scale farmer.
Mary’s coffee is back and better than ever. The 2018 edition of Manyeki estate coffee has even more juice thanks to Mary’s collaboration with friends and neighbors. This year, Mary invited a few neighbors to work with her, sharing with them both her knowledge of quality control and her newly renovated wet mill, processing their coffees for them to help them access new markets and earn higher prices. The result? An even more complex coffee that benefits from the infusion of cherries from nearby plots. The Manyeki name continues to build.