Mt. Kenya, at the helm of Kenya’s Central Province, is the second tallest peak on the continent of Africa and a commanding natural presence. The mountain itself is a single point inside a vast and surreal thicket of ascending national forest and active game protection communities. The central counties of Kenya extend from the center of the national park, like six irregular pie slices, with their points meeting at the peak of the mountain. It is along the lower edge of these forests where, in wet, high elevation communities with mineral-rich soil (Mt. Kenya is a stratovolcano) many believe the best coffees in Kenya, often the world, are crafted.
Kirinyaga county is one of the smallest and yet best known of these central counties, next to its neighbor, Nyeri. Year after year Kirinyaga coffees are beloved for their ripe fruit-forward profiles, many reminiscent of berry jam, mandarin, and lemongrass.
Kenya’s coffee is dominated by a cooperative system of production, whose members vote on representation, marketing and milling contracts for their coffee, as well as profit allocation. The Muchagara processing station, or “factory” as they’re known in Kenya, itself has 1221 contributing farmer members, and is one of 12 factories that comprise its local cooperative society, Baragwi FCS. Farmers belonging to Muchagara average 400 coffee trees apiece. High FOB prices for great Kenyas, while the norm, are not a panacea, and in Kenya in particular the number of individual margins sliced off an export price before payment reaches the actual farms is many, leaving only a small percentage to support coffee growth itself, and most often this arrives many months after harvest. However, Kenya coffees are sold competitively by quality, which means well-endowed counties like Kirinyaga achieve very high average prices year after year, and the smallholders here with a few hundred trees at the most, along with additional employment or land uses in the highlands, are widely considered to be middle class.
Baragwi Farmers Cooperative Society oversees the operations of all 12 member cooperatives with a combined total of 16,000 farmer members. The group, common to cooperative societies country-wide, has a farmer-elected board with members from each sublocation. Unique to Baragwi FCS, however, is the rotation of management—factory managers are assigned to a different factory every 2 years so that knowledge is evenly shared and society-wide quality remains consistently high. The society also votes on infrastructure investments like tiling fermentation tanks to make them easier to sanitize between batches, and replacing wooden drying tables with metal tables for the long term.
Kenya is of course known for some of the most meticulous at-scale processing that can be found anywhere in the world. Bright white parchment, nearly perfectly sorted by density and bulk conditioned at high elevations is the norm, and a matter of pride, even for generations of Kenyan processing managers who prefer drinking Kenya’s tea (abundantly farmed in nearby Muranga county) to its coffee. Ample water supply in the central growing regions has historically allowed factories to wash, and wash, and soak, and wash their coffees again entirely with fresh, cold river water. Conservation is creeping into the discussion in certain places--understandably in the drier areas where water, due to climate change, cannot be as taken for granted—but for the most part Kenya continues to thoroughly wash and soak its coffees according to tradition. The established milling and sorting by grade, or bean size, is a longstanding tradition and positions Kenya coffees well for roasters, by tightly controlling the physical preparation and creating a diversity of profiles from a single processing batch.