Nyeri coffees are almost always at the top of a cupper’s list of favorites, and this special offering from the Ndaro-Ini Factory (aka Washing Station) is the top of the top. It somehow achieved that near-impossible accomplishment of mind-bending flavors, mouth-saturating sweetness, and impeccable balance that made it an instantly recognizable stand-out during our tastings. This early darling of 2017 Kenya arrivals will be tough to beat.
Ndaro-Ini belongs to an all-star Cooperative Society called Gikanda that includes Gichatha-Ini and Kangocho factories and together represent around 2,800 smallholder farming families. The farms and factories are located within Central Kenya’s Nyeri county, bordered on the west by the Aberdares range, and on the northeast by Mount Kenya. In all of Africa, only Kilimanjaro tops the maximum elevation of Mount Kenya.
Smallholders like those that contribute to Ndaro-Ini tend to measure their plots by number of trees rather than acreage, averaging around 250 coffee plants per plot. Many are inter-cropping to improve the biodiversity of the region and the security of their harvest, planting banana, grevillea, and macadamia in addition to coffee. Kenya’s auction system elevates the value of exceptional coffees, and keeps the country’s coffee margins high, stable, and independent of the volatile C Market.
Like most Kenyan growing regions, coffee in Nyeri benefits from its equatorial location and two distinct annual rainy seasons, resulting in a main crop in the winter and a “fly” crop harvested in the summer. However, East Africa has been hard-hit by climate disruption in recent years, and Kenyan production is very low this year by comparison to last. Early predictions seemed to indicate a good year, but drought, irregular rains, and a frost in Othaya have cut yields for both main and fly crops.
This Ndaro-Ini fits into the AA sizing category, meaning it’s almost exclusively screens 18-19, the highest exportable grade of coffee in the country. Kenya’s precision size grading, using the British classification system, ensures super-tight adherence to screen sizing. Beyond that, the coffee is very dense and has very nice looking moisture numbers: not too wet, not too dry.
The lot is built on a blend of common Kenyan varieties. SL-28 and SL-34 are two of the most highly regarded varieties produced by Scott Laboratories in Kenya in the 1930s. Scott Labs no longer exists as such, but is now the National Agricultural Laboratories, a part of the larger Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization. Both varieties are Bourbon derivative cultivars, though from different lineages: SL-28 was developed from a drought-resistant variety originally cultivated in Tanganyika, a territory that makes up part of modern day Tanzania; it’s generally considered to be of the highest quality but is not very productive compared to other commercial Arabica varieties. SL-34 is a Kenyan mutation originally found near Kabete, and excels at lower elevations. Both of these SL variants exhibit bronze-tipped leaves on the newest growth.
Joining the classics are two relative newcomers. Ruiru-11 was developed in the mid-1980’s as the result of attempting to make an SL-28 more productive and resistant to Coffee Berry Disease and Leaf Rust by crossbreeding with varieties as disparate as Sudan Rume (for quality) and Catimor (for disease resistance), among others. In response to qualitative feedback, the Coffee Research Institute retraced the steps to creating Ruiru-11, attempting to improve cup quality without compromising disease resistance. Since 2010, the new variety has trickled into production, and early results are promising.
Two very similar roasts for this large and dense coffee with an average water activity reading. My roasts differed slightly, roast one was intended to be a lower charge temperature with maximum heat applied 1 minute after turnaround, while roast two was a high charge with a delayed heat application of the same value at almost 2 minutes after turnaround. The impact on the roast was not severe, although we did see a slightly shorter drying stage and slightly longer Maillard stage in roast two. This makes sense because the higher charge raised the temperature of the turning point on the curve. As for a difference in flavor, roast one had a more tart and floral nature compared to roast two, which was very classically Kenyan with it’s dynamic acid structure of jammy fruits and citrus zest.
This Kenya was a pleasure to roast. However, this was my first time roasting inside under a ventilation hood, and the warmer ambient temperature led to a quicker development than I was expecting. This was perhaps my darkest roast yet, having taken this coffee 1:40 seconds after first crack – yet second crack had not yet begun when I took this coffee out of the roaster. On the cupping table this roast was certainly the darkest, but still held plenty of sweetness. Though I would have liked to maintain more of the bright acids in this coffee, it was delectable as a dark roast.
I wanted to stretch out the extraction a little on this coffee to see if I could balance the acidity with sweetness and viscosity. I opted for brewing in small doses on a pair of Kalita Waves, grinding a little more coarsely than usual but also using a higher water-to-coffee ratio in hopes of a high extraction percentage.
The results were solid, and despite using more brew water than usual the coffees weren’t thin or bland; quite the contrary, we still picked up plenty of bright, punchy notes like pink grapefruit, cranberry, and juniper. Jen’s second roast seemed to exude a little more balance than the first in this brew method, lending watermelon, ginger syrup, and pomegranate to the cacophony of exciting flavors in the cup.