Kenya might not be the largest producer of coffee, but most people who know coffee consider Kenyan coffee one of the best. I'm a coffee fanatic, so I had to see how it measured up.

I was not disappointed. The combination of growing conditions and processing creates the perfect beans for home brewing.

In this guide, I’ll explain how they achieve the Kenya coffee taste and why Kenya has earned their reputation as one of the best.

What Does Kenyan Coffee Actually Taste Like?

Kenyan coffee is often described as the ‘connoisseur’s cup’ because Kenyan coffee-tasting notes are so unique.

It is regarded as some of the best in the world. It's unique, complex, and very different from traditional coffee.

Kenyan Coffee has sweet and intense flavors with fruity and juicy notes. It has hints of berry, blackcurrant, and lemongrass, with a deep-wine finish. It’s vibrant and clean, with a full-bodied texture and crisp acidity.

The growing conditions in Kenya and East Africa produce coffee beans with higher acidity levels, and the bright acidity and fruity notes are very different from the mellow South American coffee beans or herbal and spice notes of Indonesian beans.

This fruity acidity gives you the complex flavor notes that make Kenyan coffee beans stand out.

However, it can be an issue for those with sensitive stomachs.[1] Think of Kenyan coffee like a fine wine. It should be savored and enjoyed, not just consumed for a quick caffeine fix.


Learn All About Kenyan Coffee Bean Varietals

The country's coffee industry is diverse. Robusta and Arabica Kenyan coffee beans are grown in the coffee plantations, but only a tiny percentage are Robusta.

Several Arabica coffee bean varieties are grown throughout the country. These varietals have unique qualities and produce a variety of Kenyan coffee-tasting notes.

There are 5 Arabica coffee beans grown in Kenya:

  • Ruiri 11:
    These Kenyan coffee beans are the most versatile. They can grow at any altitude and are resistant to coffee leaf rust and other diseases that impact coffee cherries.[2] Ruiru gives balanced and fruity notes.
  • Batian:
    These Kenya coffee beans are similar to Ruiri but were created to give a better flavor profile. They produce bold, rich, and floral notes.
  • SL 28:
    The Kenyan government hired Scott Labs to produce the SL bean varieties (including the SL34) back in the 1930s. These Kenya coffee beans grow well at a medium-high altitude but are less resistant to disease than Batian or Ruiri. They give strong notes of red berries and blackcurrants.
  • SL34:
    These Kenya coffee beans grow at high elevations with lots of rainfall. They produce a strong flavor with a sweet aftertaste.
  • K7:
    These Kenyan coffee beans are common across East Africa because they grow quickly and produce citrus and winey flavors. These beans are part of the Bourbon plant family and are lower in caffeine.

The Arabica coffee varietals allow premium Kenyan coffees to be produced consistently year-round. This consistency allows Kenya to maintain their reputation for high-quality coffee.

What Are Kenya's Coffee Grading Categories?

Kenyan coffee is divided into categories based on their grade (size of the bean) and class (quality of the bean). They are graded while they’re still green coffee beans.

It’s done before the roasting so that all the coffee beans of the same size are roasted together. This gives greater consistency and prevents over or under-roasting.

Each is given a lettered code to indicate the grade. These are the most common coffee grades:

  • Kenya AA coffee (the largest beans)
  • Kenya AB
  • Kenya C
  • Kenya TT
  • Kenya MH/ML
  • Kenya PB (peaberry coffee)
  • Kenya E (elephant bean coffee)

Coffee grade is not an indicator of quality, only size, and one coffee tree can produce coffee beans with different grades.

Only coffee-graded Kenya AA can be exported, and the Kenya AA coffee taste is what people have come to expect from the country.

Kenyan Coffees by Class

While Kenya AA coffee may be the biggest beans, they are not always the best coffee beans. It all comes down to the class of the bean.

Producers score Kenyan beans out of 10 to indicate their quality, with 1 being the worst and 10 the best. This helps to sort the coffee beans in each grade.

Thorough grading is at the heart of the country’s coffee industry and coffee culture. It ensures that Kenyan coffee is consistently high-quality and protects the reputation of their coffee.

How Are Kenyan Coffee Beans Processed?

All coffee in Kenya is wet-processed.[3] This means the beans undergo a process using water to remove any organic material from around the coffee cherry shortly after it’s been plucked.

Washed coffees have a cleaner taste with fewer impurities and more distinct flavors, and it’s part of the reason Kenya coffee is so high-quality.

Until 2021, the Kenyan government in Nairobi enforced this washing process (or wet method), and all exported coffees had to be washed.

The rules have now changed, but most coffee farmers still process their beans this way, with small farms using co-op shared community washing stations.

The coffee cherry is then hand-harvested and sun-dried. The beans are sorted by density (an indicator of quality) and processed using a pulping machine.

This leaves them with a Kenya coffee bean ready to be packaged.


Kenyan Coffee History Explained

Kenya is right next to Ethiopia (the birthplace of Arabica coffee) but has a far shorter history than Ethiopian coffee.

Coffee was not introduced into Kenya until 1893, when French missionaries began importing coffee plants from Brazil.

Despite the French mission of planting trees across the country, Kenyan coffee production didn't properly start until the 20th Century.

During British colonial rule in the 1900s, Kenyans were not allowed to set up coffee farms or harvest coffee plants - only white settlers had this privilege.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that some of these restrictions were lifted.

However, all the best high-quality Kenya AA beans were exported, and the locals didn't even know how good their single-origin coffee was until the 1980s.

In the last 15-20 years, some restrictions have been lifted, allowing coffee farmers to grow, process, and sell more coffee.

However, the Kenyan coffee industry remains a complex environment with many rules and regulations.

The country is the 16th largest producer of coffee in the world, with most Kenyan coffee farms growing Arabica beans.

Kenyan coffee is regarded as some of the most consistent and high-quality available, rivaling Brazilian, Colombian, and Ethiopian coffees.


Journey Through The Kenyan Coffee Growing Regions!

Kenyan coffee is arguably the best in the world. This is partly due to the beans and processing, but it’s also due to the environment, climate, and richly fertile soil.[4]

The conditions across the country differ, impacting the coffee bean size and taste. This means you get nuanced flavors depending on where the Kenyan beans are grown.

Here are the main growing regions and the flavors they produce:

The Western Region

The West of Kenya has lots of rain, fertile soils, and heat from the evening sun. This produces rich coffees.

It’s the second most popular region for coffee growing and has some of the largest bean varieties.

The West region produces bright coffee that’s fresh and floral, with notes of berries and lemongrass. It’s typically heavy and full-bodied.

The Eastern Region

Less coffee is grown in the Eastern regions of Kenya, but the high altitude and morning sun produce high-quality coffee flavors.

Coffees in this region tend to be bright, citrusy, and chocolatey. 

They have intoxicating black currant undertones and are slightly more balanced than beans from other regions.

The Central Region

Most Kenyan coffee is grown in this very fertile region. The volcanic soil and higher elevations around Mount Kenya provide the perfect conditions for coffee bean growth.

The central Kenyan region provides a coffee with full-bodied richness, sharp citrus acidity, and black currant and chocolate notes.

The Nyanza Region

This region has high elevations ranging from 900-1300 meters above sea level and areas with rich volcanic soils.

These conditions are perfect for growing large beans with sweet, nutty, and toasty flavors.

The Great Rift Valley Region

The African rift valleys are considered the 'cradle of mankind,' and this coffee-growing region is filled with native forest ecosystems and lush wildlife.

The coffea Arabica grown here has more essential oils, giving it a distinctive and delicate taste.

This region produces very high-quality coffee known for its sweet and floral notes, with a distinct winey richness. There’s less acidity and a lighter aftertaste.


Related Kenyan Coffee Questions

Is Kenyan coffee strong?

Kenyan coffees don't taste as strong as some other coffees but have a higher caffeine content.

Where does Kenyan coffee rank in the world?

Brazil is the largest coffee producer, but Kenyan coffee beans are some of the best in the world. Kenyan coffee is typically considered in the top 3 in the world (with Brazil and Ethiopia).

Does Starbucks sell Kenyan coffee?

Yes, Starbucks sells several Kenyan coffee varieties (including a Kenya AA blend) in their coffee shops and as coffee grounds.


Try Kenyan Coffee!

Kenyan coffee is very different from your standard medium roast. It has unique flavors, fruity notes, and a deep, wine-like flavor. It’s full-bodied, crisp, and very acidic.

It’s a favorite among coffee connoisseurs and arguably the best coffee in the world. If you love coffee, you need to try a Kenyan single-origin coffee.

References:

  1. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/is-coffee-acidic#health-effects
  2. https://www.britannica.com/science/coffee-rust
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S030881462300105X
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8010630/ 

Kim Fernandez

Author

Kim Fernandez
Kim offers a unique perspective on coffee culture and trends. Kim's writing is personal and experiential, providing readers with firsthand advice on the latest in coffee. Beyond her writing, Kim is an avid explorer of new coffee trends and spots, always seeking to share the most genuine advice and latest trends. True to her love for coffee, you'll often find her in a café, immersed in a book with a freshly brewed cup of joe.

My favorite drink? I'd go with... A freshly brewed cup of joe

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