03 Feb Kenya Origin Trip, Days 6 & 7, Nairobi
I love those moments in coffee when the whole supply chain comes together. In this case I found myself in a hot, off-grid Chinese noodle bar in downtown Nairobi squeezed round a table with Brian Gakunga, farmer and owner of Kiriga estate, Jack from the Kenyan coffee exporters Taylor Winch, the fabulous Leah director of Mercanta’s Seattle office, Amy, green buyer at Metropolis roasters in Chicago and myself. A more disparate group of people would normally be hard to find yet here we were chatting and laughing together over steaming bowlfuls of beef and ginger noodle soup and the most exquisite dumplings in this tiny hole-in-the-wall dive brought together by our shared love of coffee.
Trips to origin are more than just about sourcing exceptional coffees. They are about building relationships, understanding the hard work and the passion and yes more often than not the frustrations that go into making that final cup of coffee. And this last week in Kenya has been no exception.
It seems fitting that I end what has been an amazing origin trip at Karen Blixen’s house just outside Nairobi. In 1913 Karen Dinesen newly engaged to her second cousin Baron Bror Blixen arrived in what was then known as British East Africa on the eve of the Great War. The ‘Happy Valley’ days were in full swing, Lord Delamere was encouraging his British friends to come and farm out there (this was the same Lord ‘D’ who incidentally rode his horse into the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi and jumped the dining room table while shooting out the lights) and the place soon became known for its three As – Altitude, Alcohol and Adultery.
Married the same day her ship docked at Mombasa and thinking she was going to be farming dairy cattle Karen found out that her husband had instead bought a 6,000 acre coffee farm. The micro climate and soil conditions at the Blixen’s farm however were not suited to coffee which grows so abundantly just further north. For years Karen struggled with poor harvests and low coffee prices and then the final blow came when a passing nomadic Maasai tribesman innocently set fire to some nearby pasture and burnt her coffee factory to the ground.
Bankrupted and emotionally broken – her lover Denys Finch Hatton had been killed when his aeroplane crashed – and by now divorced from the adulterous Bror, Karen left Kenya in 1931 to return to her native Denmark. Her much loved book Out of Africa describing her years in Kenya opens with the memorable lines “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong hills’ and is one of my favourite reads. I think I must have watched the Robert Redford and Meryl Streep 1985 film at a far too impressionable age because for many years my dream was to live on a coffee farm of my own with a house filled with books and a veranda where I could drink cups of coffee as the sun rose and gin and tonics as it set.
Today Karen’s farmhouse is a museum and open to visitors. The ever sprawling city of Nairobi has long since encroached to encompass the farm and the present day green and leafy neighbourhood where the farm once stood is known as Karen, named after the Baroness.
We were shown round the house by Anderson, a young Maasai guide. With its flower filled garden, stone veranda, wood panelled dining room, cavernous stone fireplaces and animal skin rugs covering the floors I felt like I had stepped back into a long forgotten time.
Most likely introduced by the British in about 1900, coffee has been part of Kenyan life for some 120 years but the days of colonial farms like the Blixens are long since gone. Today more than 70 % of Kenyan coffee production is done by smallholder farmers who work with co-operatives such as those we visited at Ritho and Kiandu before their coffee is then traded on the Nairobi Coffee Exchange. This is some of the most complex and delicious specialty coffee the world has to offer and it’s been amazing to gain a little more understanding of the immense and intricate journey that Kenyan coffee takes before arriving at our roastery in Scotland.