Back from the Road - Kenya, November 2011
On one hand, I tell people that our highest rated coffees of the year are almost always our Kenyan offerings. On the other hand, I often tell people I am less excited about those Kenyan offerings than almost all of our other coffees. Talk about two being two-faced, right?

There was – and to a certain extent still is – a good reason for it, though. Kenya has always been a place hard to feel attached to. The chemical-dependent agricultural side is not exactly an attractive element when looking at most Kenyan coffees. The auction system that still dominates the way coffee is bought and sold in Kenya created an amazing incentive for high quality, but also very little incentive for long-term commitments or relationships. Meaning the relationship side of the coffee is not exactly warm and fuzzy.

To this day, I have never heard of a 3-year Kenya contract for coffee. Actually, to be honest I have never even heard of Kenyan Cooperatives offering coffee before that year's picking season has started. Maybe it has happened, but I haven't heard of it.

Much of the system is year-to-year, and, if the price is up, the price is up. If the price is down, it is down. More or less "take it or leave it." To me, it has always felt like a "right now" kind of mentality. And, with the fluctuation of prices in the global market recently, it is hard to blame anyone for thinking like that, especially when most buyers (like us) are buying such a small fraction of the total output from one cooperative.

Even so, this "right now" mentality doesn't make us feel like a partner – like we often do in other place around the world – and, over the last few years, we have become less and less excited about the relationship side of Kenyan coffee. A sad reality for coffees we consider our favorites in quality.

This is the mentality I went into my trip last year, and, to be honest, this is the mentality I went into the trip with this year.

What happened on this trip? Well, I got a little boost in my excitement. To make a long story short, the chairman for the Thiriku Cooperative, Erastus Mathenge, changed my mind on what is possible.

By no means do we have a 3-year contract or even a commitment for coffee from Thiriku for the any future year – we don't even have a contract for this year. Again, a contract probably wouldn't even make sense since we buy such a small percentage of their total production.

What we do have is an understanding that Thiriku is going to focus on making a lot specifically for Counter Culture. With this verbal commitment – for just this year – on one single day of production, Thiriku will focus on all of the best measures it takes to produce the best lot possible and offer that one day lot to us. On our side, we committed to buying that lot. Simple as that.

This is another situation where we feel it is better to partner with our producers and to put in the work up front to make a better coffee, than to simply taste what they make and select a lot. This concept (like I said in my Ethiopia Trip), I believe is a major difference in the way coffees are bought. I always make the analogy to baristas: I don't want them to hand me 10 espressos when I order, I only want the one they crafted to be the best. Same is true at the farm level. I want producers to craft the coffees they make for Counter Culture knowing they are doing the best practices that lead to great flavors – and working with us to discover those practices. A producer giving us 50 options to choose from and hoping one (or a few) of those options is to our liking is not that what I consider "crafting" something.

On a different note and another item that we are all happy about: a cooperative that we worked with for a number of years is looking like it is back online, and we will be purchasing from once again. It is pretty complicated to explain – please read through the photo set for further information – but the Ndaroini Cooperative decided three years ago to not work with our milling and exporting partners in Kenya. This year they decided they, indeed, liked working with our partners and are back in the fold. Ndaroini was a perennial favorite at Counter Culture, and I am super-excited about this.

With that, please enjoy the set!

-Tim
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