Today is a day of cupping in the office of my Kenyan coffee exporter. They are currently in the peak of selecting auction lot coffees to purchase. Now, to most of us in the states, this sounds like it would be great, however all is not what it may appear to be.
Typically, when I receive auction lot Kenyan samples from US importers or even the exporter, they are sending me the best of the best, this is not the case with these cupping. Ferment, motor oil, green pea, and even potato defects have all shown up on the table. The term “Auction Lot” may seem to demand some sort of quality, but in this setting, it does not always means “Specialty Coffee”, I shall explain:
There are three divisions of coffee companies in the supply chain in Kenya:
- Marketing/Management Companies
- These companies provide extension services in order to assist co-ops and estates to produce better quality coffee.
- Co-Ops and estates must elect a marketing firm every year on a 1 year contract.
- The marketing firm markets the coffee (brings the coffee to auction or direct to a buyer).
- The marketing firm NEVER takes position of the coffee.
- Dry Mills
- These companies only dry mill coffee prior to auction/sale.
- These companies are responsible for exporting logistics only.
- They purchase the coffee from the auction.
- Blend different qualities together to get FAQ, A, B, AB, C, AA qualities, etc.
- Money/payment must be an international payment.
- Can only purchase ready to export coffee, no parchment or cherry.
So, what does this mean? As an exporter in Kenya, most have their sister companies, a Marketing/Management firm, a Dry Mill, and an Exporting Office supplied by an overseas bank. Once coffee goes to auction, any exporter can purchase coffees managed and dry milled from the other Exporting (coffee companies). The best coffees, are usually kept in house and sold directly to the parent exporter after being milled.
Basically, this means that the majority of coffees in Kenya are purchased through Auction. All grades are auctioned, not only the top lots. After talking to a few people here, it seems, that in actuality, most of the great coffees are now being purchased direct from the cooperative or estate and not making it to the auction system anymore; hence, a lack of quality in the Auction Lots.
I got to visit the Kenyan Auction yesterday which happens every Tuesday through the purchasing season. Yesterday’s auction was of average size, around 27,000 bags of coffee or 213,840,000 Lbs. The Auction house is in a dank auction room from the 60’s which needs renovation. The buyers from all exporting companies are there sitting in a stadium style seated room with booths for every exporter and a little button to press when you would like to bid on a coffee. The whole process goes from 9am until whenever it is done. I can hardly imagine sitting there for 8-9hrs with no break. We sat for 30min and it was slightly taxing to say the least. Before visiting the auction, I had imagined something akin to the New York Stock Exchange with people screaming, a ticker passing by at the speed of light, papers flying, but that was not the case. Instead I was greeted with near silence and shuffling of papers.
Next was to the Auction sample room. This was amazing. The room contained samples of every lot to be Auctioned, green coffee in lunch-type brown paper bags sitting in rows and rows and rows. I asked, “How are samples distributed?” Apparently each exporter comes to the sample room and collects his/her own samples by hand, one scoop at a time. This process is not truly regulated or monitored and I feel amazed that the exporters trust each other with the sample material. Rarely are samples mixed by accident.
All of this was impressive, and eye opening. I have always known that the majority of coffee in Kenya goes through the Auction, but seeing it in person puts it all in perspective. Imagine, an entire country, even if small in the world of coffee’s production is bought and exported by pressing a little button. Each, lot ranging from 5 bags to 100 bags is sampled , tasted, and graded for quality by real people.
Kenya coffee trade is amazing, and I am growing to have a new respect for this small producing specialty origin. The Kenyan coffee trade seems to be an outstanding amount of work, lots of slurping, and thousands if not millions of cups to taste. During the first two days of my stay, I had already cupped well over 300 samples. Now its time for a beer, cheers to palate fatigue!
-Eton Tsuno, Green Coffee Buyer