Kenya, Quality and the 70/30 Split - Part 2

By David Shaub Stallings

In my last blog post I mentioned that while traveling in Kenya back in November, I was confronted by a paradox. I was being told, over and over again, to observe the poor conditions under which coffee, coming from small holders, was being produced. Conversely, I was told to note how healthy, productive and manicured small to medium-sized estates were. In Kenya, the average coffee shrub produces 2kg of fresh cherry per year. But, there are many estate owners who, through educated agronomical practices, are getting upwards to 30kg of fresh cherry per shrub per year. That is obviously a huge difference!

A brief tangent for context - 2kg of fresh cherry (again, this is the average production of a coffee shrub in Kenya) translates to roughly 10oz of roasted coffee. That means one plant, and all of the work associated with it translates to roughly one Passenger Coffee retail bag’s worth of finished, roasted coffee.

The paradox exists in the fact that it is fairly well agreed upon by many specialty coffee professionals that cooperative owned factories, which get their coffee from small holders, tend to produce cleaner and more interesting coffees than estates. To put a finer point on it: Kenyan coffee coming from unhealthy, poorly managed, low yielding plants typically produce a cup of higher quality than healthy, cared for highly productive plants. Arming you, the reader, with this tiny nugget of knowledge, you may assume that the people telling me that the coffee on estates looked better than the coffee on small holder properties simply didn’t know what they were talking about. Another possibility would be to assume that they had some personal agenda to promote the buying of estate coffees. But, I can assure you that neither of these are the case. This information was coming from trained agronomists who represent companies primarily focused on bringing cooperative produced coffees to market. That is to say, they are educated and their primary work interest is in supporting the small holder with gangly trees.

By the time I had the chance to sit down with Martin Ngare, the general manager of Coffee Management Services (CMS), which is a leading agri-business service provider, offering farm management services to the coffee industry in Kenya and the wider East African region, I was very eager to have him put this mental quandary of mine to rest.

I wasted no time in putting the question directly to Martin. Martin elucidated a mental-model that they teach and reference at CMS: the 70/30 Split. To be honest I don’t think Martin actually called it the 70/30 Split, but I have been referring to it as such since my talk with Martin and will continue to refer to it as such. The 70/30 split essentially says that 70% of a coffee’s quality comes from one set of factors, and 30% of a coffee’s quality is from another set of factors.

The 70% portion includes:

  • Precipitation
  • Nutrition
  • Soil
  • Elevation
  • Plant Genetics (Variety)
  • Pruning
  • Pests and Disease Management

The 30% portion includes:

  • Picking and processing

To put it within the framework of a word we use frequently at Passenger, the 70% includes elements of terroir. I am tempted to say that the remaining 30% is the portion of heavy human intervention and thus not related to terroir. But, to do that is to promulgate an incorrect, albeit romantic, idea that the concept of terroir is not heavily influenced by humans every step of the way. This is, after all, agriculture, a uniquely human activity. Pruning, nutrition, plant genetics, pest management… these all require an enormous amount of human intervention, yet are crucial elements of ultimately experiencing the terroir of a coffee.

When pushed, Martin told me that farmers measure quality by bean size. And this makes sense… in a very backward, outdated way that from a more holistic perspective actually doesn’t make any sense at all.

It makes sense because in the Kenyan auction system outturns are separated into different screen sizes (bean sizes): AA, AB and PB. (There are more screen sizes, but they belong to coffees that do not go on to be sold as specialty coffees. These other screen sizes include broken beans, etc.) AA’s are the largest beans and measure a screen size of 18+. The 18 here refers to 18/64’s of an inch. AB’s measure screen size 16-17 (again, 64’s of an inch). Lastly, PB’s are peaberries. Peaberries are single, round beans that form inside of a coffee cherry, as opposed to the two, flat beans that typically form inside of a coffee cherry. AA’s almost always fetch a much higher price at the auction. As such, it only makes sense that a coffee farmer would measure quality by the amount of coffee produced that measures 18+ screen size.

The problem is, even though the Nairobi Coffee Exchange says right on their website “The coffee beans are separated (sorted) and rated by bean size […] with the general assumption being that bigger coffee beans are higher in quality. The largest and best coffee beans from Kenya are graded Kenya AA,” there are many coffee professionals, myself included, who will tell you that the AA is not necessarily the best screen size in any given outturn. In fact, I would argue that the AA of any given outturn cups better than the AB and PB approximately 33.3% of the time. Of course, by that I mean to say that I don’t think the screen size has any direct correlation to cup quality. That’s not to say the different screen sizes don’t taste differently, they certainly always do. Rather, I am saying that, after cupping many hundreds of outturns separated by screen size, I am not convinced that bean size correlates to quality in any meaningful, direct or consistent way. In fact, if anything I find myself acting cautiously when buying AA’s. Over the past three years I have consistently noticed AA’s falling off (that is to say, developing paper or wood flavors in the cup) more quickly than their AB and/or PB counterparts. I will not attempt to put forth any concrete theories in the limited scope of this already rambling blog post as to why this is, but will briefly say that my current working theory revolves around surface area and moisture loss.

This belief that larger beans are better pre-dates the current specialty coffee movement; the so-called third wave. It references a time when the physical appearance of a coffee was ultimately the deciding factor in quality and thus in buying a coffee. Nearly any industry standard that was established or has its roots in a time before the Geoff Watts, Tom Owens and George Howells of the world opened our collective eyes so wide is either no longer applicable or at least rubs strongly against current practice and belief. Take a roast profile from the most vanguard of light roasters twenty years ago and it would be considered barely palatable due to its level of “roast characteristics” by the same vanguard of today.

Roast is an easy variable to pick on, but my point is: we are part of an industry that is evolving so rapidly that sometimes it feels as if it is tripping over itself. And yet, coffee farmers in Kenya, arguably the most lauded of origins by specialty coffee professionals, base their concept of quality on bean size.

After talking with Martin I was quite a bit more educated in regards to Kenyan agronomical practices, but woefully conflicted regarding my original question. In the third and most likely final (depending on the number of tangents I explore) blog post regarding Kenya, Quality and the 70/30 Split I will dig into how I make sense of the 70/30 split and also put forth a pet theory.