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‘You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy coffee and that’s pretty close’ or so the saying goes. Over the last century and a half, Kenya has been providing the world with some the best coffee available. But what makes its coffee stand out?
The fertile volcanic red soil of Africa’s second largest mountain, among other things, gives Kenyan coffee its distinctive taste. Arabica beans are cultivated at the foot of Mt. Kenya and also Mt. Elgon, but on a smaller scale – at altitudes of 1,400–2,000 metres above sea level.
It is the country’s fourth highest foreign income earner, and one of the biggest agricultural employers.
For a century after its introduction to Kenya, coffee was the biggest export earner. As such, the government discouraged local consumption of coffee – exporting all produce to the international market. Perhaps, this is why a local coffee culture was slow to develop.
A couple of decades back, if you wanted to savour a good cup of coffee, you had to go to the coastal region or a five-star hotel. Not anymore though. Young professionals, college students, and the elderly all meet in urban establishments to socialise or to conduct business.
Coffee was introduced on the coast by Arab traders. Kahawa chungu, which means bitter coffee, is a concentrated spicy black coffee boiled over a charcoal burner in long brass kettles and drunk from small ceramic cups. It is usually accompanied by dates or haluwa. There you can find old men huddled in small groups in back alleys, playing backgammon and gossiping, while sipping kahawa chungu.
The first urban coffee house was established in Nairobi in 1999 and many others have opened since. But don’t be surprised if the person seated next to you has a full plate of fries and meat. Coffee isn’t yet popular enough on its own to sustain coffee houses, so they have added meals to their menus.