“Western” Kenya is often used as a catch-all for any coffees grown west of Nairobi. There is a vast diversity of terrain however, in Kenya’s western counties. This particular lot, from Narok county in Kenya’s extreme southwest, is produced on a high-elevation plateau only a few kilometers from the Masai Mara, Kenya’s most famous big game preserve and safari destination. Narok county runs along Kenya’s southern border with Tanzania, whereupon the Masai Mara turns into the enormous Serengeti National Park.
It’s hard to imagine coffee and expansive savannahs co-habiting in the same environment, but in the case of Mara Estate, it is working well. And in almost every way, this natural lot from Mara Estate is the total opposite of what most people expect from Kenya coffees. Mara Estate is very young, established only in 2019. The farm is planted entirely with Batian, a government-developed cultivar bred for a combination of disease resistance and quality that, while widespread, is rarely grown on its own. Mara is a large estate, with minimal shade, planted near the town of Lolgorien, and harvest during Kenya’s fly crop months of May, June, and July. So far, the farm is processing almost entirely naturals, which are barrel-fermented for 4 days prior to drying on raised beds, to allow the fruit to sweeten and partially ferment before drying. Like we said, different from conventional Kenyas in almost every way.
Coffee’s history in Kenya is short compared to Ethiopia, its neighbor to the north, with the introduction of coffee occurring around the turn of the 19th century at the hands of British missionaries who brought bourbon-lineage coffee trees from Brazil. As the value of the cash crop grew in the European marketplace, the British settlers would force indigenous Africans out of the trade by outlawing coffee production outside their colonial estate network. It wouldn’t be until the years of conflict prior to Kenya’s independence, from 1952-1960, that indigenous Africans would be permitted to plant coffee—although for years afterward plantings were severely limited and none of the coffee produced by smallholders was permitted to be consumed. Since independence, the large estate holdings have evolved to reflect Kenya’s modern demographic: ownership can be single families, corporations, or groups of shareholders. And, like Mara Estate, large farms are still being built, in innovative locations that are historically underserved. Mara’s location in Narok makes it a uniquely large employer for surrounding families, and a unique source of unconventional coffees from Kenya that help expand our expectations. Narok does have smallholder coffee, and many consider it to have ideal conditions for producing high quality, because of the elevation, its relative flatness, and dry climate. Naturals like this one help draw awareness to the area.