Relaying the sensory experience of a cup of coffee to customers is one of the trickiest aspects of the roasting trade. I called Caleb Nicholes at gloriously named Kickapoo Coffee Roasters recently to talk with him about the ways they describe their coffees. Nicholes had one coffee in particular he wanted to chat about, their Kenya Mbeguka AA, because, as with many roaster’s current favorite coffee, it had a great story behind it.
It’s well understood in the roasting community, especially among those who pursue direct trade and other transparent purchasing models, that the Kenyan coffee trade has a dense wall around it and vigilant gatekeepers. It’s difficult, often impossible, to trace any particular lot of coffee and developing relationships with individual farmers is rare. That can be frustrating for roasters like Nicholes who value and enjoy the connections they build with farmers in Latin America and the betterment it often brings to both the coffee and the farmers’ lives. African countries generally and Kenya in particular have very strong cooperatives that produce stellar coffees and they have little desire to allow outsiders to tinker with their workings. After a trip to Kenya, Nicholes says he left with the feeling that, “It’s tough to feel relevant as a buyer.” There are many historical and political reasons for this, which can be summed up, though not perfectly, with one word: colonialism.
In a very limited way, though, Kenyan coffee has opened up a bit. Nicholes says that a few years ago the folks at Counter Culture coffee asked the coffee exporter Dormans if it was possible to separate lots of the Rainforest Alliance coffees that are normally blended. It was and beginning last year Dormans began offering small lots of coffee. Kickapoo has purchased two this year, including the current offering from the Mbeguka estate, a medium-sized farm run by a government worker named Kabiru who decided to spend his retirement growing SL28 coffee in Embu county.
Kickapoo had a great coffee with a cool story, so how did they present this to customers? The same way they do all their coffees, most of which have pretty cool stories behind them.
Here’s a snapshot of what they present online, which except for the long tasting note and the graph is what is presented on their beautiful twelve-ounce cans.
Let’s start with the three sliding scales, beginning at the top with roast level. Some roasters, mainly those who hit a consistent roast profile across their coffees, are playing down the importance of roast level. Nicholes goes the opposite direction. “Roast level is one of the most important variables that, as a consumer of coffee, you should have an understanding of and how it affects the coffee,” he says. When a customer asks for a recommendation, Nicholes first tries to nail down the customer’s preferred roast level. A really great coffee roasted an unfamiliar way won’t fly with most customers. So roast goes top of the chart.
“Roast level is one of the most important variables that, as a consumer of coffee, you should have an understanding of and how it affects the coffee.”
Kickapoo chose the word brightness over acidity, Nicholes says, because customers simply don’t understand the term. I tell Nicholes I’m not sure brightness is better understood, but he counters that it’s not misunderstood as a negative. Fair enough. Mellow and sparkling represent the two ends of brightness and, again, these were chosen for their positive connotations. (It must be pointed out that sparkling is a perfect word for an acidic, megawatt bright coffee.)
While the roast and brightness scales slide from top to bottom depending on the coffee, Kickapoo’s body scale never dips below the mid level. While Nicholes describes delicate as a positive trait, none of the coffees sit on the delicate end of the scale.
Along with being a proponent of roast level, Nicholes is a defender of the tasting note. Before coffee, Nicholes worked in wine and he developed his palate by hearing other tasters describe a flavor he had missed, which allowed him to look for and find it not just in that glass but in future glasses of wine. He describes the tasting notes as signposts, not an enjoyment-sabotaging challenge to the customer.
“I’m of the opinion that three tasting notes can summarize a coffee very well. I’m not a taster who can pull out eight tastes in a coffee. I’m a bit skeptical of those who do.”
The tasting notes come from Nicholes’ sample roasting evaluations, and they are clearly influenced by his wine background. For the Mbeguka, he writes, “Lovely, raw sugar sweetness with a generous, round mouthfeel and textured flavors of orange rind and sarsaparilla.” On the cans, this is abbreviated to, “Notes of sarsaparilla, orange rind, and sucanat.” Nicholes says, “I’m of the opinion that three tasting notes can summarize a coffee very well. I’m not a taster who can pull out eight tastes in a coffee. I’m a bit skeptical of those who do.”
Like many roasters, Kickapoo then includes information on altitude, varietal, region, and a long description of the process. Instead of simply saying natural, washed, or semi-washed, they describe the breadth of the process. For the Mbeguka, they wrote, “Dry ferment, wash, overnight soak, raised bed drying.” On a Colombian coffee they wrote, “Dry fermentation, washed, raised bed drying.” Was that helpful to customers, I asked. Nicholes wasn’t so sure. “Maybe it’s more for other roasters,” he says. It’s probably for himself, too. “We’re coffee geeks,” he says. “I really like the nuisances of processing and how they influence the end results of green coffee.”
The online description ends with a short note about the grower or co-op and Kickapoo’s relationship with them. In the Mbeguka description it says they’re excited about their upcoming trip to Kenya. That should be updated. Nicholes went to Kenya and he met the farmer, Kabiru. “It was great to wander around and get to the farm level in Kenya,” he says. He was able to talk with him about ways to improve the crop, the processing, the delivery. For Kabiru, it was a special moment too. He started his farm in 1983 and Nicholes was the first roaster to ever visit.
—Cory Eldridge is Fresh Cup’s editor.