From Kahawa Chungu to Cappuccino: Kenya’s Developing Coffee Culture

Imagine Seattle without its famous coffee shops, or Italy without espresso. Think how often you cart a takeaway paper cup twice the size of your hand to work. Just these three scenarios alone can make you realize how dependent Western culture is on a good, strong cup of coffee.

Though coffee is a staple of the West, we’re indebted to Africa for supplying us with our favorite perk-me-up bliss. Coffee originates from Ethiopia, but today it’s produced in many other southern hemisphere countries as well: Brazil, Costa Rica, Uganda, Burundi and Kenya are all names we’ve seen on the ground coffee we buy in the supermarket and the sacks of beans behind the barista.

Kenya is an especially prominent name, and even Starbucks has been sporting a Kenya brew since 1971. Kenyan beans are some of the world’s most treasured, as they have a very distinct flavor. The coffee is described as bright and acidic with berry undertones not found in any other brew. This is because of the high altitudes at which the coffee is produced. Numerous small-scale farms perch on the foothills of Mount Kenya – the highest mountain in Africa – and these farmers truly put their heart and soul into the production.

Drinking Kenyan coffee in Kenya

You’re finally on your way to Africa on your first big safari adventure and Kenya is on the list. It follows that you’ll look forward to drinking Kenya’s own product at a local café, or even in the airport as soon as the series of long haul flights and layovers finally ends. You don’t consider for a moment that a cup of sub-grade coffee might exist in Kenya. How is that even possible?

Sadly, it’s very possible. Until fairly recently (considering that Kenya has been producing coffee for more than a century), little of the coffee produced in Kenya was served in Kenya. The beans were mostly saved for the export market. The west was happily flooded with Kenyan coffee, but the Kenyans served instant coffee in airports and at restaurants.

It’s quite different in other coffee producing-countries. Ethiopia, for instance, has a very strong coffee culture and consumes about half of the coffee it produces, but the Western-style coffee drinking culture only started taking off recently in Kenya.

Why? Because Kenyans have long preferred tea. The British brought tea-drinking culture when they colonized Kenya in the late 1800s, and since then, black tea has been the obvious choice for locals. Even the people who worked in the fields planted with some of the best coffee in the world would carry a flask of tea and sip it during the early morning.

Some believe that they didn’t want the export market to be influenced by domestic use, while others blame the British, but the point remains that it used to be impossible to please a coffee snob, even in the capital of Nairobi.

The one exception was the ancient — albeit limited — coffee culture that exists along Kenya’s coast. In and around Mombasa, men sit on low benches in the hot, humid day sipping on kahawa chungu, a bitter coffee drink said to be an effective aphrodisiac. This concentrated black coffee is traditionally brewed over a charcoal stove in beautiful tall brass kettles.

A stunning tradition, still practiced by the older men in the evening before they go home to their wives, kahawa chungu isn’t popular among the younger generation. They’re simply not interested in this potent, bitter drink.

Java House sparks a trend

In 1999, Java House opened its first outlet in a rundown shopping centre in Nairobi. This Western-style café wanted to serve Kenya’s own coffee beans to Kenyans in the same form the rest of the world enjoys. At first it seemed impossible, but the founders believed that a good brew would always find a market. And they were right.

Java House Mombasa

Java House Mombasa

In contrast to the older men drinking kahawa chungu at the coast, young, status-conscious Kenyans, some of whom have spent time studying or working abroad, adopted the coffee culture. Today you don’t have to look very far to find a street side café in Nairobi where twenty- and thirty-somethings grab a Starbucks-style takeaway in the morning before rushing to the office. Filter coffees and cappuccinos are served in mugs and cups with the option of adding milk and sugar.

Java House now has 20 branches in Nairobi and another handful in Mombasa, Nakuru and the Rift Valley – the places where foreigners seek coffee when they venture out from their safari lodges. Java House still takes pride in every cup, and each branch gets its small batch of hand-roasted beans delivered every day from the roasters. They also still respect the tea-drinking tradition of Kenya, and serve their own Gold Label tea sourced from local plantations.

Yet Java House isn’t a monopoly anymore. Dormans and Artcaffe also serve Kenyan beans, and this is the best chance of finding a strong brew at the airport when landing after a long flight. Smaller, independent coffee shops to look out for in the capital are Vogue Café, Urban Coffee and Le Pique Coffee House. Usually the obvious choice for a quality product would be the independent store, but in Nairobi, Java House still seems to be the favorite.

When you visit Kenya today, the coffee and tea culture is still very diverse. Along the coast, you will still see the men drinking kahawa chungu, and this is the best place to try the traditional drink yourself. In the capital and a few tourist centres, you’ll be able to sit in a coffee shop and order your double latte or a cup of sweet black coffee – however you like it. Yet the villages beyond Nairobi still prefer their tea.

So if you’re looking for something similar to the famous Starbucks Kenya blend, seek it in the capital. The rest of the time, you might have to rely on your safari lodge for your morning fix.

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