The Kenyan Lazarus


I did something this week that I’ve never done before.  I drank stale coffee on purpose.

Sometimes if I get many new coffees all at once, I may not finish an entire bag before I get more.  This is apparently what happened back in February when a friend brought me coffees from one of my favorite roasters, Drop Coffee in Stockholm, Sweden.    

I love coffee bags.  I love the marketing for the design aspect.  I like logos that pop, bright colors, clever names, and neat packaging.   I usually keep coffee bags for their artistic merit but also because they document the varieties I’ve tried and people who gave them to me.  Drop Coffee has unique packaging – the coffee lives in a turquoise bag with a water droplet shaped window through which you can see the beans.  That bag lives in a slimline cardboard box embossed with a coffee tree drawing and description of the coffee.  The whole thing is cool stuff.  

In the week after Thanksgiving, as I was consolidating the miscellaneous 30+ bags from all over the world that have taken up residency above my fridge, I noticed the Drop Coffee box still had coffee in it.  My first thought wasn’t ‘let’s drink it.’  Instead, I had a sinking feeling of guilt for having wasted precious premium arabica.  I seriously hate wasting coffee and I’m very conscious of not buying more than I can drink.  I opened the box and discovered the bag was nearly full… how could I have been such a poor steward of something so special?  Feeling like a criminal, I put the coffee in the rotation anyway, out of remorse.  In the morning, I would suffer through the staleness of eleven month old coffee.   

The coffee in question was a washed SL28 & SL34 from Kenya.  In the 1930s the Kenyan Government hired Scott Labs to help them find a drought resistant variety.  The two best varieties they discovered in their experiments were labeled SL28 and SL34.  The former has Bourbon and Mokka heritage, grows at higher altitudes, and is responsible for high acidity and blackcurrant notes.  The latter has French Mission Bourbon heritage and has slightly better yields than its counterpart at lower elevations.  Drought resistant, but not always disease resistant, SL cultivars make up 90% of Kenya’s coffees.  To this day the unromantic scientific moniker ‘SL’ remains, which stands for Scott Labs who are still operating in Kenya.  

When it was time to make my morning coffee, I opened the box – no dust or cobwebs.  I ground the coffee – so far so good.  I brewed the coffee on Chemex – fragrant and lively.  I tasted the coffee – miraculously sweet and flavorful!  Seriously?  It was white sugar sweet with predominant blackcurrant vibrance.  The absolute opposite of what I was expecting.  It’s actually remarkable that I could detect the blackcurrant so singularly.  After all, it can be a dominant note inherent to the SL28 variety.  

I don’t understand the science of what was at work here… all I know is that the coffee was in a bag in a box for eleven months.  Was that enough protection from the O2 – CO2 off-gassing exchange?  Not sure.  Was it because they were out of direct sunlight?  Maybe.  Has anyone done any research into post-roast longevity for these varieties?  Doubtful.  

There’s no way I could have anticipated how memorable this coffee would be.  I had totally forgotten about it until I decided to clean house.  Even then it didn’t really stand a chance of making an impression on me as I was about to compost it or blend it for cold brew. But somehow this coffee managed to make its way back into my life one last time to be forever immortalised on the internet.  

Although I’m not going to make a habit of saving good coffee for practicing storing methods, I do know some people who store coffee in zip-lock bags either in the freezer or in the fridge.  But did I just invent storing coffee ON the fridge?  Was it the warmth or slow humming vibration of the compressor that slowed the aging process? Now I’m making stuff up.  

It didn’t matter to me what biological magic was at work.  All I cared about was replicating the brew with the rest of the bag since it was nearly full and the coffee was delicious.  I wanted another cup of this Kenyan Lazarus.  I wanted to continue living in the bliss of cheating death out of flavor.

Sadly, this didn’t happen and it’s part of the experience.  I noticed over the next three days, the coffee’s flavor ‘dropped’ way off.  No pun intended.  The hand of staleness clawed back from the grave and broke through the surface of dirt.  No more lovely aromatics, no more sweetness, no more blackcurrant.  The coffee was in Morpheus’ arms.

It was like a past-prime baseball player on the verge of retirement who hits a home-run in their last at bat.  One last hoorah before the final curtain.

For the record, so I may have a clean literary conscience, no beans were wasted in the process of this blog and all were consumed for scientific purposes.


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