Six years ago, almost to the day, a new coffee varietal was released in Kenya. Seemingly high-yield, disease-resistant, and high-cupping, it’s full of promise for the industry.
But what’s really the deal with Batian? And will it have the impact it promises?
Kenyan Varietals Produced by Science
Kenya’s been the location of no less than four new varietals in less than a century.
First, Scott Laboratories identified the now-famous SL-28 and SL-34 in the 1930s. They combine stunning flavour with drought resistance. The perfect coffee plant? You might think so, if it weren’t for their vulnerability to Coffee Berry Disease (CBD) and leaf rust (aka la roya).
According to a 2008 study published in Phytopathology, the journal of The American Phytopathology Society, CBD can cause harvest losses of up to 60%. A fungus which produces spores that attack green cherries, it was first discovered in Kenya in 1922. It mainly affects coffee-growing in Africa.
SL-28 on the tree. Credit @novelcoffeeroasters
In the 1970s, Ruiru station began experimenting with breeding different CBD and rust-resistant breeds. The result was Ruiru 11, released in the ‘80s. High-yield and, indeed, resistant to CBD and rust, it could seem like the solution to all of Kenya’s coffee woes – except for the cup profile.
Strains of SL-28 and SL-34 were added to the original mix of Hibrido de Timor and Rume Sudan, the former of which is an Arabica-Robusta cross. Adding the SLs certainly improved the taste, but Ruiru 11 still couldn’t achieve the dizzying heights of the SLs.
Still, the coffee was high-yield, resistant to disease, and had a decent profile. For many, that was good enough.
A classic SL-28 with a profile of big, juicy blackcurrants. Credit: @sammaccuaigcoffee
Hello Batian: A New and Improved Varietal?
Introduced by the Coffee Research Institute (CRI) on the 8th of September 2010, Batian is the newest varietal on offer from Kenya. It’s the culmination of further experimentation based on the lessons learned from Ruiru 11.
Genetically, it’s much closer to SL-28 than to Ruiru 11, having been selected from backcrosses of SL-28 and 34. This removed the problematic Robusta element, leading to an increase in cup quality. Interestingly, Batian also seems to be cupping better than the SL varietals. There could be other factors at play here, however – such as low-quality examples of SL-28 and 34 being used in the comparative cupping – but the results bear paying attention to.
As for CBD and coffee leaf rust, initial reports have indicated good levels of resistance – and a high yield per plant.
Coffee rust in action. The infection stops the leaves from photosynthesising, essentially starving the plant. Credit: @beanmarket
Less Pesticides Means Lower Costs
A naturally rust and CBD-resistant varietal doesn’t just mean a greater yield. It also means a lessening need for pesticides – something that both makes the crops more attractive to buyers and also reduces costs.
Given the catastrophic impact disease can have on a farmer’s crop – and income – farmers tend to take prevention very seriously indeed. Huge amounts of chemicals are used to offset the chance of infection, which have severe ecological consequences as well as being a pricey investment.
In an interview with Daily Nation, CRI Director Dr. Elijah Gichuru stated that reduced chemical use from Batian can reduce the overall cost of production by up to 30%. This would be a massive boost to a farmer’s profit margins that, when combined with the reputation that Batian is gaining on the cupping table, paints a rosy picture for the future financial and ecological success of Kenyan coffee farming.
A bright future ahead for Kenyan coffee farming? Credit: @cachacamontesanto
Isolating Batian: The Only Difficulty
There’s one major issue with the current state of Batian in the industry: it’s almost impossible to find on its own. Nguzo Africa, working with the Coffee Research Institute, made over 100,000 seedlings available to farms in 2015 so this may well change soon. However, for now Batian nearly always turns up mixed in with the SLs and Ruiru 11.
Ivica Cvetanovski discussed this in a 2015 blog post on Rubens Gardelli’s website. Unable to find Batian processed independently, he stated that “The main reason was that many farmers are smallholders, having very few trees, focused on picking and generating income for their families. Wet stations are discouraged to process low quantity, single varieties and what we have learned to know as micro-lots.”
This makes it very difficult for us to source single varietal lots. In turn, this affects both our ability to accurately cup the crop – and therefore determine its quality – and to drink it as a single origin. While the larger scale crops of the SLs are often available on their own, we will evidently have to wait and see when it comes to Batian.
A classic comparative cupping table. Credit: @ghowellcoffee
Proceeding With Caution
If Batian delivers what it promises to then it will undoubtedly revolutionise Kenyan coffee farming. If, however, is the key word.
As a new and untested varietal, conservative and careful planting are necessary. We still need to study the varietal over the long term in order to learn its real practicality in application, resistance, and yield. To jump headlong into large-scale cultivation would put a huge number of Kenyan producers’ livelihoods at risk.
That said, this new varietal is extremely promising. It may take some time to see it in isolated lots, and more time still until we can confidently and accurately advise producers on whether to plant it, but Batian is coming.
What this means for the Kenyan coffee industry, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Written by S. MacCuaig. Feature photo credit: @aahanablank
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