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The country and region a coffee originates from is often the most defining characteristic by which a roasted specialty coffee is labeled. Specialty coffees that are not a blend (called single origin) often distinguish themselves by the country they are from and a regional or trade name to specify where in that country the coffee was grown. Most of the time a roaster will put a few flavor descriptors about the coffee profile.
Side Note: If your coffee is solely described as being “Pure Arabica beans,” you can usually translate this to mean “At least we didn’t use robusta.” It may be time to switch it up.
Defining a coffee by an origin country is helpful because you can get a basic sense of what to expect. While there are definitely broad distinctions that can be made by coffee growing regions, there is so much variation and other variables that impact flavor (read about coffee processing). Geographic coffee flavor profiles don’t really fit into neat little boxes. A coffee taster should certainly be able to pick out the distinctive flavors of a Sumatra coffee in a field of Central American coffees, but may not be able to single out a Mexican Chiapas from a field of Guatemalan Huehuetenangos (I certainly could not).
Because altitude, varietal, processing and origin all play an important role in coffee flavor development, you will find many differences in coffees grown in the same section of the world. There can even be some dramatic flavor swings year to year at the same farms. Keeping that in mind, I don’t recommend ever writing off a particular region of the coffee world. You should should always be willing to mix it up and try new coffees. You never know when one might surprise and delight you.
Here are some coffee regions of the world and some general flavor profiles you can expect to find with in them.
Central America and Mexico
Coffees from Central America and Mexico are often mild and fragrant, with subtle complexities. They are moderately acidic and have medium body. The majority of the coffees are wet processed. These coffees are approachable and popular coffees that seldom have overpoweringly bold or intense flavors. They are typically easy drinkers that the average consumer can relate to and appreciate.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because these coffees are mild and crowd pleasers, they are not world class. Every year many fine and exceptional lots come out of Central America and they are consistently some of my favorite coffees.
If you would like to try a varied sampling of good coffee form this region, try:
- Costa Rica Tarrazu
- Guatemala Antigua (Or Huehuetenango if you cannot get Antigua)
- Mexico Oaxaca
South American coffee is mainly broken down into two overwhelmingly dominate countries: Brazil and Colombia. Between the two countries they make up around 43% of the entire world coffee market. (Brazil is first with about 34.5%, Colombia is third with about 9.4%. Vietnam, which is mostly Robusta, is second with around 12.1%)
Despite making up so much of the overall coffee market, Colombia and Brazil have a much smaller chunk of the specialty market. Most coffees in South America go towards making run-of-the-mill mega roaster coffees.
These two countries have two totally different coffee profiles. The Colombian coffee has more in common with it’s Central American neighbors than Brazil. They are often mild, wet processed, and approachable. Colombia has been somewhat handicapped by it’s trade federation, but does manage to produce some good specialty coffee from private farms and mills.
The vast Brazilian landscape contains many different varietals and grades of coffee. The most famous are dry processed Santos of the Bourbon varietal. There also the iodine tasting Rios (not recommended) and other dry processed and pulped natural estate coffees (there are a few wet processed as well).
Peru, Ecuador, and Venezuela also produce coffee but have yet to get much notice in the specialty market.
East Africa and Yemen
Coffees from East Africa and Yemen are characterized by winey and fruity acidity, medium body, and a fragrant floral aroma. Most of the quality coffee that comes from this area are wet processed with the exception of Yemen and the Harrar region of Ethiopia. Yemen and Harrar coffees are natural processed and can be quite delicious, dry and fruity with a sweet, full body.
A lot of the coffees that come out of East Africa and Yemen are organic by default. The farmers either can’t afford chemicals or do not use them because of traditional growing practices. Seldom are these coffees “certified organic” because they do not go through the certification process.
In this region you should try Ethiopian Yirgacheffe (A washed and highly regarded coffee), Kenya AA (A favorite amoung many coffee enthusiasts) and a natural processed coffee from either Ethiopia Harrar or Yemen Mocha.
The Malay Archipelago
Coffee from the Malay Archipelago is often thought to have deep complexity with many having strong earthy notes. The majority of the coffee is wet processed or pulped natural, sometimes done in small backyard batches. The drying process is complicated by the wet and humid climate. Sometimes the beans can have a mustiness to them (which some people like).
Like Africa, there are tons of coffees coming out of the region that would be considered organic but are not certified. There are a few countries with a more aggressive organic certification program in place.
The most popular and widely known origin in this region is probably Sumatra Mandheling. It has a very distinct, complex taste with deep earthy notes.
A few other origins
There are a few other origins that you may encounter and be curious about trying.
- India-India, while not known for exceptional coffee, does produce a fair about if it. India is the sixth largest coffee producer in the world (making up around 4% of the total coffee market). Coffee from India is generally light and unassuming with some spice and chocolate notes.
- Caribbean Islands and Puerto Rico– The most notable and famous coffee from the Caribbean is is probably Jamaican Blue Mountain. Coffee is also grown in a few of the other caribbean countries and Puerto Rico. These coffees are generally wet processed, balanced, and sweet.
- Hawaii– Hawaii also produces a small amount of coffee. Kona is the most popular and expensive. It is an easy drinking coffee with subtle, fruity notes. There are a few other growing regions on the other islands of Hawaii.
Now that you have a general understanding of the coffee growing regions of the world, you are ready to explore and experience them. I recommend trying coffee from several of the different large geographical regions I have outlined. Try to taste the coffees side by side. This will really help you to understand the difference, both subtle and obvious, between the various origins.
Don’t be afraid to try different coffees from the same origin but different processing, roaster, or estates as well. Let me know what coffees you discover and enjoy.