Every bag or box of coffee in this world (prove us wrong, we dare you) that has the label “single-origin” written on it, includes at least a rough bit of information about where the coffee comes from. Kenya, Guatemala, Indonesia, or whatever part of the world depicted on a bag – is this something we want to know?
We do actually. With specialty coffees focusing on discovering the flavors and character of single-origin coffees, a rough sense of where the coffee we’re about to drink comes from will give us the basic information about what to expect from a coffee. Of curse, there’s the roasting and brewing factor that influences the coffee flavor, but we can deduct basic flavor profiles from the region.
We compiled a list of the most common coffee regions and the flavors to expect if you choose a coffee coming from a region. This list can serve as a base for your coffee choice. But as always, there are exceptions. At Ljubljana Coffee festival we tasted a coffee from Honduras by Origin Coffee Roasters that tasted nothing like a Central American coffee. If we didn’t see the bag and the origin information, we could have easily mistaken it for a crisp fruity Ethiopia. So take every information about a coffee with a grain of salt. But hey, that’s the beauty of specialty coffee, right?
The BEAN BELT - this is where the world's coffee is grown with 20 of the world's largest coffee-producing countries marked in green (Source: Wikipedia)
This is where it all began … Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia’s Kaffa region in the south-west of the country (as the legend goes, it was a flock of goats that went bonkers after chewing on coffee cherries which raised interest from their shepherd … and the rest is history). But legends aside, Africa is a wonderful place to grow coffee with an incredible climate. African countries produce some of the world’s best coffees and especially East African countries are producing very highly rated coffees.
Just a note: some African countries are heavily focused on producing Robusta coffee, like Cote d'Ivoire, but for the sake of specialty, we won’t mention those right now.
The flavor of African coffees can be (in a general sense) characterized by one word: complex. We deeply cherish a wonderful Ethiopian single-origin espresso for our office (at least some of us do) as it adds a wonderful mix of acidity and sweetness to the cup. And for filter coffee, a single-origin African can create a fruity-floral party in your mouth.
As for the single-origin(ality) of African coffees, there’s a catch. Most African farms are small, mostly up to 2 hectares of land, so each farm can produce about two 60 kg sacks of coffee. Not quite enough for proper exports. The coffee economy in Africa mostly relies on cooperatives of farms that deliver their coffees to the coffee mill, where it is processed consistently and uniformly thus producing coffees that can consistently showcase an explosion of deep flavors.
The flavor of African coffees
The coffee of Africa often tastes just as exotic as the countries they come from. Most coffee in Africa is washed by hand in channels and dried on raised beds. The washed process produces a medium-bodied clean cup with high levels of acidity while the flavors are very distinct and clear.
But there are also some coffees from Ethiopia that are dry (naturally) processed. These coffees are a true gem of the coffee world, as they show an intense floral and/or fruity (especially strawberry and blueberry) flavors that can sometimes be even a bit overwhelming for the common coffee drinker. But do not fear them … give them another try and soon you’ll reach a point of no return, like every other coffee (except maybe some exceptional Geishas) will not satisfy your need for fruity flavors in a cup.
When we talk about coffees from Central America, we can sum it up in one word: smooth, bright, and clean. These coffees hit the sweet spot for most coffee lovers and very rarely will you find someone that won’t like them. The region has great growing conditions and farms indeed have the potential to grow amazing beans.
There is some turbulence in coffee production in Central America though, mostly due to social and political conflicts with many civil wars in these countries that devastated the coffee economy, but we’re not here to write about politics, right? What we need to mention is that these countries have suffered from the commercialization of coffee production with a focus on non-specialty grade coffee blends. But still, some farmers are focused solely on producing excellent quality, specialty grade coffee. Unlike African farms, farms in Central America tend to be large and can handle the entire process in-house, from harvesting, to processing and working with green coffee buyers. The smaller sized farms get their coffees processed in external mills with the most common processing method being the wet method.
Central American coffees are much like a Swiss knife of specialty coffee, as versatility is their major advantage. When compared to African coffees, they show a fuller body and a more rounded acidity. The result is coffees that will perform great in every style of brewing, from espresso to filter. Oh, and they feel comfortable with milk as well!
When talking about coffee, South America is perceived as the “core coffee region” of the world, with Brazil being the largest producer of coffee in the World. But there’s more to South Africa than Brazil, as Colombia is the #1 producer of washed Arabica coffee in the world with a coffee economy that is very well managed and marketed worldwide.
So there are the two giants in the continent, but what about the rest of the countries? There are new investments in coffee infrastructure in Ecuador and Bolivia who are producing some fresh wind in the specialty world with different flavor profiles.
One important factor in the region’s coffee production is the mountain range that spreads almost through the whole continent, from Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. This means the terrain is varied with glaciers, volcanoes, deserts, and also lakes and forests. The variety of nature is also seen in the variety of microclimates and thus in the variety of coffees. Overall the region, especially Columbia, appeals to coffee farmers with all-year-round harvest time.
This is the country that produces the most coffee in the world and with farms being huge and flat, the harvesting is mostly done with machinery, meaning that the focus is on quantity, not quality. Just to get an impression of how much coffee Brazil can produce – if the country produces an excess of coffee, it can easily create the global price of coffee to fall immensely, leaving many coffee farmers around the world with a price of coffee that can not guarantee survival.
It’s no surprise that Brazilian coffee is the base for most commercial coffee blends, with the price being the decisive factor and not the quality.
But it is not all about commercial coffee, as there are Brazilian farms that take great care in growing and harvesting their beans and reach specialty level, mostly with coffees that have a dark and rich character with a full(er) body, chocolate, caramel and nutty notes which makes specialty coffees from Brazil a sound choice for espresso and milky coffees.
Colombia is quite simply the celebrity of coffee production in the world, one reason being the amount of coffee they produce, the other the marketing of their coffees with Federación Nacional de Cafeteros, a non-profit organization established in 1927 provides full support for farmers, ranging from technical knowledge to research and marketing.
Colombia is the third-largest producer of coffee in the world and the leader in producing washed Arabica coffee. With 17 regions that are quite distinctive (main reason being the range of microclimates mentioned before), the coffees produced range from exceptional to mediocre as well with harvests (most regions allow two harvests per year) that spread throughout the year in different regions. But with variety comes opportunity. Colombian farmers make use of their microclimates and they produce a range of flavors, ranging from heavy-bodied chocolaty and nutty coffees to amazing clean profiles with citrus notes and jam-like sweetness. Overall Colombian coffees tend to be mild in character and versatile for filter and espresso, with higher levels of acidity than its Brazilian neighbors.
Asian coffees at the moment are mostly coming from Vietnam with a heavy focus on Robusta beans that are used for freeze-dried instant coffee and are not of much interest to us, and Indonesia, mostly Sumatra. These coffees tend to be the heavyweights in the specialty coffee world, with heavy, earthy, musty notes and full body with hints of chocolate that showcases the region’s growing conditions, mostly characterized by the closeness of the ocean and rich volcanic soil.
A special feature of Indonesian coffees is also a processing method Giling Bash that produces a coffee with an intenser body and heavier flavors that can range from dark chocolate to tangerine. This makes Indonesian coffees mostly suited to espresso-based drinks, thanks to a heavier mouthfeel.
But there are drip options from Indonesia as well, especially Papua New Guinea now produces fruity coffees that have tangerine and red berry notes to them.
It is not for us to decide which region produces the best coffee out there. And while there are common flavors that are common to a region, farmers in all regions are now going out of their comfort zones and experimenting with new methods, different varietals and are working hard to produce a bean that will score highly on the cupping table. This comes as no surprise, as the better the score, the higher the price of green beans. And with farmers earning more, they also invest more in developing even higher graded coffees. We surely love that farmers indeed have a chance to make a better living with their work, also on the more egoistical side of us, this development ultimately gives us a wider selection of single-origin specialty coffees to explore in our cups.