Coffee shopping can be a bit confusing. Is there really a difference between beans grown in Colombia and ones from Ethiopia? There is! The continent on which a coffee is grown has a remarkable effect on its flavor profile. Flavors can also differ from region to region, and even from farm to farm. Many natural conditions can influence a coffee’s flavor: Elevation, topography, rainfall, climate, soil, and more. These factors make up the terroir—the complete natural environment in which a particular coffee is produced. Even within a single farm two coffees can taste radically different from each other if they’re grown at different elevations or receive different amounts of rainfall or sunlight.
Despite these variations, there is usually a basic foundation of terms one can use to describe a particular region’s coffees. This short overview can serve as a basic guide to how coffees taste from region to region.
With one of Central America’s most ideal micro-climates for farming, Panama has become famous for growing wild, complex, aromatic, lively coffees. Its high altitude, oceanic winds, and rich volcanic soil all contribute the coffee’s full potential. In recent years, Panama has become famous for the Geisha cultivar, which is grown on Hacienda La Esmeralda, Mama Cata, and Don Pachi Estate.
2. EL SALVADOR
Coffee production has traditionally been the backbone of the El Salvadoran economy, and at times it has even been responsible for more than 50% of the country’s export revenues. The country’s signature mildly sweet coffees were first cultivated in the early 19th century, and by 1880 the beans had virtually become the country’s sole export crop.
Guatemala yields some of the best sweet and fruity coffees in the world, and it even ranked as Central America’s top producer for most of the 20th and 21st centuries. Sadly, though, Guatemala is also known for sociopolitical issues that have plagued the country since the arrival of the first Spanish settlers. Ongoing sources of strife—poverty, hunger, unequal land distribution, and racism toward indigenous peoples—that haunt the country have also hampered the coffee industry. Labor relations in the coffee sector are also under constant strain, and the country’s growers have suffered from a brutal wave of coffee rust, a fungus that attacks plants.
Since coffee came to Nicaragua in the early 19th century, it has played a critical role in the country’s economy. This rich, smooth, and nuanced export is among the nation’s top resources and provides economic opportunities for more than 40,000 coffee producers. Nicaragua is fertile with high elevations, tropical rainfall, and rich volcanic soil, but, like many Central American countries, its history is marred with stories of conquests, resistance, revolution, disasters, and upheavals that have hindered the production of high-quality coffees.
In 2011, Honduras became Central America’s top producer. A year later, it ranked seventh in the world. This growth represented a real turning of the historical tides for the country. Despite having the same ideal terroir as Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, for years Honduras lacked the infrastructure to transport beans to the coast for shipping. This difficulty resulted in virtually no export of coffee—instead it was mostly sold domestically, a real shame for international drinkers, as Honduran coffees are tremendous, with fruity flavors that contrast with a backdrop of cocoa and spice.
6. COSTA RICA
Coffee arrived in Costa Rica around 1720, and by the early 19th century, revenue from coffee surpassed that of tobacco, sugar, and cacao. Costa Rica’s terroir is volcanic, slightly acidic, and extremely fertile, which creates coffees that are balanced, smooth, and fragrant.
Hawaii might be North America’s most famous production region. The coffea plant isn’t native to the islands, but it arrived in Hawaii in the early 1800s on a British warship. The trees were planted in Manoa Valley on Oahu and were later introduced to other areas of Oahu and neighboring islands. Farms can now be found throughout the Hawaiian Islands, but it is Kona coffee that is best known and always in high demand. (With the arrival of the berry borer—a tiny beetle that decimates crops—production is down, nudging prices even higher.) Even though coffee isn’t a native species, the islands provide a great growing environment. The mild humidity, warm temperatures, high elevations, volcanic soil, and ocean breezes contribute to the United States’s most ideal tropical terroir. The cherries harvested here typically result in cups that are aromatic, sweet, and smooth.
Though Mexican coffee primarily comes from small farms, Mexico employs more than 100,000 coffee farmers and is a growing powerhouse. In fact, it is the world’s largest producer of organic coffees. Farms in the states of Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Chiapas create complex coffees that can boast a bright acidity. Thanks to their density, Mexican beans are excellent for dark roasts and are often used in blends.
9. PUERTO RICO
Coffee took off quickly in Puerto Rico after it made its first appearance in 1736, with the island spending a period in the 19th century as the world’s number-six coffee producer. Although hurricanes and increased global competition knocked Puerto Rico from that perch, the coffee industry is on the comeback trail. Puerto Rico is again producing fine coffees that are celebrated for their balanced body, acidity, and fruity aroma.
Even though Jamaican coffee only accounts for a fraction of a percent of the world’s production, it has become some of the most famous. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee—a classification reserved for coffees grown in Jamaica’s Blue Mountain region—has developed a reputation over the past few decades for its mildly sweet flavor profile. It’s one of the most expensive coffees in the world and is particularly coveted in Japan, which imports over 80 percent of the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee produced.
With coffees that are bright, fruity, and lively, Colombia is often regarded as the best production region in South America—possibly the world! And for good reason, too—with two of South America’s five “biodiversity hotspots,” Colombia possesses some of the most desirable coffee-production terroirs the world has to offer.
Today’s coffee fans have come to appreciate Bolivian coffees for being sweet, floral, and fruity. While Bolivia may be a poor country, its combination of climate and altitude make it ideal for coffee, and with funds from developmental agencies, government projects, direct trade practices, and the establishment of farmer cooperatives providing opportunity and resources for farmers, the beans produced by this South American nation are starting to reach new heights.
Brazil accounts for about one quarter of global coffee production, making it the world’s largest coffee producer—a position it has held for the past 150 years. The country is unrivaled in total production of Arabica coffee, churning out 2.7 million tons in 2011—almost three times as much as Colombia, the world’s second largest Arabica producer. Brazilian coffee growers were traditionally focused on quantity over quality, but when the state-controlled Brazilian Coffee Institute (which set quotas for importing and exporting coffee) was closed in the early 1990s, exporting regulations changed. The closure led to reforms in the ways coffee was grown, processed, and treated. These changes have allowed individual smallholder farmers and producers to showcase high-quality chocolaty, nutty coffees.
Ecuador’s coffee industry has fallen on hard times over the past thirty years. Coffee was introduced to the region in the early 19th century and remained one of the country’s top exports through the 1970s. Unfortunately, deforestation has eliminated much of the country’s cultivation, while a rise in pests and a decline in prices leave what little coffee remains going unharvested altogether. Farmers have been given very little institutional support, but some still manage to produce mildly sweet and fruity coffees.
Peru packs an incredible amount of biodiversity into its tight borders, from the tropics of the lowland jungle of the Amazon basin, to the dry deserts of the western coastal plain, to the frigid, rugged Andes Mountains. Despite these environmental extremes, Peruvian coffees are gentle, featuring mild aromatics and flavors.
Ethiopia has been called “the birthplace of humanity” and “the cradle of mankind,” and according to one popular story, the coffee plant was discovered by an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi, who noticed his flock of goats became more energetic after nibbling on the bright red berries of a bush. Whether or not this particular legend is true, one thing is certain: All coffees can trace their heritage to Ethiopia. Ethiopians love drinking coffee as much as growing it—from 2013 to 2014, 3.6 million bags were consumed domestically, representing 71.6% of Africa’s consumption. Ethiopian coffees show great flavor variations depending on the processing method employed. Washed Ethiopian coffees can be floral and nuanced, while natural Ethiopian coffees tend to feature chocolate and big berry tones.
Even though Africa was the home of coffee, the plants weren’t introduced to Rwanda—which possesses some of Africa’s most ideal terroirs—until German missionaries planted them in the early 20th century. Rwandan coffee farmers have had to overcome a century of strife, hardship, genocide, and wars, but in the past couple of decades, the country’s coffee has really come into its own, helping power the Rwandan economy. Rwanda is mostly populated by coffee’s Bourbon variety (and its derivatives), which is known for its sweetness and full body. Rwandan coffees typically exhibit flavors of dried fruits and citric acidity.
Most specialty coffee professionals will tell you that Kenyan coffee is the supermodel of coffee, with profiles that tend to be intense and refined. Kenyan coffees feature tart citric flavors, sweet fruits, chocolate, and effervescence. Like Rwanda, Kenya didn’t start cultivating coffee until around 1900, centuries after its discovery in Ethiopia. Today, this country’s coffee industry has been organized around a weekly state-run open auction system since 1934 and is considered to be the most transparent coffee distribution system in the world. This system even served as the model for Cup of Excellence auctions.
In terms of politics, agriculture, socioeconomic development, climate, ethnic makeup, and terroirs, Burundi is often considered Rwanda’s “conjoined twin.” Besides sharing a border, Rwanda and Burundi also share very similar histories, right down to the same year of independence from Belgian rule. The same can be said of the two nations’ coffee production. Both countries’ economies are heavily reliant on coffee, and coffee served as the catalyst for both countries’ restoration following the civil wars of the 1990s. Moreover, the coffees from both countries feature similar flavor profiles: Big bodies, lots of sweetness, and rich flavors.
While “mocha” has become coffee shop slang for “chocolate sauce,” the word originally referred to coffees from a specific location on the Red Sea: the Mokha Port in Yemen. Yemen is the first country where coffee was commercially cultivated, and the methods by which the coffee is produced really haven’t changed all that much since. The dry, arid climate makes Yemen the most unique coffee producer in the world, as it lacks the tropical climate that usually supports cultivation. The terroir and traditional processing also lend Yemen’s coffees a singularly deep, full-bodied, and rich flavor profile.
21. PAPUA NEW GUINEA
Although it only accounts for about one percent of the world’s production, coffee is a big business in Papua New Guinea, where an estimated 2.5 million people work in its production. While coffee is not native to the country, there are government reports that indicate coffee was grown as early as 1890. Commercial coffee production—using seeds from the aforementioned Jamaica Blue Mountains—didn’t kick off until the 1920s. While in Jamaica this coffee is mildly sweet, Papua New Guinea’s coffees can be wild and funky with notes of malic acid.
Four of the thousands of islands that make up Indonesia—Sumatra, Bali, Java, and Sulawesi—are renowned for the unique coffees that grow there. While all the islands produce rich, full-bodied coffees with mild acidity, Sumatran coffees tend to be earthy and musty. Sulawesian cups can be fruity and tart, while Javanese coffees are a bit lighter and herbaceous and Balinese offerings can be quite sweet, featuring sugary and nutty flavors.
While India might be more famous for its tea production, it is also the fifth largest coffee producer in the world. It’s also the only country that grows most of its coffees under shade! India’s signature coffee is the Monsooned Malabar—one that is conditioned by the winds of the Malabar coast during monsoon season. While most coffees undergo either the traditional washed, semi-washed, or natural processing method, monsooning sees coffee spread on the floor of a well-ventilated warehouse (usually with large openings in the walls), allowing the rain and winds from the Arabian Sea to effectively “wash” the coffee for three to four months. This process causes the cherries to swell and lose their acidity, resulting in a full-bodied, musty, herbaceous cup with a practically neutral pH balance. This coffee, much like the country’s Darjeeling tea, is protected under India’s Geographical Indications of Goods Act.
Vietnam has rapidly become one of the biggest producers of coffee, quickly rising to the world’s number two spot behind Brazil. Coffee has been in Vietnam since the mid-19th century, but it has experienced a renaissance since the 1990s. The type of coffee that Vietnamese farmers grow can explain part of the boom. Instead of Arabica, most Vietnamese growers produce Robusta coffee. Like its name suggests, Robusta coffee is very hardy—these plants tend to be easier to cultivate, have a much higher yield, and are less sensitive to insect invasion. Their rugged versatility keeps supplies high and prices low, but the tradeoff is that their quality is also low. You won’t find much robusta in your local coffee house—with a flavor that has been likened to burnt rubber and an extreme bitterness, robustas are mostly used in instant coffee blends to keep their prices affordable.