For the most part, coffee grows within eighty countries in a belt thirty degrees north and south of the equator, between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Some of these countries, like Brazil and Kenya, are household coffee names, while others, like Burundi and East Timor, are lesser known.
Each growing region has an interesting set of characteristics, depending on climate, altitude, soil type, and how the farmers harvest and process the beans. And within each region, different countries and even different areas within countries have more specific distinguishing characteristics.
As a general rule, if you are looking for acidic coffees, look to Africa. If you want a full-bodied, bold taste, head towards Asia. And if you want that smooth, classic cup, try the Americas.
Below, I'll detail coffee taste by region and country. Of course, each place has different combinations of characteristics, and it will take a pleasurable lifetime of exploration to try them all. So go for it!
African coffees are known for their high acidity and floral tones. The acidity is not caused by the type of plant, but rather because African farmers tend to soak their beans in water for up to five days—much longer than anywhere else in the world, which means that there is a longer fermentation time for the beans and that the acidity develops more fully.
Some of the great African coffees include...
There are several amazing growing regions in Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee. In the northeast of the country is Harari, a very arid region in an already very arid country. The coffee grows in the hills surrounding the ancient walled city of Harar, where medieval trade routes from the South and North once met. Many farmers here dry their coffee inside the cherry (the fruit of the plant), rather than stripping the cherry off first (largely due to a lack of water needed for processing otherwise). This is called the “sun-dried” method and tends to result in a fruitier cup. Hara is known as one of the milder, softer Ethiopians.
The regions of Yirgacheffe and Sidamo are in the south, where coffee was originally found by the goatherd Kaldi, who watched his goats prance crazily after eating red cherries off a bush. Yirgacheffe is one of the most prized coffees in the world, noted for its citrus and lemony tones and its floral aroma. The Yirgacheffe and Sidamo regions intertwine around various mountain passes, and the coffees are often indistinguishable. Sidamos tend to be a little milder or smoother than Yirgacheffes. Other, lesser-known coffees from Ethiopia include Limu, Jimma, Bebeka, and Lekempti.
Coffee from Kenya has high acidity and a bright, winey taste. Unlike in other growing regions, there is hardly any shade used in Kenya. Without shade, coffee berries mature more quickly, which means that certain phenols and other chemicals related to taste do not have time to develop fully. The coffees, as a result, taste more bitter or sour.
Kenyan coffee brings a high price in their national auction system, which is a holdover from the British colonial days, when a top-down bureaucratic method was the hallmark of the colonial administration. After independence, most former African colonies retained the auction system, although it is now disappearing across east Africa (but still the way in Kenya). Unfortunately, little of that money reaches the farmers. Look for Kenya AA or Peaberry (only one bean per cherry instead of the typical two) for quality Kenyan coffee.
Other African coffees to look for:
- Rwandan coffee has emerged in the last ten years, as the government and foreign aid groups have poured money into new processing stations, thereby increasing the quality and consistency of this coffee. Rwandan coffee tends to be full-bodied and acidic.
- The newest entry into the world of African specialty coffee is Burundi, which has also received large aid for upgrading processing.
- Similarly, coffee from Congo is beginning to appear as aid groups work to bolster the economy.
- Ugandan and Tanzanian coffees share similar characteristics with Kenyan at a lesser price but tend to be milder.
There are a wide variety of great Asian coffees coming from many different cultures. The overall character of Asian coffees is their full body and resilience. They are wonderful in lighter roasts and, due to their denseness, hold their character well into the dark roast stage, as well. Due to differences in processing, many Asian coffees carry a distinct earthiness that differentiates them from other regions.
Coffee was introduced to Indonesia by the Dutch in the mid-1600s to break the monopoly of the Turkish and Arabic traders over the beans, which were only grown in Ethiopia and Yemen at the time. The Indonesian archipelago is made up of well over 1000 islands big and small, and many of them grow spectacular, in-demand coffee, especially in the organic sphere. The lush forest and rich volcanic soil of this region make for very full-bodied coffees.
- The highest rated coffees in Indonesia come from northern Sumatra. There, the Gayo Mountain, Lintong, and Mandheling coffees take top prizes as among the best in the world. They're distinguished by a super full-bodied, slightly sweet and syrupy taste, with a touch of that earthiness (sometimes a lot of it!) and an amazingly low acidity.
- Sulawesi produces another great Indonesian coffee from the Toraja region in the north of that island. These coffees are smooth and clean, often with hints of nuts or spices (perhaps because Sulawesi is on the outer fringe of the fabled Spice Islands, the birthplace of nutmeg, mace, and cloves). The island of Java produces coffees that are solid, with good body and a milder flavor than the Sumatrans, but still worth a try. Bali and Flores are more recent entries into the specialty coffee markets, sweet, full bodied and slightly herbal or floral.
Relatively new to the coffee world, PNG coffee only began in the 1920s, when stocks of Jamaican coffees were transplanted there. But it takes many hands to make a great cup, and most PNG coffees suffer from erratic processing or poor roads and infrastructure. Still, well-tended and well-processed PNG from the Central Highlands can match a good Sumatran in body and earthiness.
East Timor is a small independent island at the eastern edge of the Indonesian archipelago. East Timor coffee generally gets blended from two large growing regions of Maubesse and Ermera. That means the crop quality fluctuates year to year as buyers can’t know what’s in each bag. When the coffee is identified and segregated by growing village, like Timor Atsabe, the cup can be full-bodied, slightly nutty, and very aromatic. This is a hard one to find, but worth the effort.
Central and South America offer many wonderful coffees with surprisingly different characteristics. Factors accounting for the differences include altitude, soil (whether volcanic or fertile Amazonian), processing techniques, and different coffee plant varietals used.
Most Latin American coffees, however, have lost the earthier tastes as a result of the harmonizing of processing and drying techniques across the lands that have occurred in the last decade. The coffees range from smoky (Guatemala), sweet and mild (Peru), classic body and smoothness (Colombia), to slightly edgier and tart (Costa Rica).
Nicaraguan coffee has become a leading coffee in the Americas due to the great volcanic soils and the farmers' increased knowledge of agricultural technique and business management. Nicaraguan coffees are bold yet smooth, relatively low acidity, consistent, and well processed. Look for coffees from Esteli, Jinotega, Matagalpa, and Nueva Segovia.
A mountainous country speckled with a dozen different indigenous peoples trying hard to hold onto their cultures in a globalizing era, Guatemala produces amazing coffees. There are eight identified microclimatic regions in Guatemala and each produces a slightly different flavor profile. Notable regions include Huehuetenango (acidic and winey), Chimaltenango (sweet, acidic, citrusy), Lake Atitlan (full bodied and citrusy), and Antigua (rich aroma, sweet taste). The dominant characteristics of Guatemalan coffees are their smoky, bold taste, pleasant acidity, and hidden sweetness.
Colombia has traditionally set the standard for Latin American coffees, especially with the power of the state and Juan Valdez behind them. It is consistently sweet, medium-bodied, and notably smooth, with medium acidity. The best Colombians are really good, but the average Colombian is, well, pretty average, and has been used forever as grocery store and diner coffee. Try and seek out a named coffee from Colombia, from regions such as Nariño, Magdalena, Medellin, Bucaramanga, Popayán, and Huila. If it doesn’t have a regional identification, it is might be pretty mundane.
This is the forgotten child of the specialty coffee world. Peru is huge, so much so that the growing seasons within the country differ by a month or so. Peruvians are notable for their mildness and sweetness, even though they are grown at really high altitudes on the Amazonian slopes of the Andes. They are better in a light roast than a dark roast, as the flavor and mild acidity roast away quickly. But a soft, sweet Peru has a subtle charm and is one of the most easily drinkable black coffees. Wonderful coffees come from the Chanchamayo, Pangoa, and Lamas.
There are several coffee regions in Mexico and each has slightly different characteristics, but by and large you can count on Mexican coffee to be smooth and round in the mouth, medium acidity, and not too bold, whether they come from Chiapas (nutty and sometimes slightly spicy), Veracruz (slight cocoa taste), or Oaxaca (almonds).
Of course, Brazil is the largest coffee-producing country in the world, yet it does not top the charts for taste. Brazilian coffee makes some great espresso, and the flavors can range from bittersweet and cocoa-dry to mild, nutty, and low acid, but you won’t know which until you try it. Notable growing regions include Minas Gerais, São Paulo, Espirito Santo, and Parana.
Other coffee-growing countries in the Americas include El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama.
What beans do you turn to for your daily coffee? For a special occasion? Tell us in the comments!