If you like an Ethiopian Harrar, are you likely to enjoy a Costa Rican Tarrazu? Are you trying to choose a coffee gift for a friend but unsure about whether she would prefer a Brazil Santos or a Tanzanian Peaberry? A little basic knowledge about the major coffee-growing regions and the coffees that come from them can help you make top-level choices about particular coffees to savor.
Where Coffee Grows Best
The coffee Arabica plant has some very specific likes and dislikes when it comes to growing conditions. Its preferences include abundant rainfall, ambient temperatures in the 60-75 F (15-24 C) range and nutrient-rich soil. Those conditions are most common within 10 degrees north and south of the equator, in an area that has become known as the Coffee Belt— including parts of Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America and the Asian Pacific—and in particular at altitude. That's why so many of the world's best coffees come from the higher elevations of tropical and sub-tropical countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Guatemala, Colombia, and Indonesia.
Why Region of Origin Matters
Each of these regions produces coffee with a distinct flavor profile that is instantly recognizable by even less experienced coffee lovers. Those flavors may be modified by many factors - and there are always outliers with very different flavor profiles - but most coffee aficionados can tell you, for example that Kenyan coffees are zesty and fruity, Central American coffees tend toward bright, citrus acidity and Sumatran coffees are rich and spicy in flavor. Knowing the flavor profiles you prefer can help you choose new coffees to try as you expand your coffee repertoire. In addition, knowing the country of origin can help you time your coffee purchases for optimal flavor and quality. Every coffee-growing region has an optimal harvest season, a time when the coffees harvested and processed will be at peak flavor. When you know that the optimal harvest months for Bolivian coffee are August through October, you can expect the highest quality, freshest Bolivian beans in the early autumn through the Christmas season.
Major Coffee-Growing Regions
Start your exploration into coffee with these profiles of the major coffee-growing regions of the world.
- Central America
- South America
- Indonesia & the Pacific
- Islands & Other
Africa is the birthplace of coffee, so it's no surprise that the coffees of the African continent are distinctive and varied. African coffees tend toward wine-like flavors with full, heavy bodies. Many African countries rely heavily on coffee for their economy. The best known of the African coffees are those that grow in Ethiopia and Kenya, where the government has aggressively pushed farmers to adopt more sustainable growing practices and focus on delivering high-quality coffee. In some other African countries, however, conflict and weather are continuing issues that affect the quality and availability of the coffee. As farmers and coops focus on growing high-quality coffee for export, these emerging coffee nations are producing some truly distinctive coffees.
- Burundi: Brightly acidic but uneven
- Congo: Sweet, rustic, inconsistent
- Ethiopia: Wild, fruity, refined, surprising
- Kenya: Wine-like, full-bodied, berry and citrus notes
- Rwanda: Delicate flavors, full body
- Tanzania: Wine, berry and citrus
- Zimbabwe: Balanced, chocolate, caramel and lemon
Typical Cup Profile: Brightly acidic, fruity with medium body
Harvest: April - September
Common Varietals: Bourbon
Prominent Regions: Kirimiro, Kayanza, Ngozi
Farmers in Burundi have been growing coffee since the 1930s when the Belgians introduced the first Arabica trees to the country. Then, as now, most of the coffee grown in Burundi is of the Bourbon varietal, and shares the characteristics of heirloom Bourbon coffees. Most Burundi coffee is grown on small farm holdings, with farmers bringing their harvest to central wet-processing stations. Until recently, most coffee sold in Burundi was simply combined into large lots, which meant that the coffee quality was determined by the lowest common denominator. A few years ago, the Burundian government deregulated the coffee industry somewhat so that individual processing stations could keep coffee separate or sell "day lots" -- coffee harvested over a short period of time. As buyers’ ability to find better quality Burundi coffee increases, expect to see more of its brightly acidic, fruity coffee on the market.
Typical Cup Profile: Full-bodied and rustic, with fruit, leather, vanilla and tobacco notes
Harvest: November - January
Common Varietals: Bourbon
Prominent Regions: Kivu
The Democratic Republic of Congo shares the climate and growing conditions of nearby Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, all of them known for quality coffee, but the country lacks the infrastructure to consistently bring good coffee from farm to market. The best-known coffee-producing region in DRC is Kivu, which is often affected by political upheaval that makes it difficult for small coffee farmers to operate. The little bit of Congo Kivu coffee that does make it to market has a rustic edge to the flavor, with notes of tobacco and leather overlaying a buttery sweetness and bright fruit and floral notes, similar to those you'll find in a decent East African coffee from Kenya or Ethiopia. In the past year or two, there has been some effort to stabilize the region and provide support for small coffee holders, which should improve the consistency and quality of Congo coffee.
Typical Cup Profile: Light-bodied with earthy, fruity, floral and winey flavors and blueberry evident in dry-processed beans
Common Varietals: Native Arabica
Prominent Regions: Harrar, Sidamo/Yirgacheffe, Jimma (Djimmah), Limmu, Lekempti, Bebeka
Widely believed to be the birthplace of coffee, it's no surprise that Ethiopian heirloom varietals are often seen as the pinnacle of coffee flavors -- what a fine coffee should aspire to be. Since 2008, most coffee in Ethiopia is traded on the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange (ECX), a move that is meant to make it easier for smaller farms to reach international markets. In February 2013, USAID and the ECX signed an agreement to strengthen the ability to trace coffee origins through ECX. Today, it’s difficult to find coffees sourced outside the exchange.
The two main coffee-growing areas in Ethiopia are Harrar and Sidamo/Yirgacheffe, and each offers distinct coffee profiles. Both are full-bodied coffees with an earthy, rustic quality and light fruity, wine and floral notes. Harrar coffees tend to have a cleaner taste and lighter body, and those that are dry-processed often have a pronounced blueberry note. Sidamo coffees are spicier and earthier, with thick, almost buttery body and an explosion of fruit and floral notes that seem to vary from one cup to the next, and most certainly from one harvest to the next. Yirgacheffe, a small city in the Sidamo region, markets its coffee under its own name, though it is, for all intents and purposes, Sidamo coffee. Other Ethiopian coffee origins include Jimma, Soti and Guji, a subset of the Sidamo region.
Dry processing and wet processing deliver distinctly different cups. Harrar coffees are most often dry-processed, resulting in a fruity, winey, floral extravaganza of flavor that is almost impossible to describe. Sidamo coffees are most often wet-processed, delivering a rounder, cleaner profile. The fruit flavors and floral notes are softer and sweeter, and the wild, wine quality is less pronounced. When you can find dry-processed Sidamo or Yirgacheffe, though, you'll find strong fruit notes, tobacco, toffee, molasses, pepper and spice in the cup. When you do find a high-quality dry-processed Ethiopian coffee, the best advice is to enjoy it while you have it. Ethiopian heirloom coffees appear to be very sensitive to small changes in climate and growing conditions. When it's good, it's perfect, but you may never find two coffee harvests that taste the same.
Typical Cup Profile: Full-bodied and brightly citrus, with berry and earthy flavors and subtle spicy notes
Harvest: November-March, June-July
Common Varietals: SL-28, SL-34, Bourbon, Kents, Typica, Riuri 11
Prominent Regions: Meru, Kiambu, Kirinyaga, Ruiru, Aberdare Zone, Kasii, Nyanza, Bungoma, Nakuru, Kericho
Kenya's coffee industry is among the most modern and powerful of those in all the African countries. Its grading system makes it easy to source high-quality coffee, and its coffees are rated high on the scale for both flavor and quality. Kenya AA grade coffee is regarded as the epitome of coffee complexity, with bright citrus and berry notes, subtle spice notes and full, smooth body. At the same time, Kenya suffers from the same political unrest that affects much of the region, and the coffee industry, particularly the government-run coffee auctions, often suffers because of it. While it doesn't affect the flavor or the quality of Kenyan coffees, it sometimes limits their availability.
Kenyan coffees are generally wet-processed. Most varietals were developed from Caturra in the 1930s to 1960s by the Kenyan Coffee Research Lab (CRL) in order to enhance disease and/or drought resistance. The most common – and highly regarded – varietals from Kenya include SL-28 and SL-34, both developed by Scott Labs. Recently, the CRL has released a new strain, Batian, which is resistant to two more contemporary coffee diseases that have seriously affected Kenya's coffee production. Kenya has two distinct coffee harvests, the main coffee harvest, which runs from November through March, and the fly crop, which occurs in June and July. As a general rule, the main crop is superior to the fly crop.
Typical Cup Profile: Medium body with citrus and berry flavors. Similar to Kenya but more restrained
Harvest: March - June
Common Varietals: Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai
Prominent Regions: Country-wide, Tumba, Karongi
Rwandan coffee has a growing reputation as a more delicate, restrained version of the bold Kenyan coffees. Its bright citrus and berry notes are toned down slightly and have a sweeter, less wild edge and the body is generally fuller than other East African coffees. While most coffee sold from Rwanda is wet-processed, the occasional dry-processed version is complex and rich enough to rival the coffees of nearly any other origin.
All coffee in Rwanda is grown on small farms of about 1 hectare each -- nearly 500,000 of them throughout the country. The country is still recovering from the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, and political turmoil in neighboring countries sometimes interferes with the ability of coffee farmers to get their beans to market. Since 2008, when Rwanda held its first Cup of Excellence competition, it has become easier for small roasters and importers to find and buy high-quality Rwandan coffees. As a result, coffee farmers are making improvements to their farming methods in order to take advantage of the higher prices paid for higher quality coffee.
Typical Cup Profile: Full-bodied, subtle and delicate with fruit, berry and citrus flavors
Harvest: November - February
Common Varietals: Typica, Bourbon, Kent
Prominent Regions: Ngorogoro, Ruvuma, Nkoanekoli and Kibo
If you have a taste for the exotic and adventurous, it's hard to beat the romance of drinking coffee grown on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. To make it even more exotic, most of the Tanzanian coffee that reaches the specialty markets is peaberry, a favorite novelty coffee. It offers the same general characteristics of other East African coffees -- bright, sharp acidity, berry and citrus flavors, and medium to full body -- but with a subtler, more delicate profile. The best-known coffee-growing districts in Tanzania include Ngorogoro, Ruvuma, Nkoanekoli and Kibo. Tanzanian coffees are generally of the Typica, Bourbon or Kent cultivars, and the best harvest season is November through February with shipping October through December.
Typical Cup Profile: Rich body with cocoa, fruit, wine and spice flavors and an earthy undertone
Harvest: November - April
Common Varietals: Bourbon
Prominent Regions: Mattari, Hirazi/Harasi, Haimi, Saihi, Ismaili, Sharasi, Dhamari and Rimy
Coffee from Yemen bridges the wild, fruity, acidity of Ethiopian and East African coffees and the earthy, spicy, pungency found in Sumatran and Sulawesi coffees, and it blends beautifully with Sumatran and Javan coffees. Yemen coffee is frequently sold as Yemen Mocha, a historic label for Yemen coffee. It has no chocolate added, but it often does have naturally rich, sweet cocoa notes, especially at darker roasts.
The coffee grown in Yemen is nearly all heirloom Bourbon, grown from the original Mokka seed stock imported from Ethiopia. Most of it is grown organically, although it is seldom certified so. Yemeni coffee culture breaks all the rules, but somehow manages to turn out an outstanding cup of coffee, rich with flavor, full-bodied and very memorable.
Typical Cup Profile: Medium body, rich aroma with caramel, chocolate and lemon rind flavors
Prominent Regions: Mattari, Hirazi/Harasi, Haimi, Saihi, Ismaili, Sharasi, Dhamari, Rimy
Zimbabwe, which had once cultivated a name for high-quality coffee similar to the best East African coffees, has reduced coffee production from nearly 15,000 tons in 1999 to just over 300 tons in 2010. The country's coffee farms and infrastructure have suffered as a result of land reforms in the early 2000s that reduced the incentives for commercial farms to grow coffee. Without commercial farms to provide a backbone, the infrastructure needed to support small farms is difficult to maintain.
That said, there are small glimmers from Zimbabwe again, with some coffees from the Chipinge and Mutare districts appearing among the selections of some specialty roasters. A number of estates are slowly building a name for themselves as providers of specialty coffee. The best Zimbabwe estate coffees feature rich aroma, medium body and complex, balanced flavors that hint at caramel, chocolate and lemon rind. Harvest is from June to November, with shipping times between November and February.
Central American coffees have a reputation for balance. Until recently, coffees from countries like Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala were often regarded as "boring" and "bland," especially in comparison to coffees from eastern Africa and the Pacific Rim. Over the past few years, though, Central American coffees have really come into their own as coffee growers focus on quality and flavor. From the nearly effervescent brightness of Costa Rican Tarrazu to the toffee and caramel notes in a Nicaraguan Matagalpa, you'll find more richness and variety in Central American coffees today than ever before.
- Costa Rica: Bright, clean and fruity
- El Salvador: Sweet and balanced
- Guatemala: Bold, robust and nuanced
- Honduras: Softly nuanced with caramel
- Mexico: Clean, sweet and light
- Nicaragua: Crisp, fruity snap
- Panama: Varied, rich and surprising
Typical Cup Profile: Light body with citrus and berry notes and an underlying nutty flavor
Harvest: December - March
Common Varietals: Bourbon, Typica, Geisha
Prominent Regions: Tarrazu, Naranjo, Tres Rios
Costa Rican coffee used to be the very definition of safe: well-balanced, light, smooth and sweet with no dominant notes and nothing of particular note. What a difference a few years makes! As importers and roasters establish relationships with individual small farmers, a richer, much more varied coffee profile has emerged from the homogenous Costa Rican coffee landscape. Coffees from Costa Rica are characterized by bright citrus and berry fruit notes and an underlying nutty roast flavor. Rich, volcanic soil, high elevations and cool evenings combine to produce coffee beans that are bright, clean and light-bodied. Smaller coffee farms and plantations are increasingly experimenting with processing methods, lending even more variety to the flavors and characteristics of Costa Rican coffee. Wet processing in micro-lots is still the most common method used.
Typical Cup Profile: Medium body, floral and fruity flavors (Pacamara); Medium body with rich chocolate notes (Bourbon)
Harvest: October - March
Common Varietals: Bourbon, Pacamara
Prominent Regions: Santa Ana, Santa Isabel (Altamira)
El Salvador may not be the first name to come to mind when you think of coffee, but it's becoming more popular as buyers get access to smaller farms. Aida Batlle, whose family fled El Salvador during the political upheaval of the 1980s, returned to the country in 2002 and took over production on her family’s coffee farms. The innovations she has introduced have brought new attention to El Salvadoran coffee and made Batlle an international coffee celebrity. Many of the finest coffees from El Salvador come from her farms, but other growers, inspired by Batlle, are producing notable coffees with distinct flavor profiles.
Most of the coffee from El Salvador is of either Bourbon or Pacamara varietals, which produce distinctly different flavors -- floral and fruity from the Pacamara and richly chocolate from the Bourbon. Some of the smaller farms still dry process their harvests, but most have turned to the more modern wet processing, which delivers a cleaner cup profile. The harvest season for El Salvadoran coffees runs from October through March, with the cream of the crop shipping between April and July.
Typical Cup Profile: Varies widely by region, typically bold, zesty and fruity
Harvest: October - March
Common Varietals: Bourbon, Caturra, Typica
Prominent Regions: Antigua, Coban, Huehuetenango
Guatemala may have some of the best coffee-growing conditions in Central America. Its altitude, climate and the rich, volcanic soil contribute to the rich flavors and robust body that make Guatemalan coffees so remarkable. Coffees grown in the different regions of Guatemala have distinctly different flavor profiles. Those profiles and the reputation for quality are carefully shepherded by ANACAFE, the Guatemalan coffee association, which tastes and certifies coffees with regional designations. If a coffee doesn't meet the strict standards for approval, those coffees can only be sold as SHB (Strictly Hard Bean) coffee without a regional designation. Thus, if you see a Guatemalan Antigua, you can be reasonably certain that it will meet high standards in the qualities that characterize coffees from Antigua. The coffees are generally complex and well-rounded with chocolate notes and hints of spice, fruit and earthy overtones in the flavor.
Typical Cup Profile: Varies by region, but generally sweet and mildly acidic with caramel finish
Harvest: October - March
Common Varietals: Caturra, Typica, Bourbon
Prominent Regions: Santa Barbara, Copan, Ocotepeque, Lempira, La Paz, El Paraiso
Until recently, Honduras has produced mostly commodity-grade coffee with little to really distinguish it. This is due, in large part, to a lack of infrastructure to support the development of high-quality coffee growing operations. A series of major storms, floods and other weather-related events practically devastated the Honduran coffee industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but a few select Honduran coffees are making their way to market. Honduran coffees are usually grown on small farms and processed by hand. Until the last few years, most of these small lots would be mixed together for sale, blotting out any distinctions among them. As more and more importers move to direct trade and farm-to-consumer models, this is likely to change, and specific regional coffees and estates will begin to establish reputations again.
Honduran coffees tend to be mild and lightly acidic with a distinct caramel finish that is most pronounced in the highest-grown coffees. The coffee-growing regions of Honduras include Santa Barbara, Copan, Ocotepeque, Lempira, La Paz and El Paraiso. As with other Caribbean countries, the harvest time runs from October through March, with the best coffees shipping in mid-to-late spring and early summer.
Typical Cup Profile: Medium body, clean, crisp and slightly nutty flavor profile
Harvest: November - March
Common Varietals: Bourbon, Mundo Novo, Caturra, and Maragogype
Prominent Regions: Chiapas, Oaxaca, Coatapec, Tapachula
If there is any country whose coffee is undervalued, it would be Mexico. The southern part of the country, where it begins to narrow and become the Central American peninsula, produces many fine coffees that rival anything on the world market. The government and the Mexican coffee industry, however, have put little effort into marketing the brand. Thus, the best known coffees from Mexico are known more commonly by their regional names -- Chiapas, Oaxaca, Altura Coatepec.
Mexican coffees vary widely in flavor from region to region, but most embody the traditional flavors you'd expect from a South American coffee: clean, crisp and slightly nutty, with a sharp snap. They tend to be lighter-bodied than most of their counterparts, and slightly less acidic. Depending on the region, you may find chocolate overtones and notes of spice and fruit. These days, it's quite easy to find Fair Trade, certified organic and other specialty coffees from Mexico. The prime harvest season for Mexican coffee is November through March with the best coffees shipping January through August.
Typical Cup Profile: Varies by region, but typically bright and light-bodied with citrus snap
Harvest: December - March
Common Varietals: Typica, Bourbon, Maragogype, Pacamara, Pacamara Peaberry
Prominent Regions: Matagalpa, Jinotega, Segovia
Ah, Nicaragua. While Nicaraguan coffee is just beginning to make a name for itself, there's a good chance that you've tasted it before. For many years, fine Nicaraguan coffees were slipping into the marketplace disguised as Guatemalan or Costa Rican coffee, thanks to political differences that affected trade. These days, Nicaraguan coffees are becoming recognized for the wide range of flavor and body they display in the cup. The most common varietals grown are Typica, Bourbon and Maragogype, with some Pacamara, including Pacamara Peaberry. Coffees from the Jinotega and Matagalpa regions tend toward the chocolate spiciness often found in high-grown Mexican coffees, while those from Segovia are snappy and bright, with strong citrus flavor but little of the sharp acidity that can sour a lot of Central American coffees. While wet processing is common, many smaller estates that process their own beans are experimenting with other processing methods that provide fuller body and a pronounced fruity flavor. Nicaraguan coffees from Matagalpa and Jinotega stand up very well to darker roasts without losing their distinctive characters. Coffee harvest in Nicaragua runs from December through March with the best shipping times running from January through June.
Typical Cup Profile: Medium body with honey, caramel, maple, floral and fruity notes
Harvest: January - March
Common Varietals: Bourbon, Typica, Caturra, Cataui, Pache, Geisha, San Roman (Typica varietal)
Prominent Regions: Boquete, Volcan, Renacimiento,
Tiny Panama, the gateway between North and South America, used to be overlooked as a source of quality coffee, but that's no longer the case. The annual Best of Panama cupping competition has brought out and highlighted the most distinctive Panamanian coffees available each year. Even supposedly "mediocre" Panamanian coffees from the lower regions are sought after by lower-end specialty roasters. The coffees grown in the higher regions, particularly Boquete, can rise to the truly spectacular. What makes Panama unusual, even among other coffee-growing countries, are the microclimates that exist there in close proximity to one another. Because of factors such as landscape and the proximity of the ocean to the mountains, one may find as many as six distinct and separate microclimates within a 6-square-mile area. This regional anomaly offers a clear demonstration of weather’s effect on the flavor and quality of coffee.
In addition to the variety brought about by climate, Panama benefits from coffee farmers and estate owners who have been historically open to experimentation. Thus, unlike some countries where the coffee industry is dominated by one varietal, Panamanian estates grow a wide range of varietals, including Bourbon, Typica, Caturra, Cataui, Pache and, most recently, Geisha. Panamanian coffee tends toward sweetness, with honey, caramel and maple flavors underlying floral and fruit notes, and well-rounded mouth feel. Panama's harvest season is shorter than many other Central American countries, hitting its peak between January and March, with shipping times from February to July.
Like Central America, South America has long had a reputation for growing "pleasant" coffees. The typical coffee from South America is balanced, smooth and light, on the mildly acidic side. Again, though, much of what we expect from most South American coffees was developed by large programs that were designed to homogenize the coffees of a specific region to make them palatable for sale to the big coffee companies. As the craft coffee movement has taken hold, many South American coffees are truly coming into their own, and the striking differences between the flavor profiles of each region are becoming more and more obvious. Even within the countries, you'll find striking contrasts between coffees grown in the different regions, and even between those grown on different farms in the same region. When you add in the influence that varietals exert, it quickly becomes obvious that the South American coffee landscape is one of surprising richness and diversity.
In general, coffees from South America tend to be slightly fuller-bodied and less acidic than Central American coffees, but much lighter and brighter than most African and Pacific coffees. They're an ideal starter choice for people who are used to and like high quality coffeehouse coffee but aren't familiar with single-origin coffees.
- Bolivia: Delicate, bright and sweet
- Brazil: The perfect espresso base
- Colombia: Balanced, sweet and smooth
- Ecuador: Unremarkable, thin body, commodity
- Galapagos Islands: Buttery, fruity, rich
- Peru: : Sweet almond and vanilla
- Venezuela: Medium body, sweetly acidic
Typical Cup Profile: Medium body with complex profile including fruity, spicy, nutty and sweet flavors
Harvest: April - August
Common Varietals: Typica
Prominent Regions: Yunga (Caranavi), Santa Cruz, Beni, Cochabamba, Tarija, and Pando
Bolivia is not a name that has been traditionally associated with distinctive coffee, but as with so many other countries these days, that is changing. Over the past several years, Bolivian coffee farmers have worked intensively with Panamanian coffee growers to improve their crops, and the effort has paid off with a growing reputation for high-quality organic coffee. Coffees grown in Caranavi, in the Yunga province, are becoming especially well-known for delicate flavor nuances that range across spicy, nutty, sweet and fruity over the course of a single cup of coffee, with many of them emerging and intensifying as the cup cools.
Most of the coffee grown in Bolivia is Typica, and has traditionally been shipped to La Paz for processing. As farmers learn from their Panamanian partnerships, though, more and more of them are taking control of processing, and some lovely Bolivian coffees are entering the market.
Typical Cup Profile: Light-bodied and clean, brightly acidic with citrus and fruit flavors
Harvest: April - September
Common Varietals: Catuai, Caturra, Typica, Novo Mundo
Prominent Regions: Cerrado (incl. Minas Gerais, Chapadao de Ferro and Serra de Salita), Sul de Minas Mata de Minas
Brazil has been one of the world's top coffee producers for decades. Much of the coffee produced in Brazil is commercial/commodity-grade coffee sold for mass-marketed blends, but an increasing number of small estates are producing high-quality coffees worthy of notice. Brazilian coffees are often grown at lower altitudes than is typical of specialty coffee, but that needn’t relegate them to the back shelf. A good Brazilian coffee has the classic flavor profile of a South American cup -- clean, light, brightly acidic, but mild and relatively balanced. Many coffee houses and roasters use Brazilian coffee as the base for their espresso blends because it tends to produce a lot of crema without adding unpleasant flavors and sharp edges to the resulting shot.
The most common coffee processing methods in Brazil are dry or pulped natural, and the most common varietals include Catuai, Typica, Caturra and Novo Mundo. Brazilian coffees do best at lighter roasts, where maple, nut and berry notes lend a subtle background to bittersweet chocolate notes. Look for coffee from the Cerrado, Sul de Minas and Mata de Minas regions, and for single-farm origins for the most intense flavors. You’ll also find coffee labeled Brazil Santos, which is not a coffee-growing region but a port from which much of Brazil’s coffee crop ships, as well as coffee labeled with specific microregions within larger regions, such as Minas Gerais, which is a town in Cerrado. The flavors and cup characteristics of coffees from some of these microregions are distinct enough to make them worthy of mention.
Typical Cup Profile: Balanced, even-bodied and lightly sweet with occasional hints of cinnamon, cocoa and brown sugar in some single origins
Harvest: October - March
Common Varietals: Bourbon, Typica, Caturra, and Maragogype
Prominent Regions: Popayan, Cauca, Huila, San Augustin, Antioquia, Medellin, Quindio, Armenia, Santander, Bucaramanga, Magdelena, Sierra Nevada, Nariño
When asked to name a famous coffee country, most people would probably come up with Colombia off the top of their heads. The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation was one of the first organizations to get together and create a brand for their origin, and it has stuck in the minds of the general public. Most Americans, at least, recognize Juan Valdez, the fictional quintessential coffee grower from Colombia, and many associate Colombia with good coffee.
Like many other coffee growing countries that adopted standardization early on, though, Colombian coffee has suffered from homogeneity. The standard Colombian cup is balanced, even-bodied, lightly acidic and slightly sweet -- in a word, decent and inoffensive. In recent years, though, there has been a renaissance of small estate growers who sell micro-lots of single-origin coffees. Many of those coffees stand out with their notes of cinnamon, cocoa and light brown sugar. Look for coffees from Popayan, Huila and Nariño, especially those that name the farm or estate on which it was grown.
Typical Cup Profile: Medium body with flavor varying by region. Generally gently acidic with fruit and spice notes
Harvest: June - October
Common Varietals: Typica, Bourbon, and Caturra
Prominent Regions: Manabi, Loja, Guayas, El Oro, Chinchipe
Ecuador produces a lot of coffee, but very little of it makes it to the specialty coffee markets. Much of the coffee production in Ecuador is devoted to Robusta and to essentially unremarkable commodity-grade Arabica. That is changing as the Ecuadorian Department of Agriculture and local farmer cooperatives focus on educating farmers, and processing facilities focus on high-quality coffee processing. however. In the past few years, growers like Nice Velez have brought some truly distinctive micro-lots to the specialty market. Velez Café’s Perla Negra, for example, was given an impressive 92 rating by Ken Davids’ Coffee Review.
Typical Cup Profile: Medium body with buttery cocoa, fruit and spice flavors
Harvest: June - October
Common Varietals: Bourbon
Prominent Regions: San Cristobal
Technically part of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands have a similar climate, with some distinct differences. Over the past few years, there's been a lot of attention paid to Galapagos coffee, to the point where a few national specialty coffee chains have offered limited edition reserve coffees from the Galapagos Islands. Galapagos coffee is typically the Bourbon varietal, and carries the characteristic rich, buttery cocoa and sweet fruit flavors of old Bourbon stock. Much of the Galapagos coffee sold by discount coffee houses, however, may actually be lower-quality Ecuadoran origin. The better Galapagos Island coffees are micro-lots designated from specific farms.
Typical Cup Profile: Light-bodied and sweet, with vanilla and almond flavors
Harvest: April - October
Common Varietals: Typica, Bourbon, Caturra, Mundo Nuevo, Villa Lobos
Prominent Regions: Chanchamayo, Norte, Cuzco, Machu Pichu
Peruvian coffee, particularly organic Peruvian coffee, is plentiful and quite easy to get. In most cases, it is among the least expensive organic coffees available, and that is more by design than accident. The largest share of coffee from Peru is grown at low elevations on large production farms rather than on smaller estates that focus on quality. Peruvian coffees tend to be mildly acidic, with light bodies and balanced flavors, making them ideal for blending and as a base for flavored coffees.
That said, the changes throughout the coffee industry are affecting Peru as well, and roaster/importers are establishing direct relationships with many small coffee holders, particularly in the Chanchamayo Valley and in the Urubamba Valley of the Cuzco region. The best Peruvian coffees have a sweet, almost vanilla and almond flavor that sets them apart from the typical coffees of the country.
Typical Cup Profile: Sweet, mild fruitiness with round body
Harvest: October - January
Common Varietals: Bourbon, Caturra, Typica, Novo Mundo
Prominent Regions: Cucuta, Merida, Trujillo, Tachira, Caripe
Up until the 1980s, Venezuela was second only to Brazil in coffee imports. As oil became more prominent in the Venezuelan economy, though, coffee took a backseat. Today, Venezuela accounts for less than 1% of the world's coffee production, and what little they do produce tends to stay in the country. Over the past few years, however, a few impressive Venezuelan coffees are starting to appear on the specialty coffee market. The best of these are grown in the western part of the country that borders Colombia, in the Maracaibo region, including Cucuta, Merida, Trujillo and Tachira, and tend toward medium body, medium acidity and a sweet, mild fruitiness. In contrast, the coffees grown further east, near Caracas, which are often called Caripe, have the softer, rounder body and lower acidity found in Caribbean coffees.
Indonesia and the Pacific
Indonesian coffees are rich, full-bodied and encompass a wide range of flavors. They may be nutty, earthy, spicy, chocolate-y or all of the above. The best Indonesian coffees have very movable profiles -- the flavors change remarkably even as the coffee cools in your cup. Coffees from the Pacific Rim countries can be bold, charming, delightful and subtle, but they are never bland or boring.
- India: Mild, sweet and varied
- Java: Spicy, mild, syrupy
- Papua New Guinea: Full-bodied, sweet, mild
- Sulawesi: Sweet, mild, rich body
- Sumatra: Syrupy, rich, spicy and complex
- Yemen: Wild, unforgettable, fruit and chocolate
Typical Cup Profile: Mild and balanced, rich body with spicy hints of cinnamon, cardamom and pepper
Harvest: October - February
Common Varietals: Sarchimor
Prominent Regions: Malabar, Mysore, Tamilnadu, Kerala, Nilgiris, Shevaroys
Indian coffees are mild, balanced, sweet and low in acid, often with a subtle hint of cinnamon, cardamom and pepper, along with a mild earthiness that gives them a bit of a rustic edge. India produces both wet-processed and dry-processed coffees. In addition, India produces some of the highest quality Robusta coffee available, with the dry-processed coffees called "cherry" and the wet-processed often referred to as "parchment." Good Indian Robusta is in demand as an addition to espresso blends, and many roasters claim that they’ll only feature Robustas that can stand alone in a cup.
India also produces one of the most uniquely processed coffees in the world: monsooned Malabar, which is stored in warehouses and exposed to the open sea air during the monsoon season. Monsooned Malabar features strong, pungent, musty flavors that are objectionable to some coffee drinkers and highly prized by others. The exposure to the salt air blunts the acidity -- which is already mild -- and contributes to a sweet, flat cup of coffee with spicy undertones that add dimension to the flavor.
The major coffee growing regions in India are Malabar (Kerala) -- the most common source of monsooned coffee -- Mysore (Karnataka) and Madras (Tamalinadu).
Typical Cup Profile: Syrupy body with molasses, spice and cocoa
Harvest: June - December
Common Varietals: Java Typica, Catimor cultivars, Kartika
Prominent Regions: Djampit, Blawan, Kayuman, Pancur
Javanese coffee has a long-standing reputation for high-quality coffee, dating back to the 1700s, when the Dutch first planted coffee Arabica trees there. Java led the world in coffee production until rust disease virtually wiped out coffee on the island. Most of the acreage once devoted to coffee Arabica has been replanted with Robusta, which is resistant to coffee rust, but the Indonesian government has sponsored a resurgence of Arabica on some of the original estates established by the Dutch 300 years ago. These government estates, Djampit, Blawan, Kayuman and Pancur -- are the source of much of the Javan coffee sold on the American specialty market, but small non-government private estates are starting to make their way into the market.
The best Java coffees feature restrained acidity, mild but complex flavors and almost syrupy body. They tend to be a clean cup, with molasses-like sweetness and hints of cocoa and spice. Some of the Arabica coffee grown on Java is derived from the older Java Typica strains, but much of it derives from the Catimor cultivar which is generally inferior to the older heirloom varieties. The harvest season is generally January and February, with shipping in March through June.
Papua New Guinea
Typical Cup Profile: Modestly rich body with sweet, ripe fruit flavors
Harvest: April - September
Common Varietals: Blue Mountain, Catimor, Caturra, Mundo Novo, Arusha
Prominent Regions: Baliem Valley, Kamu Valley
Papua New Guinea (PNG) takes up the eastern half of the island of New Guinea. The coffees grown there share many of the qualities of the finest Indonesian coffees -- low-toned, rich in body and complex in flavor. The larger estate coffees are wet-processed using modern methods in large-scale facilities, while smaller farm holders tend to wet-process their own coffees, which results in more rustic flavors in the cup. PNG coffees sold on the American specialty market are most commonly from the larger estates, but many small roasters source their own PNG coffees from small holder farms through direct trade. The best Papua New Guinea coffees are vibrant, fragrant and thick, offering the luxurious mouth feel of the best Sumatran and Sulawesi coffees.
Typical Cup Profile: Earthy and full-bodied, with spicy, fruity and chocolate notes
Harvest: September - January
Common Varietals: S-795
Prominent Regions: Toraja, Kalosi, Mamasa, Gowa
"Sulawesi is Sumatran coffee with all of its problems fixed," a noted coffee shop owner once said. As might be gathered from that statement, Sulawesi coffee, often sold as Sulawesi Celebes, Sulawesi Toraja, Celebes Kalossi or just Celebes, is similar in body and flavor to earthy, full-bodied Sumatran coffee. The quality seems to be more consistent, however, and many buyers say they're more confident buying Sulawesi coffee than Sumatran coffees.
Sulawesi coffee may be sold wet-processed or wet-hulled, a process that removes the mucilage and dries the coffee beans in several steps. The result of the drying process is a rich, nuanced flavor profile that includes sweet fruit notes, pungent spice, musty earth and chocolate roast notes, as well as the oily, thick body that characterizes the best Indonesian coffees. The harvest season is July through November, and the shipping season for Sulawesi coffee is September through January.
Typical Cup Profile: Complex, rich, syrupy and sweet with hints of cocoa and spice
Harvest: November - May
Common Varietals: Typica, Linie-S, Caturra, Catimor, Rue Rue 11 hybrids
Prominent Regions: Mandheling, Lintong, Aceh, Mangkuraja, Ankola
Sumatran coffees embody the rich romance of coffee in their deep, complex flavor profiles and heavy bodies. The best-known Sumatran coffees are Mandheling and Lintong, grown in the regions around Lake Toba. Lintong refers specifically to coffee grown within a smaller district just southwest of the lake, while Mandheling refers to a larger region and includes the Lintong coffees. Mandheling is not actually the name of a region, but refers to the ethnic group that was originally involved in the coffee harvest.
Most coffees sold from the area are called wet-processed, but the processing is more complex than that. In most cases, the farmers remove the skins from the coffee cherries immediately, then allow the fruit to ferment overnight before removing the remaining mucilage. In other cases, the mucilage is allowed to dry completely on the coffee bean and removed at the wash station, or processing facility. These processing methods may contribute heavily to the rich, syrupy flavors and mouth feel that characterize Sumatran coffees.
The Sumatran coffee harvest is a long one, taking place from November through May, with shipping running from October through March. The grading standards are confusing and complex, though most of the coffee sold from Sumatra is Grade One. There are, however, higher grades that are occasionally sold throughout the year. Keep in mind that Sumatran coffees tend to roast deceptively light because of the way they are processed. If you order a dark roast Sumatra, it may look more like a cinnamon or city roast. Unroasted Sumatran coffee beans have a waxy, nearly translucent green color that distinguishes them from most other coffee origins.
Islands & Other
- Dominican Republic: Soft and mild
- Hawaii: Balanced, smooth, medium body
- Jamaica: Clean, balanced, sweet, floral
Typical Cup Profile: Full, smooth body and light acidity,
Harvest: September - February
Common Varietals: Bourbon, Catuai, Caturra, Mundo Novo
Prominent Regions: Cibao, Bani, Ocoa, Barahona
Coffee from the Dominican Republic (DR) is often sold as coffee from Santo Domingo, the island's former name. Most coffees from DR feature a soft, mild and clean profile common to Caribbean coffees that are wet-processed. For a number of reasons, some of them political and some climate-related, Dominican coffees tend to fall short of distinction. The best-known regional coffees from DR are Cibao, Bani, Ocoa, and Barahona. The coffees that are making their way into the market tend to be soft, smooth and mildly sweet, similar in flavor profile to Puerto Rican coffee.
Typical Cup Profile: Smooth, sweet and balanced cup with spicy, buttery and winey notes
Harvest: September - November
Common Varietals: Typica, Blue Mountain, Red Catuai
Prominent Regions: Kona, Puna, Hamakua, Hilo, Kau, Kauai, Molokai, Oahu
Hawaiian Kona coffee is the best known of the coffees grown in Hawaii. Its sweet, well-balanced, low-acid cup has been held up as the pinnacle of what a "good coffee" tastes like. If you enjoy smooth, sweet, balanced coffees, you'll love Kona. If you prefer the wilder, earthier flavors in East African and some Indian or Indonesian coffees, Kona may seem a little bland or tame. Kona's reputation has also been damaged by its popularity, which drove a few farms and exporters to mix their high quality coffee with Panamanian and Costa Rican coffees and sell it as "Kona." The island government has stepped up its regulation and labeling requirements in the past two years, however, and many small coffee holders are investing significant energy to improve their crops and experiment with new methods of processing
In addition to Kona, coffee is also grown on Kauai and Molokai. These cannot be labeled Kona coffee, but they share many of the characteristics of the best Kona. Much of the coffee grown on Molokai is of the Red Catuai variety, which features a clean cup and bright, sweet acidity.
Typical Cup Profile: Clean, balanced cup with sweet, slightly floral notes
Harvest: August - September
Common Varietals: Blue Mountain, Typica
Prominent Regions: Blue Mountain
Jamaican Blue Mountain is one of the most recognized and highly regarded coffees in the world, and consequently among the most expensive. At its best, Jamaican Blue Mountain is smooth, balanced and rich, with a decidedly sweet flavor and understated acidity. The Blue Mountain brand is fiercely protected by the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica (CIB), established by the British colonial government after World War II and maintained by the Jamaican government after it won independence from Britain.
The CIB certifies all coffees that are sold with the Jamaican Blue Mountain label. In order to be certified, the coffee must be grown in the Blue Mountain district, which is on the eastern part of the island. Only coffees grown at elevations between 3,000 and 7,000 feet can carry the Blue Mountain label. Coffee grown between 1,500 and 3,000 feet is called Jamaican High Mountain, and coffee grown below 1,500 feet is labeled either Jamaican Low Mountain or Jamaican Supreme.
Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is often labeled with an “estate” name. Generally, these estate names refer to the coffee mills that buy coffee from surrounding small-holder farms. The most prominent of these include Wallenford, Mavis Bank, Moy Hall, Baronhall Estate and Old Tavern.