Java Beat: Discernable regional influences with coffee beans
This article originally published in The Sturbridge Times, September 2019 By Elvis Dyer, Owner/Roaster, Sturbridge Coffee Roasters
The key to understanding the different flavors in your coffee is understanding the region the coffee beans were grown in. There are 3 main areas: Central and South America, Africa and the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. These areas between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn are often referred to as the “Bean Belt” or the “Coffee Belt” since nearly all of the commercially grown coffee in the world comes out of these regions.
What makes these areas such prime growing areas? The best beans produced are those grown at high altitudes, in a moist tropical climate, with rich soils and temperatures around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. These regions offer all these characteristics. And within each of these three different coffee growing regions, there are many variations, which impacts the overall flavor.
Central and South America
Central and South America produce the most coffee out of the three growing regions and these coffees are often considered mild, medium bodied and aromatic in flavor. Colombia is probably the most well-known coffee producing country. Colombia’s rugged landscape allows small family farms to produce coffee which is consistently ranked high. Colombian Supremo is the highest grade of coffee from this region. In terms of production quantity, Colombia and Brazil lead the way while Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama also produce quality beans. Due in part to similar climate and altitude, processing techniques, and the selection of coffee varieties grown here, coffees from this region contain varying amounts of acidity and a smooth, sugar-browning sweetness that is often referred to as soft and buttery. Balance is a another word often used to describe these coffees, and their fruit-like characteristics provide a mild backdrop to the cocoa and spice flavors.
Africa and the Middle East
African and Middle East coffees are generally bright, fruity and floral. Within this region, Ethiopia is perhaps the most famous place, as it is where coffee is said to have originated in 800 C.E. Today, an abundance of coffee is harvested there, mainly coming from the Sidamo, Harrar or Kaffa regions, which are the three growing regions within the country. Ethiopian coffee is both full flavored and full bodied. The processing of coffee beans in Ethiopia differs greatly as coffees are processed either as “natural,” wherein the cherry is dried around the coffee bean before being removed, or “washed,” wherein the fruit gets stripped within 12 hours of picking. These two processes create strikingly different flavor profiles: naturals tend to be fruity, heavy and wine-like, while washed coffees tend to have a floral, tea-like delicacy to them. Naturally processed Ethiopian coffees often have a syrupy body that accompanies a densely sweet berry flavor, typically blueberry or strawberry. Washed coffees are often highlighted with jasmine or lemongrass characteristics, and are lighter and drier on the palate.
Southeast Asian coffees are generally earthy, spicy and woody. The Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi are well known for their rich, full-bodies coffees with earthy flavors. Indonesia is also known for warehouse aged coffees, which originated when farmers would store their coffee and sell it at a later date for a higher profit. Vietnamese coffee from this region is known for its medium bodied lighter flavor.
However, it’s more than just where the bean is grown. Altitude, temperature, rainfall and sunlight are just a few favors that affect how the coffee grows and how the coffee tastes. After these beans are grown and harvested, they are then shipped to countries around the world for roasting and distribution. United States is one of the top importing countries. After arriving here, how the beans are roasted further impacts how the coffee tastes, as well as your own individual brewing method. Experimenting with different regions and different brewing methods allows you to zero in on the flavor profile that best suits you.