Java Beat: The Allure of Central American Coffees
This article originally published in The Sturbridge Times, August 2018 By Elvis Dyer, Owner/Roaster, Sturbridge Coffee Roasters
Coffee growing regions exist around the world with different soils and locations, resulting in different characteristics. In the US, we drink a lot of coffee from Central and South America as the geographic proximity makes it easy to import. Coffees from Central America tend to be classic, bright and clean, medium-bodies coffees with flavor profiles commonly associated with cocoa, nuts and spices. The region produces coffees of varying acidity, but are usually well balanced, due in part to similar climate, altitude, and processing techniques; the coffees are not too bitter, not too acidic and smooth in flavor.
Costa Rica produces only wet-processed Arabica beans. This coffee has a perfect balance of medium body and sharp acidity. Costa Rican coffee is predominately grown on small farms. There has been a great increase in the number of Costa Rican micro-mills, which are groups of small farmers who have formed cooperatives. They control the production process by growing and processing their own coffee. The cherries are separated by the quality and elevation they were grown at, to meet strict standards. Every grower’s coffee is cupped numerous times before it goes to market. This process educates the farmer on how to enhance the unique characteristics of the coffee they bring to the marketplace. The careful attention to quality processing and conscientious growing methods have built Costa Rica’s reputation for fine coffee. This region’s coffees range from sweet and fruity with floral notes, or berry-like flavors combined with nutty and chocolaty flavors. The best Costa Rican coffee beans, which are grown above 3,900 feet, are designated as “strictly hard bean”. The “good hard bean” classification is given to coffees grown from 3,300 to 3,900 feet. Costa Rica’s best known coffee varietals include Caturra, Catuai, Tarrazu, Villa Sarchi and Typica.
Guatemala’s coffee has a distinctive taste quality favored by many for its rich flavor. This medium-to-full bodied coffee with a high acidity has depth and complexity of taste that is almost spicy or chocolatey. This country’s climate is ideal – sunny days and cool nights, high altitude and rich volcanic soil, make Guatemala a great place to grow. While private estates cultivate this coffee, a state-run board maintains quality and controlled use of the esteemed, Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) designation. The elevation that the beans are grown at is the determining factor. Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) is the highest quality and is grown above 4,500 feet. Beans grown at these higher elevations are more valued because they are denser and harder. The lower grade is Hard Bean (HB), which is grown between 4,000-4,500 feet. High quality coffees here are produced using the wet- processed method. Best known varietals include Antigua, Atitlan, Arabigo, Bourbon, Caturra, Catuai, Coban, Huehuetenango, Pacamara, Maragogype and Typica.
Once the producer of some of the finest coffees in the world, Nicaragua is working its way back after years of political unrest when many growers and their families fled the country and abandoned their farms. The wet-processed Nicaraguan coffee bean is mild, with a light acidity appropriate for blending and dark roasting. More recently, there has been a focus on quality and sustainability of beans cultivated on thousands of small to modest-sized farms mostly from the noted Nuevo Segovia, Jinotega and Matagalpa regions. The Miraflor nature preserve is an excellent example of a protected area that utilizes sustainable agriculture practices to promote the success of the ecotourism trade and the well-being of its inhabitance. This region’s best known varietals include Typica, Caturra, Bourbon, Java Cultivar, Pacamara and Maragogype. Classification of Nicaragua coffee beans is by altitude.
Each May, coffee blossoms cover the volcanoes to create a most beautiful and spectacular sight. This smallest country in Central America has had much political instability and thus, although the coffees are excellent, the supply has not always been consistent. The best-known varietals from this region include: Bourbon, Pacas, Pacamara and Typica.
Honduras coffees tend to be mild and full-bodied, with distinct sweet caramel flavors. These coffees have had a low-quality reputation, often used as a good base for blends, and because of this, farmers have struggled to overcome these stereotypes. However, growers have been able to increase their profits by enhancing their offerings by certifying their products as organic, fair trade, shade grown or rain-forest friendly. The best-known varietals include: Caturra, Typica and Bourbon. Their classification is by altitude from “Central Standard” to “High Grown” to “Strictly High Grown.”
Panama is most distinguished for growing the Geisha coffee plant varietal in Panama’s Chiriqui Province. Geisha coffee plants are known for their elongated coffee cherry and the coffee is distinguished for its light body, bright acidity and jasmine-like aroma with honey and citrus tastes creating an outstanding cup character and profile. Other coffee plant varietals include Typica, Bourbon, Catuai and Caturra.
The fertile soils and subtropical, temperate climate provide ideal conditions for growing fine Arabica coffee. The forests of Belize provide shade for Arabica coffee plants, which allows the coffee trees to mature slower, delivering more nutrients to the coffee beans and developing more robust flavors. Belize is not a large producer of coffee beans, with a relatively immature agricultural wholesale export market.
It is important to note that there are no definitive guidelines for flavor profiles, just tendencies, and if you are really looking to know more about your coffee and the region it came from, your best bet is to ask your roaster.