In a recent tour of Seattle, famed TV personality and elder hipster, Anthony Bourdain quipped, “coffee isn’t a culture, it’s a drink”. And while we do agree with the talking head’s stance on coffee shop etiquette — seriously people, if you can’t afford Wi-Fi steal it from your neighbors like the rest of us — we completely disagree with his stance on coffee culture. Coffee is a culture, with die-hard fans, experts and professionals that can analyze a brew like a sommelier breaks down a glass of wine. In support of this culture, we’re profiling five of the most important coffee regions, so that next time you have a layover in the coffee aisle trying to decipher between Brazilian and Indonesian beans, you’ll have no reservations. But before we break down the regions, let’s break down the coffee.
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When it comes to beans, there are two main types: Arabica, which makes up about 70% of the market, and Robusta, which makes up the remainder. The big difference between the two is in where each is grown. Because Robusta is most often grown in higher temperatures, the beans tend to be more bitter. Additionally, they contain about 50% more caffeine than Arabica. And speaking of growing beans, here’s perhaps the fundamental point to sip from this little article: there are good areas and bad areas for growing coffee, with the prime real estate for growth being known as the Bean Belt. That’s a latitudinal space roughly bound by the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn — and within that swath of land there’s a whole lot of coffee diversity.
At the top of that belt is Central America. Most coffees in this region are harvested from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Described as having a clean and bright taste with good acidity, coffees from this region are often considered a sort of everyman’s coffee: exceptionally well-balanced and mild to medium in body. Remember that red plastic container of coffee in your fridge? It’s pretty much all from here. That said, there’s plenty of high-grade Central American coffee being served in specialty coffee shops around the country.
Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia make up the bulk of coffee growing countries in South America. Most us are familiar with the term “Colombian coffee”, and that’s because it’s well-marketed and a lot of chain restaurants serve it. Still, it’s Brazil that’s the world’s largest coffee producer — they provide 25% of the beans we consume in the States — and Brazilian coffee can vary in profile from spicy and rich to mild and fruity. With a climate similar to its northern neighbors, South American coffees generally share many of the characteristics with those of Central America, and are often very mild-bodied. While being a light, clean cup, these coffees are also a bit creamier, sometimes with a slight chocolate aftertaste.
Africa and the Arabian Peninsula
A handful of countries make up the coffee-growing regions of Africa. The sprawling continent provides plenty of excellent coffee-growing areas, each producing a unique, complex cup of coffee that is generally described as sweet, fruity and floral. The earliest known coffee drinking happened in Ethiopia and Yemen, both countries that still produce highly regarded beans using traditional methods. If you’re looking for the current hip region for coffee beans, this is it, with the most popular roasts coming from Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
But with that popularity also comes some concern. Slave and child labor are still very real problems in African coffee regions (and others as well), which is one of the reasons underpinning the fair trade certification scheme. By purchasing fair trade, you are, among other things, buying the peace of mind that slave labor was not involved in the making of your morning Joe. But keep in mind that there’s no universally accepted standard for fair trade coffee, and some people claim that sellers simply adhere to whichever set of rules is the most lenient. In other words, do a little research before buying coffee from regions with cruel labor practices.
In the Pacific Rim, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam and the Philippines are the most popular coffee growers, and for good reason. Robusta, the bitter beans that make up only 30% of the world’s coffee production, are mainly produced here. If you hear “big and bold” describing a cup, it’s more than likely coming from this area of the world. One of our favorite sub-regions is Sumatra, which produces a bean that’s often described as “earthy”, “herbal”, and “full-bodied”.
Though coffee has been produced in India for centuries, it’s still a fairly new player on the global block — less than 5% of all international coffee production comes out of the subcontinent. However, due to its conditions of particularly high heat and intense rainy seasons, India offers some of the most unique growing conditions in the world. Both Arabica and Robusta beans are grown here, but the most famous type of Indian coffee is known as Monsooned Malabar.
Monsooned coffee is actually a process. Stored in open-air warehouses, harvested Arabica beans are left to the elements for 3–4 months during monsoon season. In this time, water and storm-fueled winds circulate around the beans, causing them to swell in size. The result is a mellowed-out, pungent and musty flavor. Interestingly enough, this coffee is actually “bad” according to basic coffee definitions. Nonetheless, its cultural history and unique flavor profile means piqued interest among coffee nuts. It’s most often used in espresso blends, which said coffeephiles can sip and nod knowingly.