Coffee trees produce their best beans when grown at high altitudes in a tropical climate where there is rich soil. Such conditions are found around the world in locations along the Equatorial zone, between latitudes 25 degrees North and 30 degrees South.
Besides location, other factors affect the quality and flavor of coffee. These include the variety of the plant, the chemistry of the soil in which it is grown, the weather, particularly the amount of rainfall and sunshine, and the precise altitude at which the coffee grows. Such variables — combined with the way the cherries are processed after being picked — contribute to the distinctions between coffees from countries, growing regions and plantations worldwide. The combination of factors is so complex, that even from a single plantation one finds variation in quality and taste.
Coffee is grown in more than 50 countries around the world. Here are just a few:
North America & The Caribbean
Though coffee farms are found throughout the Hawaiian islands, it is Kona coffee, from the large island of Hawaii, that is best known and always in high demand. Nature provides just the right environment for the coffee trees growing on the slopes of the active Mauna Loa volcano. Young trees are planted in black, volcanic soil so new that it often seems the farmers are planting their seedlings in rock instead of soil. Afternoon shade from tropical clouds forms a natural canopy over the trees to protect them from intense sun. Frequent island showers keep the plants nourished with just the right amount of rain. Kona coffee is carefully processed and produces a deliciously rich, aromatic cup of medium body.
Though coffee in Mexico primarily comes from small coffee farms rather than large plantations, coffee farmers number over 100,000 and Mexico ranks as one of the largest coffee producing countries in the world. Most of the farms are located in the south of the country, primarily in the states of Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas. A cup of Mexican coffee can offer a wonderful aroma and a depth of flavor, often with a pronounced sharpness. It is an excellent bean for dark roasts and is often used in blends. A Mexican coffee designated Altura means that it was high grown.
Coffee was brought to Puerto Rico from Martinique in 1736 and by the late 19th century Puerto Rico was the 6th leading exporter of coffee in the world. But the coffee industry in Puerto Rico did not maintain its world standing. Major hurricanes and competition from other coffee producing countries forced the island to seek other means for economic survival. Today, however, the coffee industry is being revived and Puerto Rico is again producing fine coffees. Coffees grown there are carefully cultivated from quality arabica varieties and produced to the highest standards. There are two major growing regions on the Caribbean island: Grand Lares in the south central and Yauco Selecto in the southwest. Excellent coffees come from both regions, noted for their balanced body and acidity and fruity aroma.
Guatemala is a country working hard to bring higher visibility and uniform quality to a well-established coffee industry. Not always as well-known as some of its Central and South American neighbors, Guatemala’s coffees have a distinctive taste quality favored by many for its rich flavor. There are three main growing regions — Antigua, Coban and Heuhuetanango — and in each, one finds a breath-takingly rugged landscape and rich volcanic soil. Microclimates strongly influence the quality and flavor of the Strictly Hard Beans grown at altitudes 4500′ or higher. In the cup, a Guatemalan is a medium-to-full bodied coffee, often with a depth and complexity of taste that is almost spicy or chocolatey to the tongue.
A Central American coffee-growing country with a reputation for fine coffee, Costa Rica produces only wet processed arabicas. With its medium body and sharp acidity, cuppers often describe a Costa Rican coffee as having ‘perfect balance.’ Coffee is grown on predominantly small farms, or fincas. After being harvested, the cherries are immediately taken to state-of-the-art processing facilities, known as beneficios, where wet method processing begins. In Costa Rica, careful attention to quality processing and conscientious growing methods are consistent with a fine quality coffee.
Colombia, the world’s best-known producer of coffee, ranks second worldwide in yearly production. Colombia takes this position seriously and works very hard to maintain a high standard of excellence. The result is consistently good coffee grown carefully and with great pride on thousands of small family coffee farms across the country. An extremely rugged landscape provides the perfect natural environment for the growth of the coffee. But a terrain so rugged has also made it historically difficult to transport the harvested coffee beans to production and shipment centers. Even today, this is often done by mule or Jeep. Such care and attention results in consistently good, mild coffees, with a well-balanced acidity. Colombian Supremo, the highest grade, has a delicate, aromatic sweetness while Excelso Grade might be softer and slightly more acidic.
Brazil is unquestionably the biggest coffee producing country in the world. With a seemingly endless expanses available for its production, coffee plantations in Brazil often cover immense areas of land, need hundreds of people to manage and operate them, and produce huge quantities of coffee. A ‘Brazilian’ coffee is a ‘mild’ and the two terms are often used interchangeably. Both arabica and robusta are grown, though in different coffee growing regions. The ambient climate, soil quality and altitude largely determine which variety will grow best in which region. A fine cup of Brazilian is a clear, sweet, medium-bodied, low-acid coffee.
Africa & Middle East
Coffee legend tells of the discovery of the first coffee trees in Ethiopia. Indeed, it is not hard to believe that coffee originated in a land where wild coffee tree forests are still the primary source of harvested coffee. Generally wet processed, coffee from Ethiopia comes from one of three main growing regions — Sidamo, Harer or Kaffa — and often bears one of those names. In the cup, an Ethiopian coffee tends to offer a remarkable and bold statement. It is full flavored, a bit down-to-earth and full bodied.
Kenyan coffee is well-known and well-liked, both in both the United States and Europe. Kenyan beans produce a singular cup with a sharp, fruity acidity, combined with full body and rich fragrance. Coffee is grown on the foothills of Mount Kenya, often by small farmers. Kenyan producers place an emphasis on quality and as a result, processing and drying procedures are carefully controlled and monitored. Kenya has its own unique grading system. Kenyan AA is the largest bean in a 10-size grading system and AA+ means that it was estate grown.
On the west coast of Africa, the Ivory Coast is one of the world’s largest producers of robusta coffee. Coffees from the Ivory Coast are strongly aromatic with a light body and acidity. They are ideally suited for a darker roast and are therefore, often used in espresso blends.
The Arabian Peninsula
In the country where coffee was first commercially cultivated, one still finds coffee growing in the age-old, century-proven manner. Within the small, terraced gardens of family farms, one can almost always find a few coffee trees. Water is scarce in this arid land and coffee beans grown here tend to be smaller, and more irregular in size and shape. Lack of water also means that the coffee cherries will be dry processed after harvest. The result is that one finds in Yemeni coffee a distinctive taste that is deep, rich and like no other.
In ancient times, when coffee was shipped from the famous Yemeni port of Mocha to destinations all over the world, the word ‘Mocha’ became synonymous with Arabian coffee. The Dutch combined Arabian coffee with coffee grown on the island of Java, thus making popular the first coffee blend—one that is still well-known today—Mocha Java.
Indonesia, one of the world’s largest countries, is composed of thousands of islands. Several of the larger islands — Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi (or Celebes as it was called) — are known throughout the world for the fine, quality coffees which grow there. The coffee plant was introduced to Indonesia by Dutch colonists in the 17th century and soon led the world’s production. Today, small coffee farms of 1-2 acres predominate and most of it is dry processed. Indonesian coffees are noted for a pronounced rich, full body and mild acidity.
Indonesia is also known for its fine aged coffees. Traditionally, these were coffees held over a period of time by farmers who wanted to sell them at higher prices. Warehousing, it was found, gently aged the coffee in Indonesia’s warm, damp climate and resulted in an coffee prized for even deeper body and less acidity. It is a process which cannot been matched by technology.
Another Asian country with a large coffee production is Vietnam. Coffee originally came to this country in the mid-nineteenth century when French missionaries brought arabica trees from the island of Bourbon and planted them around Tonkin. They flourished. More recently, coffee has been re-introduced and the coffee industry is growing so rapidly that Vietnam is rapidly becoming one of the world’s largest producers. Today, small plantations, located in the southern half of the country, produce mostly robusta coffee. In the cup, Vietnamese coffee has a light acidity and mild body with a good balance. It is frequently used for blending.