Where we come from often shapes us in many unique ways. From the way we talk to the way we dress, our beginnings help make us who we are - and coffee is no different.
The origin of a coffee bean plays an integral role in how the coffee will smell and taste. Most coffees thrive in what is known as the “bean belt,” the meridian between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, situated 23.5 degrees north and south of the equator. This special sweet spot is home to over 70 countries, and provides coffee beans with all the right ingredients to thrive, such as wet and dry seasons, warm stable temperatures, high altitudes, and fertile soil.
What makes coffee truly special is that even the slightest changes in one of these variables has a dramatic impact on how the coffee turns out. A slight change in rainfall, a fractional difference in soil minerals, or a degree in altitude can completely transform the beans into something different. This complex relationship with nature differs throughout ‘the bean belt,’ and gives each coffee origin its distinct characteristics.
In our origin series we will look at different places of harvesting to better understand why certain coffees taste the way they do, and why no two are ever the same. In this article we will focus on the Americas, the most famous continent in the world for coffee.
Colombia and coffee are a match made in bean heaven and this relationship is the reason why the word coffee is so synonymous with the South American country. Colombia has such an incredible coffee-friendly environment that it is able to provide two harvests a year. Most of the coffee grows on the steep slopes of the Andres, where hand picking is best preferred. This has created a culture of small farming production with a focus on quality over quantity.
Colombian coffee is very balanced and the notes can range from subtle chocolate and nuts to strong fruits. The south provides aromas of sharp citrus, which is the result of its high altitude. With such rich volcanic soil and humid air flowing in from the valleys, the southern beans are able to grow as high as 2,300 meters. As a result, the acidity is very high leading to those delicious fruit flavors. In the north of the country where altitudes are lower ranging, between 1000 - 1600 meters, the beans provide a more subtle and mellow taste with notes of nut and chocolate, and produce a sweet soft aroma.
In Central America Costa Rica is very famous amongst coffee fanatics and there are lots of reasons as to why. Costa Rica has only two seasons: dry and wet, with both enabling ideal coffee growing climates. Throughout the year the temperature only varies about ten degrees between 17 and 28 °C and the rainfall is extremely heavy with average rainfall somewhere between 2000-3000 millimeters. This heavy rainfall combines with oxidized volcanic ash to create a necessary fertile environment.
Cost Rica only using Arabica beans and a law was even passed in 1989 to encourage farmers to make it illegal to use any other type of bean. Arabica beans are capricious and harder to grow, much like the Pinot Noir of the wine world. For their troubles however, the Arabica bean is considered by many to produce a more mature and complex flavor profile. What also makes Costa Rican coffee unique is that they only use wet processing methods. This is when water is used to skin the cherries that contain coffee beans. This process produces a very clean taste with bright acidity and a medium body. The final product is a consistent and well-balanced coffee.
The wet process also means that the coffee has to be picked by hand on small farms, also known as ‘fincas.’ However, despite the small farming approach, the facilities are famously state-of-the-art in Costa Rica. The wet processing takes place in beneficios which mechanically de-pulp the beans using a pulper and then are placed inside a fermentation tank. This combination of detailed attention and quality processing have resulted in Costa Rican coffee exploding in popularity around the world.
Brazil is the highest producer of coffee in the entire world, With over 220,000 coffee farms producing both Arabica and Robusta throughout. There are 32 different regions in Brazil at poor altitudes and developed via machines that do not discern good from bad cherries. This has led to Brazil being synonymous with poor quality coffee. However, this reputation is underserved as there are certain regions in Brazil that are perfect for developing coffee with an average elevation of 1,100 meters. This low altitude gives Brazil its famous mellow flavors of nut, chocolate and caramel. There are four main areas that produce the highest quality beans in Brazil: Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo, São Paulo and Bahia. In Minas Gerais, almost 50% of Brazilian coffee is grown. This region is perfect for coffee harvesting with a high enough altitude and a consistent temperature of 22 degrees. Brazil mostly uses a natural method of harvesting where hand-picked beans are naturally unwashed. This means the beans are dried as they are. This method is difficult and not possible in most countries but Brazil’s low rainfall and consistent sunshine allow this method to be used giving Brazilian beans their unique sweet dark roast. Those seeking milder forms of coffee that provide full-bodied sweetness will find it in Brazilian coffee.
Whatever your coffee tastes there is a place in the world that provides. Within your first sip coffee carries with it a journey that goes all the way back to its roots. Whether the beans are separated by continents or fences, no journey is ever the same and no beans are ever without their unique origin.