Around the World

Coffee's tropical origin and terroir determine flavor
Sam Gugino
Posted: June 15, 2004

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Africa and Southern Arabia
Like other African coffees, Ethiopian coffees display a sharp, winy acidity as a backdrop. Harrar, in eastern Ethiopia, produces coffees with ripe, complex, almost fermented fruitiness owing to the dry processing of beans. Wet-processed Yirgacheffe coffees from south-central Ethiopia are equally complex, but more delicate and floral. Kenya has some of the most balanced and complex coffee in the world. It is marked by high acidity, good body and intense flavor overlaid with great fragrance. Very often one will see Kenyan coffee labeled "AA," which refers to its size, not quality.

Tanzania is best known for its peaberry coffees, made from single, rounded beans rather than the more common halved, flat-sided beans (though every coffee region produces peaberries). Tanzanian coffees tend to be a bit richer and more full-bodied than those of Kenya, though less complex. Coffees from Zimbabwe are similar in profile to Kenyan coffees but toned down a notch in richness and complexity.

Yemen, on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, produces ripe and complex coffees similar to those from across the Red Sea in Harrar, Ethiopia, though with somewhat more body.

The Americas
The snappy acidity and light body of most Mexican coffees, which primarily come from southern regions such as Oaxaca and the mountainous area near the town of Coatepec, make them good candidates for straight, black, morning coffee. Exceptions are high-grown Chiapas coffees, which can be as powerful and complex as fine Guatemalan coffees.

Guatemala produces some of the world's great coffees. They are a favorite of Jim Reynolds, vice president of Peet's Coffee & Tea, because of their chocolate notes, spiciness and good acidity. Antigua is the best-known name and most distinctive Guatemalan coffee. Though less powerful and complex, good coffees also come from Cobán, San Marcos, Atitlán and Huehuetenango.

Nicaragua is still recovering from the ravages of war and the U.S. ban on imported Nicaraguan coffees enacted during the Sandinista reign. What I liked about the Nicaraguan coffees I tried, such as the Santa Lucia estate coffee from Mario Cerna, was the rich, earthy chocolatiness balanced by good acidity. Matagalpa, Jinotega and Nueva Segovia are the prime coffee regions of Nicaragua.

Coffees from Costa Rica are consistently clean and well-balanced, almost too much so at the expense of boldness and power. However, Dota, an area within the highly regarded Tarrazu region, breaks this mold. Like Tarrazu, the other top coffee regions-Tres Ríos, Heredia and Volcán Poás-are an easy drive from the capital, San José.

Jamaica is home to Jamaican Blue Mountain, one of the most expensive coffees in the world and one of the most imitated. Watch out for "Blue Mountain-style" coffees that may not include a single Blue Mountain bean. Wallensford is the classic Blue Mountain estate. Puerto Rico, once a major coffee producer, has made a comeback of sorts with Yauco Selecto estate coffee. Coffees from the Dominican Republic and Haiti are soft-beaned coffees with a mellow sweetness that makes for good dark roasts.

Colombia produces a lot of good, consistent-quality coffee. For higher quality, akin to that of good Costa Rican coffees, look for regions such as Nariño, Cauca (or Popayán) and southern Huila.

Venezuela's best-known coffee is Maracaibo, named for the port through which the coffee is shipped. Under that umbrella fall the coffees of Cúcuta (from just over the border in Colombia) and Táchira, which are similar in flavor to Colombians, and the lower acid, pleasantly sweet Mérida. Most coffee from Peru is understated, with moderate acidity and light body.

Because most of it is grown at lower elevations, Brazilian coffee is low in acidity, with a round, sweet profile that is especially good for espresso. While most Brazilian coffee is ordinary, there are pockets of specialty coffee. The most popular is called Bourbon Santos, after the bourbon variety of plant and the Santos region of southern Brazil.

Hawaii
The Kona region on the big island of Hawaii produces some of the most expensive coffees in the world. Despite being grown at low altitudes, Kona coffee's unique terroir mimics that of high-grown coffees, giving it fine acidity along with wonderful fragrance, winy notes and medium body. Coffees labeled "Kona blend" may contain as little as 10 percent real Kona beans.

Asia
Indonesia produces some of the world's most-celebrated specialty coffees. Sumatran coffees, especially from Mandheling and Lintong, are deep, dark and rich, the Barolos of the coffee world. Sulawesi (formerly Celebes) coffees, more balanced, with livelier acidity and slightly less body, are superb all-around coffees. Java coffees have medium body with good acidity and a creamy, though somewhat short, finish. New Guinea or Papua New Guinea is a toned-down version of Sulawesi and Sumatran coffees.

While Monsooned Malabar is India's best-known coffee, there are also more conventional high-elevation specialty coffees from the Baba Budan, Nilgiris and Shevaroys regions in southern India. The best may contain subtle spice notes and bright, but gentle, acidity.

Vietnam virtually came out of nowhere to replace Colombia as the No. 2 coffee producer for quantity last year, after Brazil. As a result, there is a coffee surplus. Unfortunately, Vietnamese coffee is the cheapest, lowest-grade robusta used in mass-marketed coffee blends in cans.

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