The world of coffee is vast and varied. When shopping for your
weekly caffeine fix, it helps to know what it is you are about to
acquire, quality and flavor wise.
The world of coffee is vast and varied. When shopping for your weekly caffeine fix, it helps to know what it is you are about to acquire, quality and flavor wise.
Coffee flavor is a product of microclimate, soil, elevation, tree varietals and processing.
In general, we can group the world’s coffees into four different regions: Latin America, Africa/Yemen (Arabia), Indonesia and Islands (Caribbean/ Hawaii).
The Latins are known for straight forward flavors, with bright, clean acidity, medium body and mild sweetness. The best of these coffees are distinguished by their complexity, clarity and elegance. In the States, this taste profile pretty much defines coffee, largely due to the fact that for the longest time these were the coffees most readily available.
Guatemala is one of the super stars in the world of coffee and is prized for its distinctive smokiness, heavy body, notes of dark chocolate and perfect balance.
Two regional Guatemalan coffees that are readily available in this country are from the Antigua valley and highlands of Huehuetenango.
Costa Rica produces the cleanest and most meticulously processed coffee in the world, with crisp acidity and tangy sweetness. The better regions include Tres Rios, Tarrazu and Dota.
Panama is mild, balanced, sweet and smooth, with good body.
Colombia’s marketing campaign has been successful. Thanks to “Juan Valdes,” we all know that Colombian coffee is the “richest” in the world.
The generic Colombia Supremo, can be a bit muddled and lacking in clarity, but while it is never a star, it is a consistently good coffee.
If you want to try a really outstanding Colombian, look for regional designation such as Huilla, Narino or Bucaramanga. You will be rewarded with medium body, full aroma and sweet, caramel-like taste with creamy mouthfeel.
Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua all can produce very good coffee but generally are a milder version of a Latin American profile and are used extensively in blends.
African coffees are exotic. You will either love it or hate it. Ethiopia is a birthplace of coffee. A lot of it still grows in the wild and is harvested by the locals.
The Ethiopian beans, you might see for sale, are Yergacheffe, Sidamo and Harrar. These are some of the most distinctive coffees in the world. They are intense and distinct, with a cornucopia of flavors; from blueberry and apricot to citrus peel, mango, and strawberry, with a distinct chocolate tones.
The heady aromas of jasmine, honeysuckle and bergamot are a mark of coffee from these regions. You can tell a good Ethiopian just by its dry aroma.
Kenya is the Cadillac of coffees, big and powerful, with Bordeaux-like acidity. The finer Kenyans, will grow hair on your chest (or wilt it, depending on your affliction). Kenya displays a solid body with a distinct grape-like or black current notes.
Other African coffees are Uganda, Burundi, Tansania and Malawi. These tend to be a lesser versions of Kenya. They share a lot of similar characteristics, but somehow never quite able to reach the same heights.
Yemen (Arabia) was the first country to cultivate coffee, some 1,400 years ago. Its coffees are distinct, with bright, dry acidity, full body and distinct cherry-like fruit notes.
Indonesian, or more properly termed, Malay Archipelago coffees, include Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and East Timor. Most of these coffees are distinguished by full body, mild but lively acidity and rich, earthy herbal flavor notes.
Indonesian coffees (Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi) are deep bodied, pungent and brooding. They can range from flavors and aromas reminiscent of crushed leaves, loam, and mushrooms to exotic wood smoke, spice, and tropical fruit nuance.
Sulawesi often has creamy, sweet, and round mouthfeel.
Papua New Guinea is a perfectly balanced coffee. It can be pungent but clean with tropical fruit like notes.
East Timor you don’t see much in the States. It is cocoa toned, sweet and full bodied.
Indian coffee is often grown and stored next to spices and you can often catch hints of clove, nutmeg and cardamon it in its flavor.
Island coffees include the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rica, Jamaica and Hawaii.
Most of these, at best, offer light body, light acidity, with bland to neutral flavors and agreeable sweetness.
It’s a personal preference, but for me, these coffees as exiting as watching solders march. For this very reason they make excellent base on which to create a distinct blend.
You might be surprised to see the famous Jamaica Blue Mountain and Hawaiian Kona on this list. Among coffee professionals these are known as “hype” coffees. Heavily marketed, as the best in the world and priced as such. But in blind tasting they consistently rank with average quality coffees.
Occasionally a brilliant Kona comes along, but that’s the exception, not the rule. If you like Kona, but put off by the price, try Mexican Oaxaca Pluma or Chiapas, you might be pleasantly surprised.
Most coffee growing countries have the potential and do produce top quality beans. The challenge lies in getting them out of the country before they are mixed with lesser coffees to become national generic brands such as Supremo, Altura and High Grown.
So, what is the best coffee out there? I can point you to the most or least acidic, or the most expensive, or the funkiest coffee I know. However “the best coffee” is too subjective to pin down.
There is no more “best coffee” than there is “best chocolate” or “best color.”
The best is the one that speaks to you, the one that grabs your attention.
The best is up to you.