Serious Eats: Drinks
What Do Coffees from the Major Growing Regions Taste Like?
In my last post, we explored a little bit of the idea of terroir, and whether it might or might not impact (or at least predict) the flavors certain coffees from around the world might have.
All things considered equal for a second, we can generalize a little bit about how coffees from different parts of the world will taste for the most part, based on experience, practices, conventions, and, well, the usually-not-recommended act of simply assuming.
In a nutshell, what do coffees around the world taste like? How can you tell Guatemalan coffee from Kenyan?
Though there doesn't seem to be a hard and fast rule when it comes to coffee flavors, there are many possible reasons for both the similarities and the discrepancies that exist—such as the fact that certain coffee varieties are often more prevalent in some coffee-growing locales than others, or that processing methods often spread among growing communities or climates based on local access to water, mills, and other considerations.
Because coffees in Guatemala are often botanically somewhat similar to coffees in Honduras, and because both countries' farmers tend to process their coffees a particular way (washed), we can fairly assume that there will be certain similarities among them—at least more so than either will have with, say, coffees from Indonesia or Kenya.
What follows is a rough guide to those flavors, and is absolutely not going to apply to every coffee everywhere. It also doesn't take roasting or brewing into consideration, and those two things too will have a major impact on the characteristics a coffee expresses.
With the exception of Belize, Central America as a whole is a large contributor to the global coffee supply, and along with its southerly neighbor Colombia, coffee from this region of the world is what has most informed the North American coffee-drinking preferences and habits. (After all, Guatemala and Honduras are much closer to the States than any African coffee-growing region is, and it's easier for us to buy from them than to ship beans clear across the wide expanse of the Atlantic.)
Due in part to similar climate and altitude, processing techniques, and the selection of coffee varieties grown here, we can expect cup qualities from this region to contain varying amounts of acidity (more apple-ish and malic in Guatemala; cherry-like from Mexico) and a smooth, sugar-browning sweetness that is sometimes soft like chocolate or buttery like flaky pastry crust. "Balance" is a word that often comes up when describing these coffees, and their fruit-like characteristics often play nice as a mild backdrop to the cocoa and spice flavors.
Colombian coffees are most often what folks think of with South America, and rightfully so: The country is routinely listed among the top three coffee-producing countries in the world. The classic Colombian profile—as with other better-quality coffees from Peru, etc—brings together a mellow acidity and a strong caramel sweetness, perhaps with a nutty undertone. Sweet and medium-bodied, they have the most recognizable coffee flavor to most North Americans.
Why should Brazil stand alone when the rest of the Americas get lumped together in bigger groups? For one thing, the country is a huge producer, and its output varies widely. Some Brazilian beans—especially those that are pulped natural or "Brazil natural"—have a pronounced peanutty quality and heavy body that makes them common components in espresso blends. Chocolate and some spice is typical, and the coffees tend to linger a bit in the mouth, with a less clean aftertaste than other South American regions' stuff.
Okay, and why should Ethiopia get its own category, too? Well, for one thing, the county has vastly more in the way of biodiversity: Thousands of varieties of coffee grow here, mostly wild and/or uncatalogued, and the spectrum of flavor then has the potential to be much larger.
Also, processing differs even within Ethiopia in a way that it mostly doesn't elsewhere, with the possible exception of Brazil: In Ethiopia, coffees can be processed either as "natural," wherein the cherry is dried around the coffee bean before being removed, or "washed," wherein the fruit gets stripped within 12 hours of picking. These two processes create strikingly different flavor profiles: naturals tend to be fruity, heavy, and wine-like, where washed coffees tend to have a floral, tea-like delicacy to them.
Naturally processed Ethiopian coffees often have a syrupy body that accompanies a densely sweet berry flavor, typically blueberry or strawberry. Washed coffees often express jasmine or lemongrass characteristics, and are lighter and drier on the palate.
Big, bold, and juicy, Kenyan coffees are a product of their variety (SL-28 and SL-34 are the most prized), processing (there is a post-fermentation soak that can last a day or longer), and the fact that much of the coffee is grown without shade. These elements (and probably many, many others) marry to give Kenyan coffees a mouth-puckering savory-sweet characteristic that sometimes manifests as a tomato-like acidity, other times a black-currant tartness. There is something almost universally tropical-tasting about good-quality Kenyan coffees, and many coffee professionals will admit that they are a favorite.
Again we see the result of variety, processing, and climate in the coffees from Indonesia, which tend to have a deep, dark, almost meaty earthiness to them. Sumatran coffees in particular take to dark roasting well, and so there are often smoky and toasted flavors present in the cup. Others will have a stouty or mushroom-like complexity that is both savory and herbaceous, and a long, lasting finish that feels like very dark or unsweetened cocoa.
(Sumatran coffees and naturally processed Ethiopians tend both to be "love or hate": Those who love them are utterly devoted, those that hate them are repulsed. I guess they are kind of the cilantros of the coffee world.)
What other regional coffee flavors are you curious about? Remember to take all of these generalizations with a grain of, well, coffee. There are always exceptions to any rule, and all we can hope is that they'll be delicious.
About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista, an audacious eater, and a smiling runner, but she remains a Nervous Cook.