Continuing our series on coffee flavor profiles, we’d like to talk about “terroir.” If you’ve never seen that term before, terroir is simply a word that is used to describe the ways in which a coffee’s growing region and environment affect its flavor. Many different variables can influence the terroir of a coffee, including soil composition, climate, altitude, growing conventions, processing, and coffee variety. Because many of these variables are similar within regions, we are able to make predictions about a coffee’s flavor profile based on where it was grown. There will always be outliers - unique microclimates and atypical processing methods can yield dramatically different results - but this article will outline some useful generalizations that should help you to find coffees that you love.
So what do coffees from around the world taste like? And what differentiates a Costa Rica from a Cameroon?
With the exception of Belize, all of Central America’s countries are major players in the world of specialty coffee. Honduras is the region’s largest exporter, and while it’s production pales in comparison to that of Brazil or Colombia, it ranks #5 in the world for total exports. Central America’s flavor profile, along with that of Colombia, has largely shaped the taste preferences and drinking habits of North America. If you’ve ever tasted a “Breakfast Blend,” or a brew vaguely described as “Mild,” you’ve probably tasted a Central America.
Due in large part to growing conditions (which are very similar throughout the region) and processing techniques, coffees from Central America often have a good balance between acidity and sweetness. Acidity in Central American coffees tends towards malic (think apple), or citric (think orange or lemon). Sweetness tends to be soft and round - similar to milk chocolate - and you often find flavors like cacao, nuts, spice, and stone fruit.
Sound like your cup of tea (coffee)? Click HERE to view our coffees from Central America.
South America has two major flavor profiles due to its vast land area and varied climates. Brazil and Colombia - the world’s largest arabica coffee producers - are found in South America, each with different growing conditions as well as harvesting and processing methods. Complicating matters further, in 2012 Colombia undertook an ambitious replanting program - replacing over 420,000 hectares (so far about ½ of Colombia’s coffee production) of older, lower yielding trees with a high-yield, disease resistant variety called “Castillo.” This variety is so far only widespread in Colombia, further differentiating Colombia’s terroir.
Colombia’s coffees, as well as other high-quality coffees produced in the Andes, tend to have a slightly heavier body those from Central America, and a muted acidity. These coffees are extremely well balanced, often with rich, caramel sweetness and flavors like chocolate, toffee, nuts, and cherry.
Brazil’s coffees, by contrast, are grown at lower altitudes, often without shade. This imparts a heavier body and much lower acidity to these coffees than those grown in the Andes. Additionally, Brazil’s processing - which includes mechanical, rather than hand harvesting, and the use of natural and pulped-natural fermentation methods - exacerbates these qualities. Flavors tend to be earthy - peanut, fruit, and some spice often dominate, and the coffee’s creamy body and good structure lend themselves well to espresso.
Does this sound up your alley? Click HERE to view our coffees from South America.
Africa is a region that is difficult to generalize, as there are many coffee-producing countries on the continent, each with its own unique infrastructure, processing techniques, and geographical concerns. Ethiopia alone - the birthplace of coffee - boasts hundreds of different landrace varieties, and four distinct growing regions with wildly different flavor profiles. That said, we’ve outlined some of the more common origins and flavor profiles in the world of specialty coffee.
Ethiopian coffees can be divided into two main categories - washed process and natural process. We will dive into the differences between these methods in a later post. Washed process coffees from Ethiopia tend to have light, delicate body, and pronounced acidity. Washed coffees from the Yirgacheffe region tend towards citric acidity, with a sweet, lemony flavor. Those from the Sidama region tend more towards a peach or apricot acidity and flavor, with floral notes such as bergamot and jasmine. Natural process coffees from Ethiopia have lower acidity and a heavier body, with strong berry flavors like blueberry and strawberry.
Coffees from Kenya are highly prized within the specialty coffee industry for their rich, savory flavors and crisp acidity. High quality Kenyas are often described as winey, with medium to heavy body and a rich, phosphoric acidity (think black currant, or even tomato). Flavors commonly found in Kenyan coffees include currant, pineapple, and blackberry. Other origins that are often classified as having a “Kenya type” flavor profile include Tanzania, Rwanda, and Malawi. We find that these origins tend to have somewhat less body, and acidity leans more towards citric than phosphoric, but all three produce bright, vibrant coffees.
A big exception that you will find to these guidelines on our menu is our Cameroon. Cameroon is the only origin in West Africa with the growing conditions necessary to produce high-quality specialty coffee. As such, its flavor profile is quite different than those of its East African neighbors. Our Cameroon has a medium to heavy body with lower acidity, and a tropical flare. Flavors of raisin, mango, and ripe pineapple dominate.
Does this description have you drooling like Pavlov's dog? Click HERE to view our coffees from Africa.
Indonesia is a polarizing origin - rarely do we meet coffee drinkers who are indifferent to the region’s flavor profile. Coffees from this area are often grown at lower altitudes on wet, jungly mountain slopes. Monsoons make processing and drying a challenge, creating perfect conditions for uncontrolled fermentation and unusual microbial growth. As a result, coffees from Indonesia tend to have heavy body and low acidity, and flavors can present in a myriad of unusual configurations. Fruit, dark chocolate, humus, mushroom, pine, cedar, leather, tobacco - the flavors of Asian coffees are often coarse and earthy. More than any other region in the world, these coffees walk the glorious line between delicacy and decay.
Indonesian coffees stand up remarkably well to darker roasts. Their robust body also makes them a good choice for pairing with cream and sugar, and an immersion brew method (such as a French Press) will suit them particularly well, accentuating the coffee’s body and mouthfeel.
Are you down for a more savory coffee experience? Click HERE to view our coffees from Indonesia.
Obviously, these are generalizations - you should read the descriptions of the coffees that you purchase carefully to determine their actual flavor profile. Bright, sparkly coffees from Indonesia do exist, as do heavy-bodied, fruity coffees from Guatemala, but these are the exceptions, rather than the rule. Armed with this knowledge, when a barista asks you if you want the Kenya or the Brazil, you should be able to answer with a greater degree of confidence.And as always, we’re here to help! If you have questions about any of our coffees, give us a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org, or message us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.