By: Holly Bowman 24 May 2017
For many people, coffee is a necessary part of daily life taken like medicine for a wake up call. In recent years however, consumers have become more and more enamoured with specialty grade coffee which possesses incredible intrinsic flavour that makes our daily brew much more of an event.
Flavour in coffee is strongly influenced by the country of origin those beans came from and whilst we can’t generalise the profiles created, each coffee origin generally carries with it unique characteristics. We want to help you to buy a coffee that is most suited to your flavour preference so we decided to put this guide together to explain some of the differences in flavour profiles and supply chains from each region. Quality and ethics lie at the heart of what we do here and we hope this guide will give you an insight into our buying decisions and relationships with our producing partners.
We love the community created around sourcing, roasting, and serving coffee and would love to hear from you with any thoughts, questions or insights. We hope that by delving further into where your beans come from, you will enjoy them all the more with a newfound respect and understanding. If you would like to add anything to this article or suggest new blog ideas then please just let us know.
So without further ado, here is your ultimate resource for understanding coffee from around the world.
The Birthplace of Coffee…
It felt fitting to commence this article with the region that is widely accepted as the birthplace of coffee and which can therefore be credited with the the very global nature of the industry today.
Coffee was first discovered in the Kaffa region of south-west Ethiopia, supposedly by a goatherd named Kaldi who noticed his goats behaved very strangely after eating the cherries of a certain tree he found growing there. Kaldi sampled the cherries for himself and shared them with his neighbours who all felt similar effects and were markedly more energetic.
This strange behaviour was noticed by the local religious man who declared the cherries the work of the devil and threw them on the fire. Sure enough, the air was then filled with the heavenly scent of roasting coffee beans to which he then declared the cherries the work of God!
Whether fact or fiction, there can be no doubting the incredible growing conditions found in much of Africa which has led to this continent achieving global fame for its coffee production – some of the best coffee’s in the world are African in origin and it is widely argued that coffees from East Africa (Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, Ethiopia and DRC) have the most potential to score highly for quality.
For the purpose of this post, we are going to be looking at specialty Arabica producing countries in Africa. The table below highlights the differences between Arabica and Robusta and details where both species are grown in Africa.
This table actually helps to explain a bit of history behind some of the coffee culture found in today’s society. Cote D’Ivoire, for example, was a French colony and therefore exported much of its Robusta coffee to France. It is for this reason that the preferred flavour profile in France is one that favours darkly roasted, bitter and chocolatey coffees.
African coffees are best known for their incredibly complex flavour profiles that bring added sweetness and acidity to many espresso blends, and also make fantastically refined single origin brews. They are by far the best example of the many different potential flavours that can be found in coffee and many of the producing countries have the best environmental conditions available for the production of high quality coffee.
When looking at the Coffee Tasting Wheel, African coffees tend to occupy the floral/fruit section with flavours ranging from jasmine to lemon to blackcurrant.
We tend to revisit the producing regions in Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzani for our African selection each year, through we have recently launched a Burundi coffee that is proving very popular. So popular that we will be visiting in July to participate with the country’s Cup of Excellence competition there in the hope that we learn more about the structure there and are introduced to some of the country’s best washing stations. We are also hoping to look to the DRC as an option as their coffee infrastructure continues to improve.
Generally speaking, coffee from Africa will have been farmed on smallholder plantations as opposed to large estates owned by one farmer. In Kenya, for instance, 60% of the farming is completed by smallholder families who often have no more than 2 hectares for coffee production equating to 200-300 trees. This amount of land will produce roughly 1-2 sacks of coffee which is usually not enough to export to buyers.
Growers will therefore group together to form cooperatives which are generally named after the washing station or factory that processes the cherries delivered by the smallholder farmers. The farmer is then paid for the cherry that is delivered and will receive incentives for the quantity of ripe coffee that is brought to the washing station. The station will then use their specially trained staff to process the coffee in a consistent and uniform manner to ultimately produce a coffee that has incredible depth of flavour that has been brought about by the crop of often up to 1000 smallholders.
The majority of the coffee produced in East Africa will be washed in channels by hand and then dried on African raised beds. It is for this reason that these coffees tend to have higher levels of acidity and are incredibly ‘clean’ in the cup with distinct nuances of flavour.
Ethiopia is also a well known coffee origin for using the natural process alongside the washed to create outstanding flavour profiles that really do have to be tasted to be believed. Ethiopian natural coffees tend to be almost ‘Geisha’ like in character with intense floral notes and aromas of ripe strawberry and blueberries.
Typically speaking, coffees from Africa are best enjoyed filtered and black with no milk or sugar added to them. This approach to brewing African coffees has been created purely to best show off the complexity of flavour that can be found, however that is not to say that all African coffees will perform best using this method. If the coffee is naturally full bodied, such as our Rwanda Gihombo, it is more likely to be suited to a wider range of brewing styles and will work particularly well as espresso – creating a rich and jammy shot with hints of orange. On the other hand, the soon to be released Kenya Ragati Peaberry is a good example of a coffee best enjoyed filtered due to its flavours of blackcurrant, lemon and even vine tomato! These delicate flavours are really best experienced through something like a Chemex or Aeropress which will show off everything that makes this coffee special.
The way that you enjoy your coffee is really up to you but think carefully about whether or not an African coffee is suited to your flavour and brew preferences as they can taste peculiar if not brewed correctly.
Our recommendations for the African coffees we currently have in stock can be found on the product page of each coffee. If you require any further recommendations or advice then please don’t hesitate to drop us a line and we would be happy to help.
Central America is the region that is most likely responsible for the production of many people’s favourite brews. It is a region well known for producing deliciously balanced and smooth drinking coffees which are well loved by most and disliked by few.
However, it occasionally has suffered from a reputation for the production of more commercial, non-specialty lots which are relied on to add hints of sweetness to many commercialised blends. Central American coffees tend to have more character than those from Brazil and many of the low grown Robusta coffees which find their way into so many supermarket and high street options. As a region, it is also capable of producing coffee on a large scale and most producing countries have the infrastructure and expertise to process the coffee cleanly and consistently.
It is of course also an incredibly beautiful region with many farms having access to perfect growing conditions for the production of extremely high quality coffees. At North Star, we buy from nearly every Central American producing country and are very proud of the relationships we have with our farming partners there.
Coffee reached much of Central America in the late 18th century, but production didn’t really take off until the mid 19th century, largely due to the decline of the indigo industry.
Many countries in Central America have experienced a somewhat turbulent journey into coffee production due to internal social conflict and political unrest.
Many experienced coffee farmers fled during the years under Sandinista rule of the late 1970s to the 1990s. When the political scene changed, those farmers returned and not long after, Nicaragua started to produce some very good coffee. However, the devastating effects of Hurricane Mitch and the prolonged world coffee price crisis created further giant -sized hurdles for a country that can, and now does, produce some very desirable coffees indeed.
Coffee thrived in El Salvador until civil war hit in the 1980s which forced many farmers to abandon their land and coffee trees in order to escape the conflict. Whilst this saw a dramatic fall in production, causing many buyers to look elsewhere, there was one positive to come out of the war. During that period, many other Central American producing countries were undertaking research into higher yielding, disease resistant varietals to replace the lower yielding heirloom varietals. El Salvador managed to escape this process and has therefore held on to its fantastic Bourbon trees which are far superior in the cup when compared to coffees grown from varietals which have gone through a programme of cross breeding.
Political issues continued to dominate throughout the 20th century and culminated in civil war from 1960 to 1996. During this time, many farmers abandoned their land due to the conflict and Guatemala’s coffee production dipped. Nowadays, thanks to the industry body Anacafe which has worked to actively promote the many regional differences in Guatemalan coffee, the country has a reputation for quality and supports a number of projects which aim to create a more sustainable and specialty focused industry.
Disaster struck in the 1980s due to a drop in the price of oil which saw the government change its policies bringing about a decline in the industry and the collapse of the Mexican Coffee Institute. Farmers then had no access to credit and struggled to find a market for their crop, falling prey to predatory coffee buyers known as ‘coyotes’ who would buy low and sell high. This decline also led to a massive drop in quality, giving the country a bad reputation for the production of specialty coffee. In recent years, producers in the regions of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Veracruz have formed collectives to try and take on some of the roles previously carried out by the Mexican Coffee Institute and have been successful in forming direct relationships with buyers who value quality.
Central America is well known for it’s abundance of volcanoes and mountain ranges which are responsible for the many micro climates that exist in these producing countries. The high altitude and fertile volcanic soil along with regular rainfall and relatively well defined seasons make perfect conditions for the production of very high quality coffee.
Unlike producing countries in Africa, Central American coffee tends to be farmed on large estates that have been in the same family for generations.
Generally speaking, coffee is harvested on the farm and is then taken to an external wet mill to be processed. This is very dependent on the situation in the producing country though and many farms will take care of the whole process from start to finish.
In countries like El Salvador where there is a heavy gang presence, coffee theft is common and it is sometimes safer for the farmer to only store cherries on their farm as opposed to washed parchment coffee which is of a higher value. However, up and coming regions like Chaletenango in the north are investing in distributing processing expertise to enable smallholder producers to access a higher price for their coffee.
As we tend to work with estates for our Central American coffees, we have a unique opportunity to work with individual farmers – we get to know our partners really well and become invested in them and their local communities. North Star has a commitment to investing in the producing communities we work with and we do so by contributing to various social and economic projects in areas that we buy large volumes of coffee from, partnering with local NGOs to put in place projects that will improve the quality of life of the farming families we work with.
The beauty of Central American coffees is their versatility when it comes to brewing methods. Coffees from these producing countries tend to have a more pronounced body than African coffees with a more rounded acidity making them well suited to both espresso and filter style brews – they also take well to milk and can be enjoyed black.
If you are purchasing coffee as a gift for someone, a Central American coffee is a good choice if you are unsure of their flavour profile preference or brew style as you are almost always guaranteed to match both with coffees from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica or Panama.
Our brewing recommendations for the Central American coffees we currently have in stock can be found on the product page of each coffee. If you require any further recommendations or advice then please don’t hesitate to get in contact (both online or at our roastery) and we would be happy to help.
South America is home to the largest coffee producing country in the world – Brazil. As such, it is a well known coffee producing region and has a varied landscape and environment perfect for the farming of high quality beans.
But South America is not all about Brazil, Colombia is the largest producer of washed Arabica globally and has a well managed industry which contributes to the wider community through research and quality development.
There are also emerging coffee producing countries in South America such as Bolivia and Ecuador which, in the past, have not had the necessary infrastructure or management to set up a successful, quality focused coffee industry. We are now seeing more investment in these countries and look forward to seeing some different flavour profiles and processes come to the market.
South America is also home to the Andes, the longest continental mountain range in the world. This incredible range runs through Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina and offers such a varied terrain encompassing glaciers, volcanoes, grassland, desert, lakes and forest. The Andes are responsible for the many varied micro climates found particularly in Colombia, making this a very attractive coffee origin to work with as it has the ability to harvest nearly all year round.
A new arrival to the North Star family is the Peru Nehemias Flores. It originates from the northern highlands of Peru and its cherry, peach and floral flavours are making it a popular choice with our community of online and wholesale customers.
Brazil is South America’s most inﬂuential and economically powerful country and is one of the world’s largest economies. Coﬀee plantations cover about 27,000 km2 (10,000 sq mi) of the country; of the approx. six billion trees, 74% are Arabica and 26% Robusta. The states of Minas Gerais, São Paulo and Paraná are the largest producers due to suitable landscapes, climate and rich soil though production has mostly moved North due to the harsh frosts experienced in the mid-1970s in Paraná which destroyed much of the coffee. Most plantations are harvested in the dry months of May to July and new crop tends to arrive into the UK between October and January.
Generally speaking, Brazil’s coffee producing regions are relatively flat which has seen the introduction of mechanical pickers and machinery which take the place of a workforce of pickers during the harvest season. There are some advantages to this, one being that a farm of up to 5000 hectares can be run by as little as 3 or 4 people which massively reduces the labour costs of coffee farming in Brazil. It is for this reason that Brazilian coffee tends to be selected as the base to most commerical coffee blends as it is extremely cheap in relation to other origins.
However, mechanical picking also means that it is impossible to only select the ripe red cherries which does have a negative impact on the quality of a lot and results in a heavy reliance on the sorting process to ensure any immature beans are removed.
At North Star, we have selected a natural processed Uva coffee from Fazenda Pantano in Minas Gerais for the base to our house blend, Dark Arches. We chose it for the fantastic body and balance it provides which helps to anchor the blend allowing us to add more complex and characteristic coffees from El Salvador and Sumatra to bring depth of flavour. Fazenda Pantano is a cutting edge farm which is leading the way for sustainable and quality focused coffee farming in Brazil. It recently won an award for being the most sustainable perrenial farm in Brazil, an outstanding achievement that we are incredibly proud of.
Due to it’s size, Brazil pretty much dictates the global price for coffee based on how much it produces each year. The New York Commodity market was created in 1989 to provide a minimum price for the producer – this price however is completely dependent on supply and demand which is where Brazil comes in. If Brazil is due to have a bumper crop and produce more coffee than the world actually needs, the market can skyfall to levels far below the cost of production for many farmers across the world.
At North Star, to ensure we are working ethically with the farmer’s best interest at heart, we divorce ourselves from this world market to pay an outright price direct to the grower that is based on the quality and that guarantees to cover the costs involved in production. By working in this way, we often pay up to 100% more than Fairtrade and can also work with each farm or cooperative on an individual basis, making sure that one size does not fit all.
Colombia is arguably one of the world’s most famous producing countries, partly due to the amount of coffee it produces but also due to the heavy and clever marketing it has invested into its coffee production. It is thought coffee has been grown in Colombia since the 1700s, though it wasn’t until the early 20th century that its production started to become noteworthy, contributing fifty per cent of the country’s total exports. Colombia recognised the importance of coffee and established the FNC (Federación Nacional de Cafeteros) in 1927, a non-profit organisation run by producing members to provide technical advice, research and marketing to farmers across the country. In 1958, the FNC created ‘Juan Valdez’, the moustachioed mule-riding coffee farmer who became the face of the industry and appeared in advertising campaigns and on coffee bags, acting as a brand for loyal coffee drinkers to buy into. Colombia is now the third largest coffee producing country in the world after Brazil and Vietnam and is the world’s largest producer of washed Arabica coffee.
In a country as large as Colombia with an established coffee industry spread over 17 regions, there is of course a huge variation in quality ranging from exceptional to the rather ordinary. There is also huge potential for variation in flavour profiles due to the many different micro-climates and producing areas. Some Colombian coffees can be heavy in body with flavours of chocolate and nut, whilst others can be outstandingly clean and complex with jammy sweetness and citrus notes. The coffee producing areas lie amongst the Andes and the Sierra Nevada where the climate is temperate with adequate rainfall and the hilly terrain means there are a number of different micro climates which will harvest coffee at different times throughout the year. Most Colombian coffee regions will have two harvests throughout the year – the main harvest and the ‘mitaca’ (fly crop). There are more than half a million growers spread throughout the key regions of Nariño, Cauca, Huila, Tolima, Quindio, Antioquia, Cundinamarca and Caldas. Key varietals include Caturra, Bourbon, Typica, Castillo and Marogogype.
Coffees from Brazil tend to be more suited to espresso based drinks due to their fantastic body and balance, they also have the capability of working well with milk too.
Colombian coffees on the other hand are more versatile due to their higher levels of acidity which makes them suited to filter methods as well as espresso. Our Colombia Los Naranjos works fantastically through V60 Pour Over and AeroPress as well as espresso and is a great gift option for that reason as it will likely suit nearly every brew method.
Our brewing recommendations for the South American coffees we currently have in stock can be found on the product page of each coffee. If you require any further recommendations or advice then please don’t hesitate to drop us a line and we would be happy to help.
Coffees from Asia are well known for their smooth character with good body and lower acidity. This is partly due to the dominance of Robusta in this part of the world, particularly in Vietnam which is the world’s second largest coffee producer.
For this reason, Asian coffees are often not as highly regarded as coffees from other origins – though this is gradually changing as more and more specialty buyers look to Asia for their espresso blends.
The coffee market is controlled by a global stock exchange which regulates the price based on supply and demand. In 2000, this market went into freefall – partly due to the transnational corporations which dominated the market at the time (Nestle, Kraft, Folgers and Hill Bros) and were vying for market share by focusing on price rather than quality, but mostly due to the incredible growth in coffee production in Vietnam.
In a decade, Vietnam rose from being a fairly insignificant coffee producing country, to be the second largest exporter of coffee in the world. Most of the growth happened within a 5 year period from 1995 to 2000 when Vietnam’s annual coffee exports rose from 4 million bags to 14 million bags. This excess of coffee combined with the pressure put on producers from TNC’s, caused the world market to plummet to its lowest levels ever at just $0.20c/lb. To put this in perspective, the costs involved in production for a farmer in Central America are estimated to be around $1.75/lb. Therefore, between 2000 and 2006, coffee farmers were operating in a system which left them facing a mountain of debt and unable to support their families.
“On May 24, 2001, 14 young Mexican immigrants died in the Arizona desert while attempting to enter the US to find work. Of the 14 who died, six were bankrupted coffee farmers from the state of Veracruz. They were among an estimated 300,000 coffee farmers in Mexico who have been forced to leave their land in search of work. These deaths – directly linked to the collapse of world coffee prices – symbolise the desperation and sense of crisis faced by small coffee farmers and coffee plantation workers throughout the region, and the world.” – Gerard Greenfield, 2002
Coffee accounts for nearly half of the total net exports from producing countries in the Tropics, by 2001, coffee prices had fallen to their lowest levels ever, totalling less than one third of their 1960 levels. This fall in prices impacted more than 25 million households in coffee-producing countries and deeply affected the economic sustainability of countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa which still experience difficulty in accessing fair prices today.
Nearly all production in Vietnam comes from Robusta trees and exports are mostly focused on the soluble (instant coffee) market. The issues around this market are those of environmental sustainability as more and more companies are ripping out natural forest reserves in favour of commercial coffee farms. There is also a concern around the amount of water and fertilisers that are used with the soil being too intensely farmed.
The specialty coffee industry is yet to kick off in Vietnam with infrastructure being focused solely on volume. However, we are starting to see the question being asked which is surely a very positive development for both Vietnam and the global environmental sustainability issue.
Coffees from Sumatra are known for their deep chocolate flavours and intense heavy body, and some of the best come from the northern region of Aceh. The average farm size in Sumatra is small, just one to five hectares across the country and different varietals can often be found growing together.
For three years, we have had the pleasure of working with the Jagong cooperative to supply that hit of Dark chocolate flavour to our house espresso blend, Dark Arches. We chose this coffee for its uniformity and consistency – something that is extremely rare in Indonesian coffees. We also love the weight it adds to the blend which enables it to fulfil its purpose of working with milk based drinks.
The village of Jagong in Aceh, was established in the 1980’s as a result of a transmigration program in which Javanese people were offered land in Sumatra. This was an attempt to reduce the population of the overcrowded island of Java and in order to begin their new lives, the settlers started to produce Arabica coffee. Jagong is located in the Central Aceh District south of Aceh’s capital Takengon and around 35 kilometres from Lake Tawar. There are 25 members of the Jagong village cooperative who grow organic bourbon and P88 arabica alongside cabbages, chillies and red beans on land that averages around one hectare in size.
The coffee is produced here using a unique process called ‘Giling Basah’ – this method brings about more body and often more of the character that makes Indonesians so unique and recognisable with flavours ranging from deep chocolate to tangerine funk.
Kopi Luwak coffee, also known as cat/civet coffee, is one of the world’s most famous and expensive items following its discovery and first import into the West in 1991. It has been stocked by the likes of Harrods and Selfridges and has appeared on Oprah and the film ‘The Bucket List’ – but what actually is it?
Genuine Indonesian Kopi Luwak is collected from the droppings of a wild cat-like animal called the luwak (the common palm civet, Paraxorus Hermaphroditus). The palm civet is a shy, solitary nocturnal forest animal that freely prowls nearby coffee plantations at night – during the harvest season, it has been known to eat the ripe red cherries. Seeing as it is unable to digest the seeds of the cherry (the coffee), it simply passes them out of its digestive tract along with the rest of its droppings. The beans are then collected by farm workers who clean and wash the beans – it is thought these Kopi Luwak beans have acquired a unique and highly prized taste from their passage through the Luwak’s digestive tract and the anal scent glands they use for marking their territory.
How is it that a coffee processed from the faeces of an animal came to achieve global fame?
The first lot of Kopi Luwak beans came into the UK in 1991 and were purchased by Taylors of Harrogate who had heard tales of this mysterious coffee. The company thought they could achieve some press from the local newspaper for getting their hands on this interesting product. The coffee quickly made the national headlines and as a result, an international industry was created based on the sales of this peculiar bean.
Is it commercially viable?
Unfortunately, being wild, Kopi Luwak is very difficult to collect and keep consistent – it was therefore not a commercially viable crop and nowadays, most luwak coffee comes from caged palm civets that are often kept in appalling conditions and force fed coffee cherries. Unbelievably, there are still coffee companies around the world who market Kopi Luwak along the lines of that original quirky story involving a wild animal’s digestive habits – many claiming that only 500 kilogrammes are collected a year, a scarcity that justifies its huge retail pricetag (usually between $200-400 a kilo, sometimes more).
Following a BBC expose in 2015, the industry has lost some of its momentum with many retailers demanding proof that what they are stocking has come from wild animals. Utz certification has also amended it’s animal welfare standards to specify that no caged animals are allowed to be kept on the farm if the owner wishes to maintain its membership. These are small triumphs but unfortunately we are seeing the faeces of other animals making it into the headlines with the latest being the ‘Indonesian Elephant Coffee’. One thing we can hope for is that with a greater emphasis on sustainability globally, animals will be protected from the greed of human beings!
What does it actually taste like?
We have Q graded a sample of Kopi Luwak coffee and it scored the same as a low grade Central American bean – around 77 out of 100. There was very little character or interesting flavour and the only thing brought to the coffee by processing it in this way is a questionable level of toxins! Customers of Kopi Luwak are quite literally buying crap and would be much better off sticking to an ethically sourced specialty grade coffee!
Indonesian coffees tend to be purchased for their heavier body and mouthfeel making them more suited to espresso based drinks or filters that allow a certain level of suspended solids into the brew such as the cafetiere or stove top.
They usually work really well in milk too but there are certain origins gaining a name for themselves as being great options for single origin filter. Papua New Guinea is now producing some really good coffee that is often full of tangerine flavour with hints of red fruits.
We currently have our house blend, ‘Dark Arches’, available which utilizes the Sumatra Jagong – our brewing recommendations for this coffee can be found here. If you require any further recommendations or advice then please don’t hesitate to drop us a line and we would be happy to help.
Understanding where our coffee comes from and the journey from farm to cup is one that’ll help any coffee enthusiast get more from their coffee. Once you know what kind of flavours you prefer then you can work out what country of origin is likely best suited to your preferred tastes.
For help getting started or for more information about choosing a coffee you’ll like, simply drop us a line and we’d be happy to talk coffee with you for hours 🙂
Similarly, if you’re interested in learning more about coffee then simply subscribe below and you’ll join a select community who receive all our latest advice and insights around speciality coffee.