Where Your Coffee Comes From

Contributor:  Ann Poorboy

Admittedly, I’m a coffee devotee.  My mom was too.  There just isn’t much I don’t love about the stuff.  Now that we’re all in the post-Starbucks era, we have so many choices that selecting a great coffee can be a little daunting.  Where your coffee comes from has a lot to do with how your coffee tastes.  Much like wine, coffee has tasting notes and subtleties that are introduced at every stage of the process.  From the variety of bean, where it’s grown, how and when it’s harvested, how it’s transported, how it’s stored, how it’s roasted, and finally how quickly it’s packaged.  I hope you enjoy exploring these three varieties as much as I have.  Here goes:

BRAZIL

COFFEE BEANS

About one-third of all of the world’s coffee is grown in Brazil, and much of Brazil’s premium coffee is named after the port it is shipped through, Santos.  Brazil is the largest exporter in the world, supplying approximately 60% of the world’s coffee – this is due in part to the sheer size of the country. While Brazil is a prolific exporter, it’s average elevation for coffee production is only about 1,100 meters. This qualifies most of it as High Grown Coffee (900-1,200 meters), but some crops certainly fall below that threshold.

Many high-quality espresso blends are made from either Bourbon Santos or Brazil Cerrado due to the ability of Brazilian coffees to take dark roasts without turning overly bitter. This is due in part to the mild, balanced flavor of Brazilian coffee beans.  The best Brazilian coffees have relatively low acidity and exhibit a nutty sweet flavor, often bittersweet with a chocolaty roast taste. The most favorable quality of a Brazilian coffee is its price – but after that, the mildness helps to balance out more intense coffee beans, making it a feature of many blends.

TASTING NOTES

A good Brazilian Bourbon Santos has a light to medium body, yields a low acidity, and has a very pleasant aroma. The Bourbon coffee plant varietal (Coffea arabica var. bourbon) tends to produce coffees that are fruitier and brighter (more acidic) than other Brazil coffees.

The low acidity of Brazilian Bourbon Santos derives from the region’s lower growing elevations. This is low relative to areas such as Central America where higher elevation plantations (e.g., 1,500 meters above sea level) produce premium gourmet coffees that are brighter (higher acidity).

FARMING

Since Brazilian coffees are grown at relatively low elevations (compared to Central American coffees, for example), the Brazil coffee beans are not particularly dense. This leads to a milder coffee than many high-grown alternatives.

For this reason, roasting beans to a Medium-Dark Roast is recommended. Coffees that sit on retail store shelving or in distribution warehouses (e.g., Amazon) are typically roasted weeks or months before being sold. Roasted whole bean coffee should be 2-3 weeks old at maximum (if in a valve sealed bag), and ground coffee should be consumed within 1 week of grinding.  

COLOMBIA

Long before Sumatra and Kona coffees, the world fell in love with Colombian coffee. Colombian coffee is loved around the world for its quality and delicious taste. It is often considered to be the best in the world. There are three principal factors which determine the quality of a coffee bean, geography and climate, (and we are talking about the raw product here, not the cup you drink in your home or local café: that can be elevated or ruined by bad roasting, poor brewing technique or inappropriate storage). Below are the three factors, and some explanation as to why each one makes such a key difference when it comes to making Colombia’s coffee taste so good.

  • Geography and climate
  • The growing and harvesting process, and
  • The type of coffee

GEOGRAPHY

When it comes to geography, Colombia’s terrain is near perfect for growing coffee.  Coffee is a sensitive crop which needs the exact conditions to thrive. The rich flavor of Colombian coffee can be attributed to an excellent climate, perfect soil and the perfect amount of rainfall.  Colombia also never gets below freezing.

GROWING AND HARVESTING

When it comes to producing great coffee growing and harvesting are critical steps in the quality process.  It’s not enough to have the perfect climate and terrain if your methods of growing and collecting coffee beans are sloppy or poorly executed. The best coffee is grown on steep slopes, surrounded ideally by trees and banana plants – which provide much-needed shade and prevent the beans being scorched in the hot sun – and every bean is picked by hand. Yes, you read that right: each one of the nearly 600,000 coffee producers in Colombia picks every bit of their harvest by hand.

The hand picking process is essential.  Technology (at least not yet) can’t tell the difference between unripe, ripe, and overripe beans.  People can, and it’s a lot of hard work and blistered fingers of tens of thousands of coffee pickers.  It’s truly a testament to the hard nature of their work. For the coffee lover, it all pays off when only the best coffee beans start their journey towards the coffee cup.

TYPE

Coffee isn’t just coffee.  Like other plants, there are different types of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta (as well as new varieties produced within those two species). Colombia, with its perfect terrain and climate, is one of the only countries that produce 100% Arabica beans. But what does this have to do with the quality of Colombian coffee?

It’s simple, really. Arabica is widely considered to be the superior bean, and it is blessed with a sweeter and lighter taste, as well as less caffeine – about half the amount – and stronger acidic notes. In short, arabica produces a tastier, richer cup of coffee than robusta, and Colombia’s 100% arabica status is bound to add up to some pretty amazing coffee.

There’s nothing that can be done to rescue even the finest coffee on earth if the roast is dreadful, it’s been stored poorly or you simply dump boiling water over the grounds and expect world-class coffee. And for a special Keurig 2.0 hack, try setting 5 on your machine if you haven’t already.  It’s a two-stage process, but well worth it.  If you’re using a reusable K-cup, use fresh beans in both stages for a Coffee Shop level cup.  It’s amazing.

TANZANIA

Without coffee, many of us feel lost in a foggy mind. No coffee means no momentum. It’s estimated that worldwide humans drink over two billion cups of coffee per day. Two billion (I just spilled my cup of Kona writing that).

TANZANIA’S SECRET, WORLD-CLASS COFFEE

Coffee, as a plant, is picky. It can only be grown in equatorial climates at certain temperatures and elevation levels. The more premium coffee beans, like Arabica, are also the most sensitive to climate, soil, and water. So when prime growing conditions are available, coffee can become a cash crop to be exported around the world.

Currently, coffee is Tanzania’s largest export. The Tanzanian coffee industry employs more than 400,000 families.

WHY IS TANZANIAN COFFEE SO SPECIAL

After arriving in Tanzania, you will most likely travel through coffee plantations at some point. These rolling green fields boast broad-leafed plants extending as far as the eye can see. But how did Tanzania become such a coffee titan? For this, we have to reach back into history.

The first coffee consumption was around the 15th century in Ethiopia.  Ethiopia is located several hundred miles north of Tanzania. The plant was used to extend alertness, work longer hours, and for prayer. The plant quickly spread around the world following trade routes. In the 16th century, coffee starts to be grown in northwestern Tanzania with the Haya tribe, who smoked, boiled, and chewed coffee.

Colonization by the Germans and British accelerated coffee growing in Tanzania and many tribesmen worked coffee plantations, including the Chagga who live around Mount Kilimanjaro. After Tanzania gained its independence in 1961, the country’s leaders saw promise in its coffee export and doubled down on supporting its economy. Public management of the coffee industry led to complications and market volatility, and reforms in the early 1990s privatized the industry. Now, over ninety percent of coffee in Tanzania is grown by smallholder farms.

TASTE

The higher quality coffee for which Tanzania is known, Arabica, is famous for its bright acidity and fruity, tart notes. Expect a cup of Tanzanian brew to taste much like Ethiopian or Kenyan coffees (as they all share a common origin). The Tanzania Peaberry is a known delicacy for coffee aficionados.  It’s definitely a bolder blend so go a bit easier on those Keurig strong settings – unless you like the more acidic bitter tastes.

I haven’t researched Kona or Sumatra blends yet, but they’re also in my list of favorites especially when I’m pairing them with a sweet breakfast or dessert.  Let me know about your favorites.

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