I’ve written about a few different ways to affect your coffee’s taste—the grind, the brewing temperature, proper storage and your preferred method of extraction—but before your coffee ever makes it to your kitchen it has to be grown somewhere in a particular soil in a particular climate, and processed in whatever way happens to suit the grower of those particular beans.
Because of this coffees from different parts of the world have identifiable characteristics, and if you know what these are you’ll have an easier time knowing what you like, and—when you feel like trying something new—what you’ll probably like.
Learning a few key terms will help guide you through the world of coffee (and make it easier to communicate what you’d like to try):
- Aftertaste. The flavors you still taste after swallowing your coffee; also referred to as the finish.
- Acidity (or brightness). A frequently misunderstood term, acidity in coffee does not refer to acid or pH (coffee is only slightly acidic with a pH of around 5 or 6), but to a bright and tangy flavor characteristic—think wine! Not to be confused with bitter or sour, which are terms for the really nasty flavors that show up when you over or under extract while brewing.
- Body. The mouthfeel of a coffee; its texture. A full-bodied coffee will feel creamy and substantial; medium-bodied will feel thinner and light-bodied coffee will feel closer to water.
- Clean. Flavorful but without any sharp, stand-out notes.
- Earthy. The flavor equivalent of the fresh smell of wet soil.
- Smooth. A smooth coffee is a balanced coffee and a good choice for beginners as it has no overly-pungent tastes or aftertastes.
There’s another thing to keep in mind before you embark on your international adventure: the darker the roast, the less of these unique coffee characteristics you’re going to be able to taste—the strong roasty, toasty flavor will cover most of them right up, so for the full experience stick with a light American roast (or, for coffees from the Asia/Pacific region, a darker Viennese roast.)
The same goes for using cream and sugar or anything similar; it may taste great, but it will disguise the flavors unique to each growing region.
Mexico. Grown in the southernmost state of Mexico, Mexican Chiapas coffee beans are smooth, nutty, slightly sweet and have a hint of chocolate (think “unsweetened cocoa powder” rather than “Hershey bar”). They are light to medium in body with a brisk acidity reminiscent of white wine, and comparable in flavor to gourmet beans grown in neighboring Guatemala.
Central America. These coffees are smooth, fragrant, nutty and in general have a medium acidity. There are some variations between countries, though.
- Costa Rican. A full-bodied, nearly-perfect balance of brightness, flavor and aroma.
- Guatemalan Antigua. One of the finest of the Guatemalan coffees; less full in body but more complex in flavor with notes of cocoa and spice; very well-balanced. This coffee is a personal darling of the owners of Coffee City USA as they can “meet in the middle” between Ray’s favorite (Kenyan) and Sandy’s favorite (Sumatran).
- El Salvadorian Buena Vista. A rainforest coffee competent in flavor, with medium body and a gentle acidity.
- Panamanian. Bright, clean and flavorful without being pungent; subtle enough for blends but also makes a good cup by itself.
- Nicaraguan High Grown. Light-bodied with mild acidity and mellow notes of fruit and chocolate.
South America. Expect your South American beans to be well-balanced and mild.
- Brazilian Santos. Medium-bodied with low acidity; nutty and chocolatey with sweet-to-bittersweet flavor. Brazil produces ⅓ of all the world’s coffee—a lot of that is lower grade coffee, but the premium beans are very good.
- Colombian Supremo. Supremo is medium-bodied and famously smooth, with mellow acidity and sweet notes of caramel and some nuttiness; an old friend to many North American coffee drinkers (and one of our best sellers!)
Hawaii. Hawaiian Kona coffee (named for the Kona region of the Big Island where it is exclusively grown) has a large bean size and a hefty price tag. Kona beans are mellow, full-bodied, well-balanced and clean, with a hint of chocolate and a sweet aroma. For the true, regional taste be sure to purchase 100% Kona beans; for a similar flavor that’s easier on the pocketbook try our Kona 50/50 Blend.
The African Continent
Africa. Most African coffees can be described as sharp and assertive, their flavors strong and clean with a real brightness and a tantalizingly fruity aroma.
- Ethiopian (Harrar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffe). Ethiopian javas are complex with a wine-like quality; Harrar is intensely bright with a heady aroma; Sidamo is milder in acidity and full-bodied; Yirgacheffe has a sweet flavor and a complex floral aroma and is bright and lively in the cup.
- Kenyan AA. One of the world’s finest premium coffees and a favorite of connoisseurs, Kenyan AA beans are complex, full-bodied and boldly rich with a pleasant, wine-like acidity and a fruity aftertaste.
- Tanzanian Peaberry. These unusual beans are smaller than average (hence the “peaberry” name) with rich flavor, medium body and a bright and snappy acidity; a nice representative of African coffees in general.
- Zimbabwean. This coffee is well-balanced and medium-bodied with an intense aroma and a fruity (or citrusy) acidity; rich with flavor (and similar to Kenya AA beans) with a fine aftertaste.
Indonesia. Due to the climate and processing methods used in this part of the world Indonesian coffees can taste almost savory or like very dark cocoa; they have a noticeably substantial earthiness to them and do well on a darker roast. While this sets them apart from most other coffee-growing regions their unusual taste can be polarizing—you might hate Indonesian coffee, but you might also really, really like it.
- Sulawesian (Celebes Kalossi). This coffee is complex, well-balanced and full-bodied with a mild acidity and berry notes.
- Sumatran Mandheling. These beans make a very earthy cup, full-bodied with low acidity and a strong herbal aroma.
Indian Malabar. Similar to Indonesian coffees—low in acidity, very smooth and clean and full-bodied with a pleasantly earthy taste.
Feeling overwhelmed? You can generalize very broad regions of the world and get an okay idea of what to expect: coffees from the Americas and Africa are usually fruity, bright and floral with light to medium body, and the former is more likely to grow coffees with notes of chocolate, nuts and spice. That just leaves the Asia/Pacific region coffees—these tend to be full-bodied and much less bright, and those rich, earthy flavors reign supreme.
Coffee is as varied as any other local cuisine, but with a little practice and exploration you can pinpoint exactly where your perfect cup of coffee is grown.