Coffee 101 – Understanding Coffee Origins

Coffee Bean Belt

Coffee Origins

Hello Geniuses!

We are going to kick things off in 2015 by talking about coffee origins and getting to know them better. Over a series of blog posts we’ll be exploring topics such as cultivating regions, processing methods and varietals to name a few. Ultimately, our goal with these posts is to educate you, our Geniuses, and enhance your appreciation for the bean in a deeper way. So let’s get started, shall we?

We as humans inherently tend to associate food and all the fantastic things that come with it, i.e. taste, texture, and aroma, with a particular place and region. For instance, when you first experienced a truly great slice of authentic pizza, your mind gets transported to Italy…the birthplace of pizza. Our minds intuitively and instinctively latch onto the “sights and smells” of that place.

Coffee is no different. Much like wine, various cultivating regions across the world are associated with characteristic qualities; frequently referred to as terroir. Distinct flavor notes can be attributed to a particular coffee growing continent, country, farm and even different sides of the farm! Could it be that you have a favorite coffee growing region or country in the world? Let’s go ahead and find out.

Understanding the Bean Belt

First, let’s start by understanding where coffee can actually be grown. Coffee is generally cultivated in regions that fall under the “Bean Belt”. How do you identify the Bean Belt? Really simple; open a world map and look at the regions between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. However, not all regions within the belt are ideal for coffee cultivation. Coffee trees grow best in slightly cooler climates (700F), higher elevations, and require moderate rain and sunshine to yield a good crop year after year.

Coffee Bean Belt

Coffees from Africa – Fruity and Floral

Let’s go back to where it all began…the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia. The coffee plant was indigenous to this region before it was transported and cultivated across the world. Coffees from this region can be incredibly diverse. However, fruity and floral flavor profiles seem to be a constant theme with coffees from this region. Other coffee producing nations in Africa include Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania to name a few.

African Coffee

Coffees from Asia – Earthy and Spicy

Coffee then made its way to Asia through Yemen before being secretly smuggled into India through Baba Budan before being transported to Indonesia through the Dutch governor stationed in India. Coffees from Indonesia and its regions – Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi are known for their earthy and spicy flavor profiles.

Coffee from Asia

Coffees from South America – Chocolaty, Nutty and Sweet

A few “enterprising” Europeans once again smuggled the coffee plant  into South and Central America. Since then it has become a leading cash crop in the region with Brazil and Colombia together accounting for nearly a third of the world’s coffee output. Coffees from this region are characterized by their chocolaty, nutty, and sweet flavor profiles and are most familiar to the American palate. Other coffee cultivating regions from the mainland include Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

South American Coffee

Coffees from Central America – Citrusy, Fruity and Balanced

Coffee then spread to Central America into Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico and Honduras. While closer to South American coffees, Central American coffee regions by virtue of their terroir and different cultivation methods tend to bring out slightly different flavors in a cup. Coffees from this region are often described as being citrusy, fruity, and balanced. Closer to North America, coffee is also cultivated in Hawaii, Jamaica, Peurto Rico, and Haiti.

There you have it – a quick tour of the coffee growing regions of the world. These guideposts should help you associate tastes and regions but keep in mind that this is just one piece of the puzzle. We are often surprised during our blind cupping sessions when we associate a coffee with a particular region only to be proven wrong!

Guatamalan Coffee

So the next time you’re about to tear open your fresh bag of coffee, think about that African safari or that volcanic expedition you always wanted to take, it will make your coffee that much more meaningful!

Next week, we will continue our journey by better understanding coffee varietals and how they influence taste.

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