Everyone has a different opinion on what makes a great cup of coffee. Some like their coffee dark and bold. Others want it light and lively. Rich. Smooth. Sweet. They love chocolate notes, or fruit notes, nutty richness or a hint of spice. Different coffee origins produce different flavor profiles, and varying the roast level develops them differently. On our website alone, there are hundreds of possible combinations. Since the coffee one person loves another might reject after the first sip, how do you find the one that's perfect for you?
Let's start with single origin coffees. These are the ones that often include a country and/or region in the name, Colombia Huila, for instance. While coffee varies between farms, both in quality and flavor, origin is often a great place to start when looking for a new coffee. Here's a quick look at the flavors associated with different origins, what's great about them and what can be disappointing. Also, a few striking exceptions:
Africa: The continent where coffee began still grows some of the best coffees in the world. African coffee is known for its bright and lively notes, citrus or bright berry, often accompanied by a floral aroma. The coffee's body is usually on the thinner side. We look for Africans that have enough richness or sweetness to balance the bright notes, but lesser African coffees can be top-heavy, all brightness and little else. We recommend roasting African coffees at one of the lighter roast levels, to highlight their lively notes, but high grown Africans with a larger bean size (look for AA in the name) roast beautifully as dark as a Southern Italian roast level.
There are two exceptions to the rule in Africa. 1) Naturally processed Africans (Natural Ethiopia Lake Abaya, for instance) tend to be sweeter and have a fuller body. 2) The coffees of Uganda are gentle, sweet coffees and apt to burn if roasted darker than Northern Italian, the lighter of the two espresso roast levels.
Asia: Thanks to the Dutch, Indonesia Archipelago became the second great coffee producing region. Indonesian coffees are know for their body, ranging from full to syrupy. The flavors often favor lower notes, dark or dried fruit, Baker's chocolate, malted barley, a hint of spice. Most Indonesian coffees have little if any brightness. The coffees of Indonesia shine at darker roast levels, while lighter roasting may leave a hint of some common flaws (often a musty or earthy flavor).
The exception to the rule is Papua New Guinea Kimel. Grown from cuttings from Jamaica, Kimel has the full body we expect from an Indonesian, but is also surprisingly clean and lively, with a floral aroma that reminds us of some of our favorite Africans. Kimel is one of those coffees that's very different at different roast levels and great at all of them!
India also produces coffee, ranging from lower quality robusta to Specialty Grade arbica. Indian coffees vary widely in their flavor profiles. The best we've tasted mirror good Central or South American coffee.
Central America: If you like your coffee smooth, check out the Central Americans. Some Central American coffees are smooth and sweet (Panama Boquete for instance) and some are smooth and rich, (Guatemala Huehuetenango). We've enjoyed Central American coffees that remind us of candy and others that are so chocolatey, it was hard to believe we hadn't added cocoa before brewing. We prefer the Central American coffees that also have a lively topnote to brighten the cup. A spritz of citrus or berry is common, as are peach, apricot and even tropical fruit notes. The coffees of Central American tend to have a relatively light body, and lesser Central American coffees can taste bland. We recommend roasting Central Americans at a light to medium roast level, to maximize the lively notes, smooth body and richness.
Mexico is part of North America, but Mexican coffee is often marketed as a Central American. Mexican coffee growers range from enormous plantations that produce coffee for large commercial roasters to small holders and coops that provide some of the world's best Specialty Grade coffee. The best Mexican coffees exemplify everything we like about Central American coffees, they're smooth, sweet, rich and lively.
The coffees grown on the islands of the Pacific and Caribbean (Hawaii's Kona, Jamaica's Blue Mountain and Puerto Rico's Yauco, for instance) share many characteristics with Central American coffees. The best examples are amazingly sweet and rich with a soft, silky body. Island coffees are also very expensive. Some roasters blend them with less expensive Central American coffees to lower their price. Island coffee blends can be wonderful, as long as the roaster is honest about the beans they're selling.
South America: Between Colombia and Brazil, South America grows more coffee than any other continent. The countries of the Andes mountains, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, grow coffees famous for their big and balanced flavor . They are also grown at a very high altitude and are wonderful at a wide range of roast levels . The traditional all American cup of coffee is often a medium-roasted coffee from Colombia. If you want a coffee with good body, lively topnotes, balancing richness and a clean lingering finish, the coffees of the Andes mountains are for you.
Brazil produces more coffee than any other country in the world. Most coffees from Brazil are heavy bodied, naturally processed coffees that are the basis for most of the world's espresso. Specialty Grade Brazilian coffee is wonderful, full-bodied and rich. Good Brazil tends to have minimal brightness, rich nut, caramel or chocolate flavor, a creamy mouth feel and a clean, lingering finish. It can be roasted as light as a City Roast, but is more often roasted darker, Full City or Vienna for drip coffee, Northern or Southern Italian for espresso. Lesser Brazilian coffees are best when roasted dark, as they may show flaws at lighter roast levels.
On the Coffee by the Roast website, we describe each of our coffees, what we like about the coffee and the roast level(s) we recommend for it. That goes for our blends as well as the single origin coffees. We like blends for two reasons. First, it allows us to put together coffee flavors that may not naturally develop in the same bean. If you want a coffee that's very bright, but also has a heavy body, a blend like Mokha Java is a great option. We also have flights of coffee for those who want to compare and contrast coffees that share characteristics like “lively,” or “bold.” We enjoy trying different coffees, playing with roast levels and tasting what happens when we blend beans together. If that sounds like fun to you, it's a great way to discover your perfect coffee.
If trying different coffees sounds like too much trouble, we're happy to do the work for you. On our Personalized Coffee page, we have an item called “YOUR Coffee.” Hit the order button, and you'll see a detailed form that asks what you like in a cup of coffee. Answer the questions that apply, ignore the ones that don't, and hit “Add to Cart.” That's it! We'll come up with 3 different roasts of coffee that match your coffee preferences. We'll even keep the recipes on file, so you can fine tune your blend and reorder whenever you run low.
How do you define great coffee? As we've shown in this blog series, coffee preferences really are a matter of taste. Everyone has a different opinion. The good news is, we're all right, and there's a coffee out there for each and every one of us.
(Photo courtesy of Cafe Imports)