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Coffee Flavors Deconstructed - The "Where" of Coffee Flavor

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Coffee Flavors Deconstructed - The "Where" of Coffee Flavor

Carrie Masek

Last time on Coffee by the Blog, we talked about coffee flavors and the words used to describe them. This time, we consider the “Where” of coffee flavor, how geography affects the flavor in your cup.

Coffee grows in the tropics. The best coffee, high quality Arabica, thrives at high altitudes. Travel to tropical heights – the Andes of South America, the volcanic peaks of the Pacific Islands, the Sierra Madres of Mexico, or the highlands of Ethiopia – and chances are you'll find coffee growing.

The higher the altitude, the slower the coffee grows and the harder the coffee beans become. Low grown coffees tend to be soft and fragile. They burn if roasted beyond 430-440 degrees F (a Full City to Vienna roast level). High grown, hard bean coffees can go as dark as you dare. Slow development of the coffee bean also allows more of the lively notes and other flavors to develop. High grown coffee is livelier at a light roast level and sweeter at dark roast levels.

Region also plays a big role in coffee flavor. Different areas have very different soils and rainfall, different access to clean, fresh water, and different amounts of direct sunlight vs shade. All these things combine to give each major coffee growing region it's own, unique flavor profile. The major coffee growing regions, and their flavor profiles are listed below, along with some interesting exceptions to each region's rule.

America: The continents of North and South America produce more coffee than anyplace else in the world. American coffees are rich, and balanced, the traditional “cup of Joe.” American coffees may also be lively (like high grown Colombia Huilas or Perus) or sweet (like Costa Rica Tarrazu or Panama Boquete), but the overall affect is good, rich coffee.

An interesting exception is Panama Geisha. Geisha is a variety of coffee first discovered in Ethiopia. Panama Geisha is as sweet and floral as the best Ethiopian, but with the silky smooth texture and chocolaty richness of a great American.

Africa: The birthplace of coffee still produces some of the world's finest. African coffees are known for their bright, lively flavor. Citrus notes, like lemon and lime are common, as are tropical fruit flavors, that can range from tart to very sweet. Many African coffees also have a lovely floral quality. The coffees of Ethiopia are famous for being both lively and sweet, with notes of jasmine and rose.

Typical lively African coffees include the coffees of Kenya and Tanzania. For a lively coffee with floral notes and extra sweetness, look to the coffees of Ethiopia (washed or naturally processed), Burundi and Rwanda. A wonderful coffee that breaks the lively African mold is Uganda Bugisi. The coffees of Uganda tend to be sweet, mild and rich.

Asia: Dutch traders introduced coffee to the island of Java in 1696. By the early 1700's, coffee was a thriving industry, and today, Indonesia is the fourth largest producer of coffee in the world. Most Indonesian coffees have less acidity than the high grown coffees of Africa and the Americas and a much heavier body. Indonesian coffees often feature bitter-sweet Baker's chocolate notes and are often sweet, with notes of dried fruit, barley malt or molasses. Spicy or herbal notes are also common. Roasted dark, the bitter-sweet, spicy notes and heavy body combine into the flavor we think of as bold.Typical Indonesian coffees include the coffee of Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra and Timor.  Not all Indonesian coffees are low acid. New Guinea Kimel, a coffee grown from cuttings from Jamaica, is very lively at a light roast level.

Other areas in Asia that grow coffee are Vietnam and India. Vietnam grows mostly robusta coffee, but India is growing increasing amounts of high quality Arabica. India is an enormous country and its coffee is diverse. Some Indian coffee is similar to low acid, heavy-bodied Indonesians. Others are rich and balanced, like a good Colombian. A new, and very interesting Asian coffee is Thai Doi Pangkhon, which reminds us of a lovey Central American coffee with its lemon topnotes and nutty richness.

That's our brief tour of the world in coffee flavors. Next time on Coffee by the Blog, the “How” of coffee flavor, how processing and roasting the beans affects the flavor in your cup.

Thanks for reading!

~ Carrie and the Coffee geeks at Coffee by the Roast