Growing up I thought that all coffee was the same. And although I didn't know that much about coffee in general, I was told that the best coffee came from Colombia. Now, I do love coffee from Colombia but have since discovered that there are a lot of other countries that offer pretty amazing coffee as well. There’s a term for the regions that are primed for producing great quality coffee called the coffee belt. This coffee belt essentially stretches across the equator and covers much of Africa and South America, as well as other regions. If want to learn more about the coffee belt, feel free to read our Coffee 101 blog.
As the specialty coffee industry has grown and people’s knowledge of coffee has increased, the differences in coffee have risen to the top of people’s minds. And, now that single-origin coffee has gained popularity, the differences in coffee are highlighted even more.
It is well known that there is a difference in flavor based on region. But why is that? Is a region the only thing that affects a coffee's flavor profile, or are there other components as well? Let's take a look.
First of all, what is a variety? A variety is a variation of the Coffea Arabica plant. The coffee cherry has subsets of plants, each with its own characteristics. Coffee varieties have a tight-knit parallel to something like apple varieties. Granny Smith, Fuji, and Red Delicious are all apples, but each variety has its own unique physical characteristic, color, shape, and most importantly; flavor profile. Coffee is the exact same way. A Bourbon, a Pacamara, and a Geisha variety are all Arabica cherries, but each has its own subset of differences from one another. To learn more about what exactly a variety is, check out our blog: Coffee Varieties Explained in Two Stories.
Some varieties are found more commonly in certain regions, and tend to favor their climate. For example, the Bourbon variety is most commonly found in South and Central American coffee-producing countries.
Most Arabica beans are grown in similarly high elevations with some differences. Kenyan coffee is often grown and processed at lower levels so elevation isn't always an indication of quality. They process coffee so well, that a lower elevation doesn’t appear to impact them negatively. Don’t let elevation alone be the deciding factor in selecting coffee. Yes, higher elevations produce excellent coffee, but maybe good farming practices, climate, or rainfall can make up some of the difference for farmers in lower elevations.
The climate in the coffee belt is pretty similar to some drier areas. I was surprised to find out that rainfall in Africa was somewhat similar to rainfall in some parts of South America. Maybe it’s another misconception I hadn’t really thought about. I always assumed Africa was drier and so it made sense that more African coffee is a dry-processed coffee. But when you do a side-by-side comparison, the rain amount isn’t drastically different. If you look at Kenya, they get less rainfall but still do a wet process. All this to say, climate doesn’t seem to be the main reason for differences in flavor.
Something that appears to be common in regions is volcanic soil. Soils in different regions will have different nutrients. If you look at the East African Rift, there’s a series of volcanoes that run from Ethiopia, through Kenya, and all the way to Tanzania. Some of the best African coffees come from these regions where there has been volcanic activity. I have no way of knowing the difference in the volcanic soil from Africa and South America, and even if I found out, I’m not sure I could decipher what it all meant. All I know is that volcanic soil is awesome for growing coffee and when I decide to get a degree in chemistry, horticulture, and botany maybe I’ll understand why it’s so fertile. For now, I’ll leave it as volcanic soil is awesome for growing coffee. There isn’t much monitoring in Africa for volcanic activity so some of it is a mystery.
Processing methods have also really expanded in the last 10 years or so. For a long time, it was just wet or dry also known as natural. Now there’s the honey process, hydro honey, fermented processing. If you would like more details about different coffee processes, check out our blog on hydro-honey. There’s a brief summary of coffee processes and how hydro-honey blends processes. There are so many variables when it comes to processing that it's hard to come to a specific conclusion.
There is a sweet spot when it comes to roast levels and it’s different for every region and sometimes even every batch. If you’re a home roaster, you know the difference in how long it takes to hear that first crack. Not only that but there is a recommended roast level depending on the region and flavor notes. Between the processing method and roast level, those are probably the two stages that have the most impact when it comes to flavor. At Sagebrush we roast to the level that highlights the difference in flavors.
It’s hard for me to approach tasting coffee from a neutral starting point. I’ve been roasting long enough that I know what I like. I like Central American coffee more than coffee from any other region. I like coffee that can be roasted darker because I like the fuller caramel-like flavor over the fruity or floral flavor notes. When I taste coffee that has a lot of fruity notes to it, I have to be honest, I turn my nose up at it a little because I’m not a fan of too much brightness in my coffee.
If you have followed the story of Sagebrush, you know we opened up a coffee shop in July. Since it had been a while since I had tasted coffee from Africa and South America, I decided I would try what we were serving on our pour-over bar. We had an Ethiopian and a Colombian. The Colombian was a little brighter than I expected. Overall I was surprised at how they could be similar and different at the same time. The brightness and fruitiness, while present in both, were different. After tasting and comparing, I found that I liked the Colombian better, and even though the Ethiopian was brighter than I like, I still enjoyed the cup of coffee and have learned to appreciate the different flavors of different regions. Now I can’t drink a cup of coffee without thinking about the work it took for farmers to plant it, cultivate it, process it, and ship it. And the difference in flavors represents the difference in the soils, climates, elevations and so much more. It doesn’t and shouldn’t taste the same.
So after reading and researching, I have concluded that while varietal is important because if you don’t have a high-quality seed, you can’t have high-quality coffee, it’s not the only factor for great tasting coffee. If you compare elevations, rainfall, climate, the little we know about soil, I think what factors in the most for flavor is processing and roast level. There is a distinct difference between, wet, dry, honey, hydro-honey, and fermented coffee. We only compared a few for this blog, but in all the time I’ve been roasting, drinking, and comparing coffee I’ve noticed the biggest factor for flavor is the process and overall region. South American coffee will be different from African varieties, but not as different from Central American coffee. There are instances where South American coffees can have similar fruity tasting notes as African coffees but they will still be more like Central American coffee.
There is so much more we know now about coffee than we did 20 years ago that we can all make more informed decisions about why one coffee tastes better than another. Personal preference is always the best way to pick your favorite. Whether you roast at home or buy roasted coffee, what is your favorite?