Written by Martin Bazylewich
A Primer on Coffee Regions for the Beginner Buyer
When we introduced the concept of the coffee belt a few weeks back, we mentioned that there are approximately 45 different coffee growing countries producing specialty coffee. That’s a lot to process for the average coffee consumer and it can be somewhat overwhelming. Staring at a wall of coffee in a specialty store or even a well stocked gourmet section from a grocery store can be a bit intimidating. Luckily we are here to give you some tips on how to narrow down your search by providing some general characteristics associated with the main coffee growing regions of the world.
One simple way to taper down the complexity is to think of the coffee belt in terms of four major regions, each with its own general flavour characteristics. The four main regions we think are most helpful to narrow the field for those new to buying specialty coffee are:
North and Central America;
Asia and Oceania/The South Pacific.
The general characteristics of coffees from each of these four regions are not set in stone. When we say general, we really do mean general. Within each region are specific country differences, and even within countries there are often differences between individual farms or what are often referred to as micro-lots! So keep that in mind because it is always nice to stumble upon some unique flavour profiles of coffees that don’t necessarily conform to your expectations when you can access coffees from micro-lots. With that caveat in mind, let’s dive into what you can expect in general from each of the four major regions
North and Central America:
Brightness; citrus; light to medium body; slightly floral; slightly sweet and spicy.
Rich chocolate (from milk to dark); nutty; caramel/toffee; medium body and acidity.
Tea-like; medium to full body; very bright and acidic; strong floral notes; vibrant berry notes.
Asia and Oceania/The South Pacific:
Earthy; full to heavy body; low to medium acidity; sweet; hints of floral and chocolate.
In using this as a general guide, the newcomer to the world of specialty coffee can hone in on a coffee best suited to their palate without having to try a long and time consuming trial and error approach that can be disheartening (not to mention hard on the pocket book! ) If you know you are the kind of person who likes chocolate and nutty notes, it is quite likely you will find a match with a South American coffee, especially from Brazil. If instead you prefer the flavour of berries and flowers both to the smell and taste, you are definitely going to want to concentrate your efforts on finding coffees from Africa, like Ethiopia. If you love citrus notes and spices, then Central America is a good bet for you to start with. Prefer full body, and rich and earthy taste? Reach for coffees from Asia, especially Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea!
Hopefully this quick primer helps those of you slightly intimidated by the world of specialty coffee. These simple regional characteristics are meant to provide you with a very basic baseline. After you find a region that suits your taste, something interesting happens as you explore the nuances associated with different countries and micro-lots. With time and experience you start honing your skills further. Chocolate notes may become more specific to your palate - like detecting milk chocolate as compared to dark chocolate. Or you’ll go from tasting ‘berry’ to detecting blueberry or even strawberry. The world of coffee is full of hidden gems and amazing tasting experiences, so don’t be shy and make sure to step out of your comfort zone on occasion.