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To ensure the full flavor of coffee, attention must be given to all steps in the process from the time it is grown to the moment it is finally packed.
Characteristics of the Coffee Plant
Coffee is an evergreen tree (shrub) native to northern Africa. Coffee trees are self-pollinating and produce fruit called “cherries” that ripen from green to yellow and then to red when mature.
Ripe cherries have several layers; red skin, a sweet light pulp, a membrane called “parchment skin” or pergamino, and an inner thin membrane called “silver skin.". These layers must be removed prior to roasting, though some silverskin often remains attached. Each cherry has two green coffee seeds that are round/oval in shape and are flat on one side with a center cut. Coffee beans are the seeds of the coffee cherry. While most coffee cherries contain two beans, 5 to 10 percent of the time, only one bean is produced in the cherry. This is called a "peaberry."
Some coffee trees have the potential to grow to a height of 30 to 40 feet. However, most are kept much shorter for ease of harvest. The average coffee tree bears enough cherries each season to produce between 1 and 1½ pounds of roasted coffee. The soil, climate, altitude, and surrounding plants that a coffee tree is exposed to during growth affect the flavor of the beans it produces.
All coffee beans come from plants in the genus Coffea. Although there are thousands of species of plants within this genus, only two are of commercial importance: C. arabica, and C. canephora, the latter more commonly called C. robusta. Both species are tropical evergreens, are intolerant to frost, and belong to the family Rubiaceae. Arabica is genetically distinct: it has four sets of chromosomes, whereas robusta has only two.
Arabica (a-rab-i-ca) coffee represents 75% of the world coffee production. The Arabica bean yields an average of 300 pounds of beans per acre. In general, Arabica coffee grows best between 2,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level, in warm climates along the equator.
The predominant producing regions are Central America, South America and Eastern Africa. In subtropical conditions, Arabica coffees thrive at lower altitudes, from as low as 1,000 feet in the Kona region of Hawaii, to about 4,000 feet in regions of Mexico and a few other locations. Closer to the equator, coffee tends to thrive at higher altitudes, from 3,500 feet up to 9,500 feet in Ecuador.
The quality and taste of Arabica beans differ between varieties and growing regions--the same variety grown in different parts of the world will taste different. These taste notes can be as varied as berries (blueberry is often particularly noted in Ethiopian Harrar), earthy (a characteristic associated with Indian and Indonesian coffees,) citrus (common with Central Americans), or chocolate.
The older varieties of Arabica produce the best flavor, and these somewhat fragile, older varietals require partial shade to protect the cherries from getting too much sun. Although the best tasting arabicas are grown at high elevation, the overnight temperature cannot drop below freezing; Arabica trees cannot survive frost. Elevations between 4,000 and 6,000 feet provide cooler nighttime temperatures so the cherry's growth is slower, yielding more concentrated flavors and better acidity. Volcanic soil is rich in nutrients and provides good drainage.
Robusta (row-bus-ta) coffee represents 25% of the world’s coffee production. Robusta grows from sea level to 2,000 feet, in wet valley lands and humid tropical forests. The predominant producing regions are West Africa and Indonesia. Compared to Arabica, Robusta characteristics include a higher caffeine content, stronger flavor and heavier body. Robusta trees yields are double those of Arabica, and are more resistant to disease and insects. The Robusta bean yields an average of 700 pounds of beans per acre. The coffee industry uses Robusta in soluble coffee, instant coffee, and as a price stabilizer in blends.
The Growing of Coffee
Approximately 25 million acres worldwide are devoted to cultivating coffee. The ideal growing conditions include tropical and sub-tropical temperatures of 68ºF–75ºF, abundant sunlight, rich soil, and 60–80 inches of annual rainfall.
Vegetative and seedling propagation are used to produce plantings to establish new plantations or replace damaged or unproductive trees. Most plants begin in nurseries, where they are tended for 6–18 months, then are transplanted to the field, where three to five years pass before the first crop.
Plant management consists of pruning, weed control, and fertilization to ensure best yields. Coffee trees are susceptible to natural destructive forces, such as climatic changes, insect infestation, and plant diseases such as coffee leaf rust and coffee berry disease (CBD).
Most of the world's coffee comes from three specific growing regions. These three growing regions represent the source of all Arabica coffee beans, each one producing its own distinct flavor profile. The taste generalizations for the three major coffee-growing regions are as follows:
Central and South America produce far more coffee than any other growing region. Coffees from Latin America are celebrated for their great balance, medium body and clean finish. In some of these coffees, the acidity sparkles clearly above the other flavor components; in others, it provides a subtle but crisp accent. A tangy brightness and consistent quality also make them ideal foundations for blending.
Africa & Arabia
From the mountainous eastern half of the African continent and the Arabian Peninsula come some of the world's greatest coffees. Arabian coffees produce coffees that often have sweet flavors reminiscent of the aroma of a bowl of fresh fruit. This quality is balanced in some of these coffees by a somewhat tart acidity. This region exhibits a wide range of flavors, from mellow and winy to zesty and citrus.
A large percentage of these coffees come from Pacific Islands like Indonesia and are typically lively with herbal undertones. Asia’s coffees are popular for their full body and mellow, earthy flavors.
The coffee's country of origin is largely a matter of subjective taste. Origin is important in that the comparative bean flavor between growing regions, even within the same country, can be quite different.
Coffee Producing Regions
Within each region and country, there are a host of various coffees available. A small sample of these various coffees includes:
Armenia – Region in Colombia, rated one of the best coffees of Colombia
Brazil Bourbon Santos – Fruity coffee, Bourbon refers to a variety of Coffee Arabica, which first appeared on the island of the same name (now Reunion Island). Santos refers to the port that the coffee shipped from. Historically the main point of export for coffee.
Bucaramanga – Very low acid, mellow Colombian coffee
Capulin – Smooth, low acid coffee, subtle but complex flavor, unwashed, sun-dried, hand sorted. Nayarit Province of Mexico.
Chanchamayo – Region in Peru, rated one of the best coffees of Peru
Coatepec, Altura Coatepec – Region in Mexico producing high-grown coffee.
Colombian – General term for coffee from Colombia. Common names of producing regions are Medellin, Armenia and Manizales.
Costa Rica Central Valley – Region in Costa Rica on the slopes of the Poas, Barva and Irazu volcanoes with altitudes of 4,500 to 5,000 ft. Coffee is known for excellent body and finesse.
Costa Rica Orosi – City in Costa Rica with surrounding area producing perfect balance between body and acidity in coffee.
Costa Rica Tarrazu – Bright, crisp acidity and intense flavor, good body and exceptional aroma. Region in Costa Rica producing high-quality coffee. “The Land of the Saints” is in western Costa Rica, and has altitudes reaching 6,000 ft.
Costa Rica Tres Rios – Lively, tangy and fragrant, smooth and well balanced. Region in Costa Rica producing high quality coffee on the eastern outskirts of San Jose.
Costa Rica West Valley – Region in Costa Rica with altitudes at 3,000 to 3,500 ft. Naranjo, Palmares and San Ramon are coffee-producing communities at these altitudes, producing coffee with good aroma and balanced cup.
El Salvador – Mild, slightly acidic coffee, good component to blends.
Guatemala Antigua – Region in Guatemala stated to be the birthplace for all coffee in Guatemala, with majestic volcanoes: Fuego, Agua and Acatenengo.
Guatemala Atitlan – Region in Guatemala framed by three volcanoes: Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro, and containing lake Atitlan. Small plantations in this region often use avocado trees to shade the coffee plants.
Guatemala Coban – Region in Guatemala containing rugged limestone mountains that have rainfall all year.
Guatemala Fraijanes – Located south of Guatemala City, this region is so high in altitude, and it is not always considered a plateau, with soil frequently nourished by Guatemala’s most active volcano, Pacaya.
Guatemala Huehuetenango – Region in Guatemala located northwest of Guatemala City. Surrounded by mountains and many rivers, which nourish its soil.
Guatemala Oriente – Easternmost gourmet coffee region in Guatemala with the newest plantations.
Guatemala San Marcos – Region west of Guatemala City, has the country’s two highest volcanoes, Tacana and Tajumulco, the latter being the highest in Central America at 13,800 ft.
Jamaican Blue Mountain, Mavis Bank – Coffee similar in quality to Wallensford Estate.
Jamaican Blue Mountain, Wallensford Estate – Extremely smooth, vibrant acidity. Believed by some to be the best overall coffee available.
La Minita Estate – Tarrazu District, Costa Rica, full bodied coffee with medium acidity. High quality.
MAMS – Blend or quality of coffee from Colombia from the following regions: Medillin, Armenia, Manazalles, Seville. (1950)
MAM – Blend or quality of coffee from Colombia from the following regions: Medillin, Armenia, Manazalles (1960–1970)
Mexico Altura – High grown coffee from Mexico, light with snappy, nutty flavor.
Mexico Coatepec – Region in Mexico
Mexico Chiapas - Region in Mexico where coffee is produced; best coffee is from closest to the Guatemala border.
Narino Supremo – Highest quality and largest bean from Colombia.
Nicaragua – Medium body coffee, medium to high acidity.
Oaxaca, Oaxaca Pluma – State in Mexico. Believed to be one of Mexico’s best coffees.
Yauco Selecto – Believed to be highest quality estate coffee from Puerto Rico.
Africa & Arabia
Bugishu – from the slopes of Mt. Elgon in Uganda, rated as one of Uganda’s best. Also said to be inconsistent.
Ethiopia Djimmah – Region in Ethiopia producing natural coffee, usually used in blends.
Ethiopia Harrar – Region and city in Ethiopia. Legendary for mocha flavor, very distinctive unwashed character.
Ethiopia Ghimbi (Lekempti) – Natural coffee from Wellega region. Light to medium acidity, clean cup with fruity character.
Ethiopia Sidamo – Region in Ethiopia, fairly balanced cup regarding acidity and body. Both washed and natural.
Ethiopia Yirgacheffe – Premium quality from highest elevation in Sidamo region. Washed, clean cup with lemon-like acidity.
Ethiopia Limmu – Name given to washed coffee from Djimmah. Exhibits winey characteristics.
Ethiopia Tepi – Lowland plantation-grown washed coffee from Kaffa region. Government owned plantation.
Ethiopia Bebeka – Lowland plantation-grown washed coffee. Government owned plantation.
Kenya AA – Rich and sweet with a hint of black currant. “AA” refers to grade and size of the beans.
Tanzania – Clean flavored coffee, brisk acidity.
Yemen Mattari – Region in Yemen producing high quality coffee.
Yemen Mocha – Full bodied, medium acidity, also known as Arabian mocha, Yemen or Mocha. The name mocha comes from the ancient port, presumably from where this coffee was often shipped.
Yemen Sanani – Low acid Yemen coffee, medium body, said to be one of the best from Yemen.
Yemen Sharki – Region in Yemen.
Celebes – Rich flavor, light body, low acid. Also referred to as Sulawesi.