Coffee Growing Regions
Africa and Arabia
By most accounts, coffee originated in Africa. Legend has it that coffee was discovered around 800 AD when an Ethiopian goatherd, Kaldi, noticed his herd dancing from one coffee plant to the next, eating the red, coffee cherries. Kaldi tried a few himself and was soon dancing with his goats under its wonderful influence. In Arabia from about 1000 to 1600 AD, the coffee traditions we now share began to take shape. Arabia took great efforts to protect and control the production of coffee. No viable seeds were allowed, and all were made infertile before being exported. It was not until the 17th century that coffee seeds were successfully transported out of the Arabian peninsula. Here again, legend has it that Baba Budan, an Indian, left Mecca with fertile seeds strapped to his belly. This would mark the beginning of coffee’s proliferation throughout the world to the growing regions we know today.
There are numerous growing countries in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula; however, some of the finest coffees come from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanznia and Yemen.
Harvest - October thru December
Within Ethiopia, there are three main growing regions – Harrar, Ghimbi and Sidamo (also known as Yirgacheffe). Almost all coffee in Ethiopia is cultivated on small farms with the exception of some larger, government run estates. Ethiopian coffees are mostly grown under shade and with little to no use of chemicals.
Ethiopian Harrar hails from the eastern part of the country and is dry-processed. They are labeled Mocha or peaberry, longberry or shortberry.
Ghimbi is in the western part of the country. These coffees are wet-processed.
Ethiopian Yirgacheffe or Sidamo is considered to produce some of the finest coffees in the world.
Harvest - October thru March
Kenyan coffee is widely acclaimed. It is grown mostly in the area south of Mount Kenya towards the capital, Nairobi, where it is auctioned every Tuesday during the harvest season. The auction system is relatively unique and has done much to propel a focus on quality, creating a direct link between quality and price. The result is some of the finest coffees available at a fair price. Kenyan coffee is also unique in its grading system. AA is the largest with the smaller, lesser grades labeled A and B.
Harvest - October thru February
Tanzania is most well known for the peaberry. Instead of the coffee cherry pit being comprised of two flat-sided beans, the pit is one, rounded bean known as the peaberry. Tanzanian coffee is mostly grown on Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru and is wet processed. Coffee is graded using the same system as in Kenya: AA, A and B with AA being the largest bean size and the highest quality.
Harvest - June thru December
The coffee traditions of today originate in Yemen, home of perhaps the most historically popular coffee in the world, Mocha. This name was originally an indication of the port in South Yemen from which much coffee was exported. As such the word “Mocha” was commonly added to Arabian coffee names. The port no longer exists since a sandbar closed the inlet. A true Yemen Mocha is grown in the central mountains of the country and dry-processed. Five hundred year old traditions still dominate to produce very special coffees. Yemeni coffee is also part of the first recorded coffee blend - Mocha Java. The two most popular coffees at the time; Mocha number one and Java from what is now Indonesia second. Recently, the term “mocha” has been appropriated for chocolate-flavored, blended coffee drinks which is in no way connected to the historic coffee traditions of Yemen.
Asia and the Pacific
Baba Budan is widely believed to have smuggled the first fertile coffee seeds out of Arabia and into India during his pilgrimage to Mecca in around 1600. However the real growth of coffee in trade outside of Arabia started with the Dutch. In 1699, the Dutch successfully planted the first coffee plants outside of the Arabian Peninsula on the island of Java, once a colony and now a part of Indonesia. The first harvest was sent to Amsterdam in 1706 along with a seedling. It is this very seedling that would become the progenitor of the coffee plant that makes its way to Martinique with Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu via the botanical garden in Paris. A plant that would become the foundation for the majority of coffee in Central and South America.
The Dutch originated or greatly influenced coffee cultivation and trade in Indonesia and Asia. Their initial planting in Java was so successful it was second only to Mocha in Yemen. These two coffees were brought together to create the first recorded coffee blend - Mocha Java. Indeed, a common nickname for coffee today is “java,” and the Dutch hand can be felt throughout the region.
Harvest - Octbober - December
Despite the early history of Bada Budan’s famous coffee seeds, India today is not well-known to the world for its coffee. Much of the country’s coffee industry has been focused on internal consumption rather than export. This changed only in the mid-1800’s via the British and recently by specialized importers generating greater awareness for these coffees. As a whole, good Indian coffees tend to be pleasingly mild and well-balanced. On the other hand, Indian Malabar or Indian Monsoon Malabar coffee reflects a drastically different profile in the cup. These coffees are dry processed and then stored in an open warehouse, exposed to monsoon air and wind for 3-4 months. This process was developed to mimic the matured or aged Java coffee that was used as ballast in sailing ships. Their exposure to salt and wood imparted a unique flavor that was sharp, tangy and spicy with low acidity.
Indonesia is an archipelago state - the world’s largest, encompassing a land area almost three times the size of Texas. Systematically colonized by the Dutch in the 17th century and later occupied by the Japanese during World War II, the islands finally gained official independence from the Dutch in 1949. It is the 4th largest producer of coffee in the world, and several distinct growing areas are known world-wide for their exceptional coffee.
The Dutch arrived relatively late to the island in 1906. Faced with superior forces marching onto the island, Bali’s royal family and loyalists demonstrated their last act of defiance in a mass ritual suicide known as Puputan. The Dutch faced little other resistance and quickly assumed administrative control of the island. Occupied by the Japanese during World War II and now a part of Indonesia, Bali has suffered throughout its history despite its picturesque surroundings. Agriculture and tourism are the main drivers of the economy, although tourism decreased greatly after the 2002 and 2005 terrorist bombings and has yet to fully recover a decade later. With respect to coffee, Bali presents a classic cup with great body. The majority of the coffee is wet-processed. It exhibits the unmistakable earth notes of many Indonesian coffees but with balance and mildness that is special.
In the 19th century, Java experienced a devastating outbreak of rust disease that virtually wiped out the historic coffee industry. The recovery consisted of replacing much of the original Coffea Arabica with disease-resistant Robusta fundamentally altering the coffee tradition begun by the Dutch. However, the Indonesian government has set up sponsored estates that have revived the Dutch practices even to go so far as using the original, well-maintained equipment. These coffees can be quite exceptional.
This island was formerly known by its Dutch colonial name, Celebes. The majority of specialty coffee comes from the Toraja region in the country’s southeastern highlands. A significant portion of the coffee grown, especially by small famers, is processed using a wet-hull method, known as Giling Basah or literally “wet grinding.” Used throughout Indonesia, farmers remove the outer skin from the cherries and store the beans still covered in mucilage for up to a day. The beans are removed, washed of their mucilage, and partially dried in the sun to 30-35% moisture. The beans are then hulled by the processor in this semi-wet state. This process plays an integral part in the flavor profile and results in a full-bodied, low-acid coffee with mild earth tones.
Sumatra is arguably one of the best-known, specialty coffees in the world. The finest Sumatra is rich, full and complex with low acidity. Flavor notes include mild earth tones, cocoa and tobacco. As is the case with much of the small farm, grown Indonesian coffees, the wet-hull, Giling Basah process is typical. Much of the flavor and characteristics of Sumatran coffee is attributable to this unique method. Sumatra is often labeled and sold as Sumatra Mandheling. In this case “Mandheling” does not refer to a particular region but to an ethnic group that was once a prominent participant in the island’s coffee trade.
Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea (PNG) is half an island. It occupies the eastern half, while Irian Jaya, an Indonesian provence, occupies the western half. PNG coffees tend to have less of the earthy tones for which Indonesian coffees are prized but can be delicate and uniquely bright for the region. Most coffees are estate coffees that are meticulously wet-processed. Whether from an estate or small farms, organic certification is prevalent.
After achieving a costly independence from Indonesia in the late 1990’s, international aid helped rebuild a renown coffee industry. The results have been mixed, but improving rapidly. When good, coffees from Timor reflect the well-known Indonesian flavor profile - that is they can produce exceptional coffee.
In an unusual chain of events that began with the Mayor of Amsterdam gifting a young coffee plant to King Louis XIV of France in 1714, coffee was introduced to the Americas. This gifted tree was planted in the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. In 1723 a French naval officer, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu obtained a seedling and set off for Martinique. Sharing his water rations with the coffee plant and protecting it from fellow shipmates, a storm and pirate attack, de Clieu successfully transported and planted his coffee tree in Martinique. By 1726 the tree had grown and multiplied, and the first harvest was ready. By 1777, fifty years later, there were a reported 18 million coffee trees growing on the island and that sole plant became the progenitor of virtually all the coffee plants in Central and South America today. Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu is a coffee hero if there ever was one.
Harvest - April thru September
Brazil is the largest producer of coffee in the world, providing nearly 1/3 of global supply. Its coffees support a wide range of market needs from institutional to specialty roasters. At one time, the industry was heavily regulated with a focus on price competitiveness rather than quality. Based on a quota system, producers mixed high and low-quality beans to reach the quotas. This formed many negative opinions on Brazilian coffee that still linger today. However since deregulation in the 1990’s, there has been a renewed focus on quality and some exceptional coffees are being produced in the country. Eighty percent of the coffee produced is Coffea Arabica and most of the specialty coffee is of the bourbon variety and dry processed. As the largest producing country that is subject to frost risk, the impact of frost to diminish yield in Brazil can and have significantly impacted world prices for coffee. The majority of specialty coffee produced in Brazil is between 2,000 and 4,000 feet in elevation. The three main growing regions are in the state of Bahia in the northeast, along the southern and eastern borders of Minas Gerais, Sao Paolo, Espirito Santo and Rio di Janiero and within Sao Paolo and Parana in the south.
Harvest - October thru March
Colombia is the second largest producer of Coffea Arabica in the world. The coffee industry is well-organized around the Colombia Federation of Coffee Growers which has been extremely successfully in consistently producing high-quality coffees and supporting small farmers to market. To achieve this, small farmers are required to wet process their beans which then make their way to Federation mills where they are sorted and graded. The best of these is Supremo followed by Extra. These two are often combined to form another designation, Excelso. These coffees are almost all high-grown milds grown to a very high standard. While a result of this system is that individual nuances of a particular farm are “averaged” out, the overall quality is very high and produces a distinctive cup. Apart from the Federation, there are some private mills in which case a market or regional name is used in place of the standard designations.
Harvest - September thru February
Costa Rica has developed a mature well-regarded coffee industry and reputation for fine coffee. Unlike the majority of Columbian coffees, Costa Rican coffees are identified by the finca (farm) or estate from which they come. All Costa Rican coffees are wet processed and the standards established here are copied throughout the Americas. Most coffee is grown at a very high altitude of between 3,300 and over 3,900 feet. Strictly hard bean designation is reserved for coffee grown at over 3,900 feet elevation is primarily what we seek out here at Jamaica Coffee Trading Co. The most famous coffee regions are Tarrazu, Tres Rios, Heredia, Alajuela and Volcan Poas.
Harvest - November thru March
Like many other countries in the region, El Salvador has suffered political upheaval and civil war. With fairly recent democratic movements in the past decades, El Salvador is once again growing and consistently delivering fine, specialty coffee. In part, owing to this political instability, there has been little intervention or pressure to introduce hybrid varieties. Instead, traditional varieties of Coffea Arabica such as Bourbon and Pacamara are being grown to good effect on small farms and co-ops.
Harvest - August thru March
About the size of Tennessee, Guatemala offers an astonishingly wide range of climates, resulting in eight growing regions within the country. Each region presents a distinct flavor profile. These are established and administered by the Asociacion Nacional del Cafe (Anacafe). If a coffee from a particular region does not meet the respective flavor profile, it cannot be marked with the regional designation. The eight regions include Acatenango Valley, Antigua Coffee, Traditional Atitlán, Rainforest Cobán, Fraijanes Plateau, Highland Huehue, New Oriente and Volcanic San Marcos. While all of these regions produce exceptional coffee, perhaps the most well-regarded comes from Antigua, a valley surrounded by three volcanoes. With nearly perfect conditions, coffee from this region is grown between 4,600 − 5,600 feet in elevation. Its complexity and range within the unmistakable flavor profile are what make this a special origin.
Hawaii - Kona
Harvest - September thru November
Kona coffee can be very special and very expensive. Although grown at altitudes of only 800 to 2,500 feet on Mount Hualalai and Mauna Loa, Kona coffee asserts itself as well as any coffea arabica grown at the expected higher altitudes. Clusters of small farms hand-pick and wet-process all Kona coffee on the Big Island. At its best, Kona represents a very classic cup - mild, clean and balanced through the finish. It rewards with that ideal of what coffee can be.
Harvest - October thru March
Since Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Honduras and its people have suffered tremendously. A nascent coffee industry was all but devastated after the 1998 hurricane and the subsequent flooding. However, the country has much to recommend it with respect to an ideal coffee growing environment, including rich soil, high altitude and an ideal coffee-growing climate. This has led to renewed interest and a small collective of growers and investors are helping to boost infrastructure and build up the industry. As it grows, there are very good coffees coming from the country and we anticipate many more to come.
Harvest - August thru September
Jamaica is most well known for the exclusive Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee which is in the eastern part of the country between Kingston and Port Antonio. The different classifications center around elevation. True Jamaica Blue Mountain is grown between 3,000 and 5,500 feet. Jamaica High Mountain designates coffee grown between 1,500 and 3,000 feet and Jamaica Supreme or Jamaica Low Mountain below 1,500 feet. Jamaica has a long and bumpy coffee history that began in 1728 shortly after the success of the first coffee transplant in the Americas in Martinique. Many find it hard to justify the price in relation to the cup experience. It is a mild coffee with a lower bean density that requires some careful coaxing in the early stages of roasting. The three most popular names (mills) are Mavis Bank, Wallenford and Old Tavern. Take care when purchasing a Jamaican coffee. If you are paying top dollar, make sure it is 100% Jamaica Blue Mountain.
Harvest - October thru March
Mexico is the eighth largest producing country globally and one of the largest producers of certified organic coffee. Even so, most coffee is grown in small farms numbering over 100,000. Its main growing regions are the states of Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas located in the south central and southern areas of the country, extending south to the border with Guatemala. Generally, Mexican coffees are mild and light-bodied with delicate flavors that can vary nicely in the cup, depending upon the region. The southern most Chiapas region, bordering Guatemala exhibits some of the same characteristics as their neighbor’s. Due to its mild nature, Mexican coffees are often used as the base for blends and darker roasts. When you see the Altura designation, you know that it is high-grown.
Harvest - November thru February
Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest country in the world. Its people have struggled. Politics, revolution, natural disasters have all conspired against the Nicaraguan coffee industry for the last four decades and it is only now beginning to recover and become known again in the specialty coffee world. Sandwiched between Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south, Nicaragua, in terms of climate and terrain, has all the right environment to grow exceptional coffee. The main growing regions are Segovia, Matagalpa and Jinotega.
Harvest - October thru December
Located between Costa Rica to the west and Columbia to the east, Panama’s small family farms are producing unique and delicious coffees. The majority of the best coffee is grown in the Boquete area in the Chirqui District. The coffees are grown on small family-owned farms by traditional methods and are shade-grown. These growing practices combined with advanced processing methods yield coffees that distinct from their neighbors and deliciously complex. Add a working environment that is one of the best in Central America in terms of wages and worker protection, and it is easy to feel good about the coffees of Panama.
Harvest - April thru October
The Peruvian coffee industry has focused on certified organic coffees, grown for volume and competitiveness. Generally mild and light bodied, Peruvian coffees make a good base for blends, darker roast and flavored coffees. The very best coffees come from the high Andes in the Chanchamayo Valley as well as Norte and Cuzco to the south.