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Expert Advice on Origins from A to Z

Arabica – This word refers only to a species of coffee, as distinct from the lower quality Robusta coffee (both are in the genus Coffea). Any specialty coffee, at a bare minimum, needs to be an Arabica to be any good. So if a roaster is telling you they use “all arabica beans,” ask what else distinguishes their coffee!

Blends – Blends are anonymous (most often) coffees that are blended together. If the coffee you are interested in purchasing doesn’t say specifically where it is from, you can bet it is a blend, some good and some bad.

Bolivia – This is a country that is lately trying very hard to produce coffees worthy of the name “specialty,” if you see some, give them a try!

Brazil – The biggest coffee producer in the world. This coffee producing origin can produce some of the world’s best coffees and also produces mild, neutral “blenders” that can be innocuous. The trick is finding the roasters that know the difference!

Colombia – This is probably the most well known coffee producing country in the world, and certainly one of the most respected. While the Juan Valdez campaign has made Colombian coffee famous for being “rich” (whatever that means), what isn’t well known is that the country produces coffees of incredible variety, depth and complexity. More and more roasters are decaffeinating these special coffees.

Costa Rica – Some of the world’s best coffees come from here, they are balanced, sweet and fragrant at their best (like coffees from Tarrazú) but they can also be ordinary and dull. As always, it’s up to your favorite roaster to know the difference.

Dry Processed – Essentially, coffee can be processed from the ripe cherries to the dried green beans (ready to roast) with water (wet process) or without water (dry process). The Dry process coffees tend to be fuller in body but less floral and bright. Sumatran coffees, for example, are dry processed. (See Wet Process below.)

El Salvador – This country is producing better and better coffees lately. They are bright, floral and complex, with good body and balance. Good decaffeinated versions should be available in the near future. ASK your roaster if they have any!

Ethiopia – The coffees of Ethiopia are both wet and dry processed. The dry processed coffees, from Djimmah, Ghimbi, and Harrar (to name a few regions) are traditionally full bodied, with an almost roasted spice and cooked fruit flavor. The washed coffees, from Limmu, Sidamo, and Yirga Ch’efe (known as Yrgacheffe on coffee menu boards) have floral notes which are delicate yet intoxicatingly fragrant at their best.

Guatemala – One of the largest producers of coffee in Central America, both in terms of amount and variety. Several wonderful regions like Antigua (complex and floral with smoky, cognac-like undertones), Cobán (faintly bitter but balanced and complex) and Fraijanes (bright and light bodied) give you an idea of the variety present in just one coffee producing country.

Hawaii – While some connoisseurs pooh-pooh the straightforward, sweet and nutty flavors of Hawaiian coffees (and Kona coffee in particular) these coffees can produce a great cup of coffee and will take you back to a favorite island memory. And that alone can be worth the price of admission!

Honduras – Full bodied and rustic, the coffees of Honduras are distinguishing themselves lately for adding layers of spice, brightness and complexity to their traditionally brawny profile.

India – While known for tea, India is increasingly producing coffees worthy of note. Warm spice notes and full body characterize many of these coffees.

Jamaica – At their best, these coffees might deserve some of the hype that they have acquired over the years. They should be the ultimate in full sweet body and balance, similar to other “island” coffees such as those from Hawaii, Puerto Rico and even the Galapagos Islands.

Java – These are known for deep, clean, resonant body with a slight spice note. They are cleaner and more elegant than the coffees of neighboring Sumatra, but somehow a little less fun.

Kenya – These coffees can be some of the world’s best, with soaring brightness, black currant fruit and wineyness; they are not always available at this level though. Finding a good one can be worth the effort.

Malawi – Like Tanzania and Zambia described below, this coffee can offer its own distinctive set of spice notes, brightness and body. Try them all — you’re sure to have a favorite.

Mexico – A big producer of “blenders” for big US roasters, this origin also produces some of the world’s most complex, nutty and sweetly delightful coffees. Seek out the best ones (like coffees from Oaxaca and Chiapas). They are at their finest for only part of the year (as is true for most of the world’s coffees, by the way — each has its season).

New Guinea – This country can produce some of the world’s most “wild” coffees and some are most elegant and delicately fruity. Don’t forget them when sampling the world’s coffee offerings!

Origins ­– Origins are the places where coffee is grown. Single origin coffees are those that are grown in a specific geographical area. (There are even origin coffees that are from a specific plot of land on a specific farm — very fancy stuff that is!)

Panama – This nation produces, at most, a few hundred thousand bags of coffee a year. However, the growers here are some of the world’s most progressive and quality oriented. Look for great things from this small origin, like coffees from Volcán Barú (a volcano in Panama around which nearly all of the best coffees are grown) and Boquete (“cloud forest” coffee, gently complex and winey).

Peru – Well know for full-bodied blenders, some Peruvian growers are making an effort to exceed that expectation. This is an origin to watch; but for now the coffee from this country is used for blending.

Puerto Rico – The unofficial 51st (US) state, Puerto Rico produces sweet, clean medium-bodied coffees reminiscent of those from the Kona coast in Hawaii.

Robusta – These are an entirely different species of bean than the Arabicas that comprise nearly all specialty coffee offerings. Robustas generally have a more harsh and grassy taste. But when produced to very high standards of quality, they provide body and creaminess in blends (i.e., adding the desirable “crema” atop an espresso). Most often, large roasters use the cheaper versions of this coffee to reduce cost in their blends.

Sulawesi – Another coffee producing area of Indonesia. Read the description of Sumatran coffees below and multiply it by two or three.

Sumatra – Very popular on the US West Coast, this coffee (from the nation of Indonesia) is very full-bodied. At its best, it is subtly spicy with a delicate floral note overlaying thick layers of texture and syrupiness.

Tanzania – This African coffee is most famous for its “peaberries” (small round beans that grow one bean per coffee cherry). This is delicious even in regular form (two beans per coffee cherry) and is floral and complex with very good body.

Venezuela – One seldom sees coffees from Venezuela and roasters carry them as a novelty, if at all. What little the country produces is most often consumed in the country itself. The best ones taste like high-end Colombian coffees, with elegant tea notes and good brightness.

Wet Processed – These coffees tend to be brighter and more floral with slightly less body than dry processed coffees.

Yemen – The coffees of Yemen, all dry processed, are known for their wildly fruity flavors that result from the consistently longer time the cherries spend between picking and being thoroughly dried. Working in favor of the Yemeni farmers is the coolness and the high altitude of their land.

Zambia – These coffees are spicy and bright, although not as winey as neighboring Kenya’s, but elegant and balanced all the same.

Zimbabwe – Tragedy besets this African country as we write this. The nation, once a producer of one of the world’s most distinctive coffees, is now on the verge of collapse. We wish its farmers and coffee workers the best and look forward to tasting their full-bodied, bright, elegant yet gutsy coffees again, hopefully in the very near future!