Historically, it has been all too simple to think of coffee as just a thing that you find in a bag on a shelf in a supermarket. It has been there to serve the purpose of keeping us caffeinated, and aside from how strong we want it to be, there haven’t been that many other factors to consider when choosing what to brew at home.
In more recent years, people have been paying more attention to the descriptors that are attached to the coffee they are buying. Whether that’s picking coffees that are “100% Arabica”, or more specifically, focusing in on coffees from Colombia or Java (two titans of the supermarket shelf) – we as consumers are beginning to ask more questions about where our coffee has come from, and how that might impact the flavour of what we’re drinking.
Still, all these terms may still be perplexing to some, and although we may have our favourites, it isn’t always immediately obvious why coffees are different in taste because of where they’re grown. When it comes to other products, however, it is much more common for people to have rather strong opinions regarding the origins of what they’re consuming. Take wine, for example.
Ask most people what their favourite wines are, and you’re unlikely to get a snappy answer. At the very least, you’ll find out if someone prefers red, white, or rosé, and you’re more than likely to find out whether they like those wines to be dry or sweet; delicate or full-bodied. On top of that, it wouldn’t be strange at all to be told that “I like my Sauvignon Blanc from Chile” or “Pinot Noir is best from New Zealand” – perhaps even adding in a particular estate for good measure (Marlborough Estate in New Zealand is renowned for its Pinot Noir, for example).
Coffee, on the other hand, seems a little more tricky to talk about in the same way – probably down to the way that most of us are introduced to coffee – as a commodity, rather than a fruit that has been turned into a delicious beverage. Bridging the gap between a ‘cup of Java’ and a ‘Kenyan SL-28’ can seem like a huge stretch – we think that talking about coffee needn’t be any less weird than talking about wine! First, we need to know a little more about where in the world coffee grows, and the main regions it can be found.
The Coffee Belt
Coffee grows solely between the tropics of Cancer (Northern) and Capricorn (Southern) – a region known as the ‘coffee belt’. This encompasses much of Central and South America, vast regions of Africa, and much of Asia. Each of these regions grows many of the same varieties of coffee, however, the landscapes of each place, the climate, and the soil they grow in have an impact on the way these coffees can taste. These combined factors, in the world of coffee, is known as terroir.
Central & South America
Coffees grown in this part of the world are predominantly thought of as having ‘normal’ coffee flavours – they are often described as nutty, chocolatey, and have a good body, and plenty of balance. Because of this, they often find their way into espresso blends, where they offer a strong base to build layers of richness. Brazil, the largest coffee producing country in the world, is probably the best example of these sorts of flavours. We find that Brazilian coffees also exhibit a really pleasant range of stone fruit flavours alongside these nutty base notes – plum, in particular, nearly always comes up when cupping the Brazilian coffees we roast.
Other parts of Central & South America are slightly more nuanced in terms of what they offer. Colombian coffees are hugely popular for their balanced body, but also offer incredible sweetness and complexity. As an all-rounder, Colombian coffees always stand out. The further north you travel, the more delicate coffees from this part of the world seem to become. Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras have taken centre stage in the speciality coffee scene in recent years, and often blow all stereotypes out of the water when it comes to what we expect from coffee from the Americas. Many of these crops rival African coffees for how delicate they can be, and we have thoroughly enjoyed roasting Guatemalan and Honduran coffee in the last few years.
Overall, Central and South America offer a huge range of flavours when it comes to coffee, but are best summed up by talking about their balance and body, with the occasional delicate gem shining through.
African coffees have a reputation for being light, sweet, and often tea-like in their body. Generally, Ethiopian and Kenyan coffees are the superstars in Africa, having built up a reputation in speciality circles. Ethiopia (the birthplace of coffee) is famed for producing coffees with huge berry notes, citrus and a generally syrupy finish. Kenya, on the other hand, is synonymous with rich, buttery sweetness, and lemony undertones (think lemon curd). They also commonly are reminiscent of vine tomato – a descriptor which sounds unpleasant perhaps, until you imagine the heady whiff of a greenhouse full of tomatoes, or comforting sweet tomato soup. After all, tomatoes are fruit too!
Other coffee producing countries in Africa deserve much more than just an honorary mention. Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda are producing some of the most exciting coffees we’ve tasted in a long time, and may soon be seen in the same light as Ethiopia and Kenya. Unfortunately, as with many coffee producing countries, these areas have had a history of huge political unrest, and so the ability of smallholder farmers to focus on growing quality crops has been stunted. We believe that in forging strong, sustainable relationships with farmers from these areas, the whole of Africa can begin to offer more incredible coffee.
African coffees are the thing to aim for if you’re looking for something a little more different – those of you who like fruity, floral notes and complexity in your coffee should look no further.
Asian coffees are the real powerhouses of the coffee world – they’re intense, a little bit spicy, and a little bit scary to some. On their own, some Asian coffees can be quite an adjustment to someone used to drinking coffees from elsewhere in the world, but they are unrivalled if what you need is a coffee to slap you in the face. There’s a reason that ‘Java’ has been used interchangeably with ‘strong, no-nonsense coffee’ over the years.
Sumatra, in Indonesia, is where the journey began for Rounton Coffee, and we still use Sumatran coffees on a daily basis in our Granary Blend. We like to think of it as the ‘seasoning’ of a blend – it can elevate other coffees to a whole new level, but on its own, it can be a little intense. Having said that, it has a huge following as a single origin for that exact reason!
Other areas of Asia are starting to come to attention – China and Myanmar are showing that Asian coffees can showcase sweetness and balance to rival some South American coffees, and East Timor has been an exciting addition to our cupping table lately. We’re excited to see how these coffees may continue to grow in popularity, and may perhaps change perceptions of coffee from Asia in the next few years.
Ultimately, our hope is to be able to learn as much as we can about coffee, and how those differences in regions can direct us towards offering a varied range of exciting crops, so that there’s always something for everyone. We also want to be able to translate what we learn into sharing that knowledge. Next time you hear someone talking about the Pinot Grigio they were drinking last night, remind yourself – if they can talk that way about wine, you can talk that way about coffee.