Updated: May 15, 2019
Coffee Beans are just like Human Beings: Our favourite Analogy
Have you ever met a friend or colleague from another part of the world and find yourself observing the major differences in their behaviours and habits?
Yes! People from different parts of the world grow up in vastly different environments. We are all influenced by our local cultures, which shape us to become who we are.
Coffee beans are no different – coffee from different regions of the world have their distinctive, almost signature, flavours.
But wait, isn’t coffee just coffee?
Absolutely not! Flavours of coffee are primarily influenced by (i) geographical factors and (ii) processing methods. In this article, we will look at geography, more specifically how elevation and climate affects coffee flavours.
The Coffee Belt
Not every region in the world is suitable for coffee growth. In fact, coffee plants thrive in cool and tropical climates. This is why coffee grows only within the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. If we map out all the coffee-producing countries in the world, they form a nice strip near the equator, which we affectionately name “The Coffee Belt”.
There are three coffee-producing regions in the world: Asia Pacific, Central & South America, and Africa. Let’s examine the general flavour profiles as well as the most prominent coffee-producing countries in each region!
Important long side note: When we discuss coffee flavours, we can only present the general descriptors for each region. This example illustrates why: even though coffee from Ethiopia and Kenya may both possess bright acidity and fruity flavours, one from Ethiopia should have its distinctive citrusy flavours whereas that from Kenya may have tasting notes closer to blackcurrants. To bring it even further, farms from the same country can produce very different coffees! Take it more as a guide of our expectations when cupping or brewing, rather than a definitive textbook.
We start off with Asia Pacific – the region closest to home (i.e. Singapore, where TCR is based). Coffee beans from this region generally have a heavier body and could be spicy and earthy.
Elevation plays an important role in shaping this flavour profile.
For instance, coffee in Indonesia is grown at relatively low altitudes, where the air is denser and oxygen is readily available for aerobic respiration to produce energy. With an abundance of energy, the coffee plant matures faster, thus turnover rate is higher. However, the shorter time between each harvest cycle also means that complex sugars have lesser time to develop in the coffee cherries, resulting in coffee that is low in sweetness.
The climate and elevation in the Asia Pacific region favour the growth of the Robusta species more than Arabica. As its name suggests, they are more “robust” and are less susceptible to diseases and pests. Vietnam and Indonesia are huge exporters of Robusta beans, which are commonly used in instant coffee production.
Fun Fact: If this reminds you of the bitter, earthy Kopi found in traditional Nanyang coffee, you are absolutely on the right track! In fact, Singapore’s coffee imports from our Southeast-Asian neighbours in the 19th Century sparked the genesis of local nanyang kopi culture. It’s a long story for another day!
Growing of coffee beans generally occur at higher altitudes in Africa, for instance in the mountainous regions of Ethiopia. At higher altitudes, the air is less dense and oxygen becomes less readily available. As a result, coffee plants undergo anaerobic respiration to produce lactate, which is further broken down to lactic acid. Yes, this is the same lactic acid that is produced in our muscles during weights training. Lactic acid imparts the fruity brightness that is such a signature characteristic in African beans.
At higher elevations, coffee cherries ripen over a longer period of time, resulting in harder beans that have higher density. An important implication for the roasting process is that African beans generally require higher charge temperatures for heat to reach the centre of the green beans.
Fun Fact: Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee! There are more than a thousand different varietals of coffee in this country.
Central & South America
Coffees from Central and South America are known for their balanced flavours, mild acidity and caramel sweetness. This makes them popular choices as components in a blend. In fact, the chocolatey notes prominent in Brazil beans favour espresso blends! We can think of it as a base on which other flavours are built on.
That being said, due to the large number of farms and overall production volume, we will observe that flavours from the Central/South America region can have vast variance. It is highly recommended that baristas and home brewers to explore further into the growing conditions of the specific coffee they are using that directly influence the coffee flavours.
Fun Fact: Perhaps the most prominently-featured coffee varietal in barista competitions is the Gesha. Originally grown in Panama, they are now grown in different parts of the world including Colombia and Honduras. Its complex tasting notes may include tropical fruits, bergamot and its signature jasmine flavours.
More than meets the Bean
Coffee is never JUST coffee. In this short article, we explore how the region where the coffee plants are grown, which influences the geographical conditions of elevation and climate, play an important role in determining the flavours of the coffee. This is actually what makes coffee so mesmerising to explore. As we taste coffee from different parts of the world, we begin to appreciate little intricacies in tasting notes. Learning about these geographical factors creates the connection between what we perceive and what nature prescribes.
A note from the author:
As we begin our coffee education journey with The Coffee Belt, I believe many of you eagle-eyed readers would have discovered that we have also opened the doors to many other important topics in coffee such as coffee species, processing methods and brewing mechanics. Coffee education is an unceasing process, one that begins with a simple curious question that rapidly transforms into a passionate quest for knowledge and conversations with your local barista, often without you even realising it. As always, TCR Coffee Co. will be here to share our coffee knowledge in bite-sized terms. Caffeine on!