March 24, 2014

Getting a better cup of coffee by understanding regions and varietals.

Good Coffee beans can be like fine wine grapes. Today we can really know much more about and have a greater variety of coffee choices. We are no longer given just the options of “dark roast” “French roast” or “hazelnut!” Instead we see names like “Colombia Cauca – Portilla – Camayo” or “Ethiopian Kochaha”. So what do these mean and what information do they give us?

One not so minor detail before we delve into regions. Specialty coffees are most likely going to be Arabica beans, with the other species like Robusta and Liberica being used mainly for commodity coffee (think diner coffee.) There are a number of different varieties of Arabica beans, and a good specialty roaster will have the varietal name listed as well. Think of these like you would your wines- do you prefer Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc? You may not know yet, but just think of all the fun you can have exploring the different varieties!

The country of origin is the best description of what the character of the bean will be, and obviously, that is the first information in the name of the above beans. Of course there can be variations within a region, but often they share general qualities. South and Central American coffees tend to have a livelier acidity than Pacific (Oceanic) coffees. Oceanic coffees tend to have bold flavors and full bodies- Sumatran being a great example of this and one of the more commonly known Oceanic coffees (not my personal favorite, though I think I am in the minority here!) African coffees tend to be wine-like, rich in berry notes, lighter in body but with concentrated flavors.

My three year old has been asking me about who made everything he sees lately. It is rare that I can tell him the name of the maker, outside of the farmer’s market. Usually I say something like “a worker in the factory.” Specialty coffees often give the name of the producers of the beans. While it’s not necessarily information that will help you next time you buy coffee from a different specialty roaster, it is refreshing to know.

There are a number of resources out there to help you understand each country of origin better, but it’s much more enjoyable to find a good, local specialty roaster and just start trying their coffees. Get one from each region, and see where your taste buds take you.