Terroir—the character of the land and the climate in which a coffee bean is grown—plays a large role in flavor. Processing—washing, fermentation, drying and hulling the seeds of the coffee berry—also makes a huge difference in how the end product tastes. For example, “African coffees have more of a blueberry, spicy flavor,” says Everett-based Velton Coffee roaster Velton Ross, “but this can have as much to do with the washing and processing as the bean itself.” And given that there are over 20 varietals of coffee, the characteristics of a bean depend as much on the varietal as on the elevation and climate in which it was grown. As more local coffee roasters are paying attention to the whole life cycle of the bean—and not just roasting—to keep the complex flavors fresh and alive, coffee bean bags are reading a lot like wine labels. Here’s a primer on the tastes of popular coffee growing regions.
Most beans here are grown at higher elevations and in lush, cool climates, such as in the Huehuetenango area of Guatemala; they tend to be very chocolaty and also have citrus and floral notes. Some Guatamalan coffees are grown in volcanic soil and have a lime zest type of acidity with a bright finish.
Costa Rican beans have a more chocolaty (yet fruity) flavor with nice acidity, and are more balanced with a smooth, but drier, finish than Guatemalan coffee. Beans in Costa Rica are grown on lush tropical hillsides from 600 meters all the way up to 1,700-plus meters in elevation. The higher elevation increases acidity, flavor and body.
In a drier climate, and at a lower elevation, as with Ethiopian Harrar, you’ll find deep fruit flavors, such as blueberry, with tobacco and even earthy, funky notes.
Coffee grown in Kenya—typically at higher, cooler elevations—develops more aromatics and floral notes, and tends to have higher acidity and brighter citrus flavors.
Colombian forests are filled with papayas and mangoes, and some of that floral taste comes through in the coffee. At lower elevations here, coffee beans tend to ripen faster, are well-balanced and also have a lot of nutty and spicy notes (though muted). But beans grown at high elevations—1,800 to 2,100 meters—can develop bright citrus and cranberry flavors.
The largest coffee producing region, Brazil grows about 25 percent of the world’s coffee, including the larger-production robusta bean (think canned coffee), and the higher-quality arabica, (the variety most gourmet coffee producers use). Mostly grown at lower elevations, Brazilian beans are a good base for blends: well balanced, medium-bodied, with chocolaty and nutty flavors and a soft acidity.