Coffee is just coffee right? Hopefully you've been reading this column long enough to know the answer to that question!
So what is it that makes coffee from Nicaragua different than one from Kenya? Today we're going to talk about coffee from Central and South America, and what characteristics define the coffee from this region.
Coffee growing regions exist around the world in more than 50 countries from Africa to Asia. That's a lot of different soils and locations, and while it's hard to definitively say how much of a role that plays on coffee — unlike terroir in wine — there's no denying that different coffees from different regions do have different characteristics.
Knowing the general differences in coffee can help you better identify the ones that you like, and also make you more educated next time you are buying your beans.
Regional Differences in Coffee
There are no rules about the differences in coffee, but because certain coffee varieties are often more prevalent in some geographical locations than others. Processing methods can also be similar within a certain region, so there are some generalizations that can be made. In other words, while all coffee in Central America certainly doesn't taste the same, different coffees from different Central American countries may have more similarities than when compared with those on the other side of the ocean.
In the U.S., we drink a lot of coffee from Central and South America, simply because its geographic proximity makes it easy to import. If we were to make one generalization: these are the classic, medium-bodied coffees that we're all used to — unlike, for instance, the brighter coffees from Africa. In terms of flavors, they are commonly associated with cocoa, nut and spice notes.
Coffee from Central America
In Central America, you'll find varying acidity, but usually beans from this region are known for their balance, which makes them good for people just getting started on their relationship with coffee. Not to bitter, not too acidic, fairly smooth flavors, like chocolate. Costa Rica is known for heavier-bodied coffee, while if you go west to Mexico, you'll find something a little lighter.
Coffee from South America
Moving to South America, we get beans that have a wider flavor profile, but coffee drinkers are probably most well versed on the beans of Colombia, which is one of the top coffee producing countries in the world. From here, you can expect an even, well-rounded taste; moderate acidity and sweetness, and a medium to full body, probably the kind of coffee you are already most used to drinking.
No Hard Rules
As you can see, there are no definitive guidelines for flavor profiles, just tendencies. If you're really looking to know more about your coffee, your best bet is to ask your roaster. It's like talking to the farmer at farmers market. These people know their stuff, and they know the product that they're roasting. They'll be able to tell you exactly what their beans from a certain place taste like in order to help guide you towards the coffee that you'll like the best.
Want to learn more?
Here are some great resources to learn more about coffee regions and flavor profiles:
(Image credits: CIAT)