As a consumer you might expect sameness in all coffees from within Africa or South America or Asia, but this is not true. Every coffee producing country on every continent produces coffee with its own native flavor depending on local habits and conditions.
Many producing countries have multiple coffee producing regions that impart their own unique taste to the bean, partly due to climate and partly due to different processing methods of the respective coffees. Wet processed coffees are sweeter and milder than dry processed coffees for instance.
Ethiopia has mild, wet processed coffees from the Sidamo region and bold, dry processed coffee from Harrar region. Not only do they taste different, they are actually taste opposites. Indonesia has dry processed coffees from Sumatra and wet processed from Java. They too are totally different experiences.
Secondly the variety of tree is a major factor in the taste of a coffee. At one time in the distant past there could have been some homogeny in tree variety that contributed to a common flavor in most coffee coming out of any one country, but now each country has many different hybrids with each producing its own cup character.
The taste of a coffee is largely a product of the variety of the tree just as it is with apples, oranges and grapes, even though grapes don’t grow on trees but you get the idea. Typica and Bourbon are the two prized heirloom varieties yet today there are hundreds of different hybrids available for consideration by farmers. Countries that have national coffee boards usually have test plots, growing at least two-dozen varieties under study.
Many countries are now cultivating several varieties of coffee at the same time because some new variety is touted to give a higher yield, a lure that many farmers cannot ignore or pass up. The fact that the new variety has a different taste is not important to the farmer and it is likely he wouldn’t notice the difference anyway because many farmers have never tasted their own coffee. Like many other people, even farmers often buy their kitchen coffee in a red can from the grocery store.
We have been to farms that have three to six varieties under cultivation at the same time. New plots or blocks as they are called in New Guinea were planted at different times using different seeds supplied by the national coffee board. Each plot may come to ripeness at different times due to the different genetics or microclimate influences. In this case they may be harvested at different times but they are given no significance to the variety and are mixed during milling. Coffee trees are constantly being replaced in the field due to disease or old age. The replacement tree is going to be whichever variety is growing in the nursery at the time. The mixing of varieties necessarily removes the uniqueness of any one variety.
Where we can get a dependable, varietal cup character is from larger coffee estates that have a dedication to one particular cultivar, be it an heirloom variety of a suitable hybrid. These are estates that have their own coffee labs and roasting machines to assess quality and value. We are now seeing more and more estate coffees coming onto the market.
When Colombia introduced a new hybrid variety that included genetics from the Robusta species, they insisted that it tasted the same as the traditional Typica and Bourbon varieties. We have been very closely tied with specific coffee farms in Colombiaand their neighbors so we got together to do our own taste comparison. We all noticed a dramatic difference in the tastes and elected not to introduce the new hybrid into the area.
The next year the Colombian Coffee Federation invited a group of American gourmet coffee buyers to Colombia for a tasting. They were given a big reception and an all expense paid tour of Colombia and imagine the coincidence when they all found no difference in the taste of the traditional variety and the new government variety.
Now about Africa; there is government sponsored coffee cultivation in a number of African nations that yield products with no discernable taste distinction. The coffee varieties were often hybrids selected for drought resistance or some particular disease resistance without regard for the cup quality of the coffee. We generally find many of these coffees boring and mundane. It may require some effort to find a great coffee from countries principally committed to growing only hybrids.
On the other hand there is coffee that is not expected to be great. When commercial and institutional roasters refer to “Centrals” as a category, they are acknowledging that their blend can be substituted with any coffee from Honduras, Nicaragua or El Salvador. In other words they consider all Central American coffees equal. This does not mean that these countries don’t grow some impressive high-grown gourmet quality coffees just because the commercial buyers are focused on their more common low-grown coffees that share a simple character and similar cup quality. High grown coffees of Guatemala and Costa Rica are distinctive and different even though both countries have lower quality, simple and unimpressive low-grown coffees. This becomes clear when you understand that most Central American countries grade their beans by the growing altitude. The higher the altitude that coffee is grown in, the higher the grade.
Often in this case the roaster is blending the so-called “Central” with two or more other coffees that also lack varietal distinction. These may include past crop Arabica, Robusta, Exchange Grade coffee or some other “stock lot” under-grade coffee being offered. The result is a bland brew you might expect to taste at a diner or fast food outlet. All too often this is what one finds in a red can.
The specialty roaster has to navigate the mundane and seek out the exceptions. A quality oriented green coffee buyer will request top-grade samples from several qualified importers in order to compare five or six selections from each country of interest. From past experience he knows which regions within that country have traditionally produced the best tasting brew.
The key is to look at the offerings list and request samples that are from familiar estates or regions that have been impressive in the past. Next, it’s important to compare color, freshness and consistency in the raw beans. After roasting, each sample should be checked for a “good” and “big” Aroma, then tasted and rated for Flavor, Brightness, Strength, Body and Sweetness.
The process is both objective and subjective. After assessing the samples and assigning a rating to each selection a decision will have to be made as to which of the two top-rated coffees to buy. Often that decision is based on the variety of tree and some nuance in taste.