THE GEOGRAPHY OF COFFEE
Coffee is a global beverage. Although it’s enjoyed on all seven continents—and even high above the face of the earth by astronauts on the International Space Station—it can only be grown in what’s known as the Coffee Belt, between 25 degrees north and 30 degrees south of the equator. Despite this restriction in latitude, coffee grows on high plateaus, misty island jungles, the slopes of volcanoes, and even deep in the desert.
Just as different regions of the globe have different cultures, climates, and languages, coffee has unique characteristics based on where it’s grown, and it will taste different depending on its origin. While genetic variety and processing play large roles in flavor, one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle is terroir, the combination of climate, topography (elevation), and soil composition. This essentially comes down to where on the planet a coffee is grown. Although flavor profiles vary widely within countries and across continents, it’s possible to generalize flavor profiles to global regions. Getting to know your favorite origins is one of the most exciting parts of being a coffee person.
Africa and the Arabian Peninsula
Humanity and coffee share a birthplace in East Africa. We met nearly a thousand years ago, high in the forests of the Ethiopian plateau where coffee is still grown today. Early on, coffee was brought to Yemen for cultivation and traded out of the Port of Mocha. Today coffee grows throughout Africa, and Ethiopia and Kenya are two of the most popular coffee origins. Burundi, Rwanda, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tanzania coffees have all made their way into Peet’s bags and blends, but coffee is also grown in Uganda, Zambia, and the Ivory Coast, among others.
East African coffees grow at high elevation, in a dry, relatively cool climate. The elevation and cooler conditions allow the coffee cherry to ripen more slowly, and this slow maturation makes for denser beans, higher acidity, and more complex flavors. These coffees are prized for their bright, sparkling acidity, floral characteristics, and berry fruit notes.
In the early 17th century, coffee seedlings were smuggled out of Arabia to the island of Java on the ships of Dutch merchants. From Java, it blossomed outwards to other islands and coffee now grows on Sumatra, Bali, Sulawesi, Papua New Guinea, and many more. This tropical, volcanic region is sometimes too humid to properly dry coffee as they do in other parts of the world. Many coffees, especially in places like Sumatra, are wet-hulled—dried in their silver skin—rather than in the cherry or parchment as with natural and washed processes. This creates a more absorbent bean that soaks up the surrounding flavors of the environment, making for some of the most distinctive flavor profiles out there. Arabica coffees from the Indo-Pacific region generally have unmatched body and lower acidity, with earthy, sometimes herbaceous, spicy profiles featuring heady tropical fruits and aromatic woods like teak and cedar.
Coffee first made it to the Americas by way of the French. It flourished first in the Caribbean before traveling to Mexico, then Central and South America. Brazil has become the largest producer of coffee worldwide. If African coffees are high and dry and Indo-Pacific coffees are lower and wetter, coffee from the Americas are somewhere in between. Across such a vast area there is an incredible amount of variation in terroir. Colombian coffee can be full and fruity, Guatemalan coffee is chock full of chocolate, and Brazilian beans yield a creamy nuttiness and provide great crema for espresso.
Coffee has the ability to connect us to far corners of the world. It goes on an adventure around the globe, passing through the hands of farmers, millers, exporters, shippers, importers, and roasters before making it into your cup. As much as a cup of coffee can feel close to home, brewed in our kitchen, or handed to us by our local Barista, it’s a connection to the world at large. Every sip is an opportunity to taste the world.