Where is Coffee Grown And What Does That Mean For You?
If you’ve dipped your toes in the wide world of coffee information, you likely know that coffee beans are actually not beans at all: instead , they’re the seed of a cherry that grows on trees and bushes. Like most agricultural products (think anything that grows like berries, wheat, or rice), there are certain conditions where coffee thrives, and because of that, certain countries have become well-known for coffee production.
Technically, you can grow coffee anywhere (ask your local barista or roaster—they might have even experimented with growing coffee trees in their home), but coffee flourishes in countries situated between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn: the two lines of latitude that contain the equator where the temperatures tend to be hot or warm throughout most of the year (you won’t see coffee farms in snowy places).
The areas between the two tropics are sometimes referred to as the “Bean Belt” or the location of the world where coffee grows best. Coffee generally does best at high elevations (usually between 800-2000+ meters above sea level), and although there are coffee regions experimenting with specialty coffee plantation and cultivation (China, the California coast, and India, for example) or working to reclaim their prominence (like Haiti) coffee generally grows in three regions: East Africa, South and Central America, and the Pacific Rim.
Although more than 70 countries grow and cultivate coffee, we’ll break down some of the most popular coffee growing regions and what makes coffees from each country distinct:
Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. Unlike any other coffee growing region, coffee grows wild in the country, giving birth to heirloom varieties (heirloom is kind of a confusing term in coffee and is sometimes used as a term for any coffee from Ethiopia, but think of heirloom like heirloom tomatoes—these are varieties that aren’t hybrids that are naturally occurring in nature and they display the same variances you might see with a batch of heirloom tomatoes).
Getu Bekele is an agronomist and author of “A Reference Guide to Ethiopian Coffee Varieties,” and writes that, unlike most coffee regions, coffees in Ethiopia aren’t usually classified by their varietal (again, think tomatoes: you might buy a particular type of tomato like sungold, cherry, or roma). “Ethiopia has a diverse coffee-growing agroecology that resulted in the creation of different geographical regions known for unique coffee flavors,” writes Bekele. “The space and time concepts associated with heirlooms are missing for most coffee-producing countries except for Ethiopia.”
In general, the coffee flavor profiles from Ethiopia tend to be very floral and delicate, with notes of jasmine and soft citrus for washed coffees and blueberry for naturally-processed coffees. However, since there’s so much variety (and this is the case with many coffee regions), it’s hard to pin down an exact flavor profile, but many coffee pros prize Ethiopian coffees for their complexity.
Learn more about Ethiopian coffee history.
Even though Ethiopia and Kenya are neighboring countries, growing coffee was not introduced to Kenya until the late 1800s (the cultivation of coffee globally and the countries it's found in is mainly due to colonization, a more significant bigger topic for a future article).
Kenyan coffees are noted for their high quality (sometimes coffees will come with a grade: AA is the highest) and unique varieties. Cultivars like SL28 and SL34—which you likely won’t see in any other coffee-growing regions—were developed by Scott Agricultural Laboratories in 1922 for both taste and yield, and many different cultivars were grown in labs to target specific goals.
If you really want to see how history and regionality affect flavor, try tasting a coffee from Ethiopia and a coffee from Kenya side by side: they’re very different, or take a coffee quiz to see which coffee flavor is best for you! Kenyan coffees tend to be punchy and big, with lots of bracing acidities. Sometimes these coffees can border on savory, but the flavors of coffees from Kenya are beautifully distinct.
Brazil is the single-largest producer of coffee in the world. The country grows a lot of popular varieties like Bourbon, Typica, and Caturra, and you’ll likely see Brazilian coffees anchoring espresso blends due to its classic coffee profile—many coffees from Brazil are described as nutty and taste be as pronounced.
For years, many Brazilian coffees ended up in blends, but that’s starting to change as more and more roasters recognize the variety and potential of the region. Brazil is also one of the leaders in innovation and technology, and lots of producers are experimenting with ways to improve quality without having the advantage of high-elevation coffee farming land like chocolate and cherry. Because coffees in Brazil are grown at a slightly lower elevation, the acidity in these coffees tends not to. You can also find coffees processed in a number of ways: a fully-washed coffee is as accessible as honey-processed or naturally-processed coffees.
Ask ten coffee people what their favorite coffee-growing country is, and at least one will say Colombia. This year’s World Barista Champion, Diego Campos, is from Colombia, and the country boasts a wide variety of coffees that just check all the boxes: complex, easy to drink, and wildly different based on where they’re grown in the country.
So, what is Colombian coffee? Colombia is unique in that there are two “harvests.” In general, coffee is a plant that produces fruit once every year, and most countries have a growing season and a harvest season. In Colombia, it’s not uncommon for plants to produce fruit year-round, especially as farms get closer to the equator, and these growing times are generally divided into two harvests.
Coffees from Colombia are hard to define: many boast lots of interesting fruit flavors but with a heavy and silky mouthfeel to balance out the taste profile. Colombian coffees perform well as single-origin offerings or in a blend and are versatile enough to be used in filter coffee and espresso.
Peru is one of a handful of countries where organic certification really took hold (you’ll also see a lot of organic certification in Mexico). Peru might not have been as well-known as its neighboring coffee countries, but much of that is beginning to change.
A cup of Peruvian coffee tends to lean towards the balanced and mellow spectrum. These are great everyday morning coffees that highlight sweetness and roundness while still being nuanced and exciting.
Every country in Central America, from Mexico to Panama, grows coffee, including El Salvador, which is situated on the Pacific coast side of the region in between Guatemala and Honduras.
I distinctly remember the very first cup I had of coffee from El Salvador because it was incredibly smooth—the body and mouthfeel of the coffee were rich and silky, kind of like drinking milk chocolate. Along with popular varieties, you’ll also see hybrids growing in the region, like Pacamara, which was first cultivated in 1958 in El Salvador. A hybrid of Pacas and Maragogype varieties, Pacamara is noted for its creaminess while still retaining lots of highly floral notes.
Papua New Guinea
Coffees from Papua New Guinea are special. Sometimes shortened to PNG, coffees from this region are deeply sweet, kind of like how figs and dates are sweet. Think brown and palm sugars when you taste these coffees. PNG coffees also sometimes have warming spice notes, and you might see roasters describe these coffees as smoky or with a tobacco note.
You’ll find both washed and naturally processed coffees from the region, and truly just a lot of fun and complex fruit notes. You can enjoy these coffees both as filters and espresso, but I tend to think PNG coffees are standouts brewed as a pour-over.
Indonesia is a country of thousands of islands, and the most popular ones for coffee growing are Sumatra, Java, and Sulawesi. Many coffees in the region are wet-hulled, which means some of the skin of the cherry is removed, but then the seed is left to dry with some of the mucilage still attached.
Truly, there’s nothing like drinking coffees from Indonesia. The volcanic soil and climate contribute to the coffee’s flavor profiles: again, it’s hard to summarize into one neat category, but Indonesian coffees can boast very spice-forward flavors with a round, smooth mouthfeel.
To learn more about the different types of coffee, their histories, or even how to make a cup of sunny California coffee, or a Colombian or Brazilian coffee drink, visit Trade!