Coffee Matters: The Geography of the Bean
Coffee is deeply imbedded in many people’s daily routines and personal rituals. For many coffee drinkers, coffee is more about convenience or comfort and less about complexities of taste or particulars in trade. Usually when you’re drinking a cup of coffee, you’re probably not thinking of all the steps taken by numerous individuals to bring that cup to you. From farmer to roaster to barista or packager, so many passionate and hardworking hands are involved in the coffee industry. It’s something worth thinking about, every once in a while, when you’re drinking your favorite brew. Coffee can be stimulating in more ways than one, if you’re interested in the science of it.
In the past couple of posts, I’ve focused on the culture and business of third wave coffee. In this post, and next week’s, I’ll focus on the cultivation of coffee. Let’s map out where coffee is grown to see how far beans travel to get to cities like Boulder.
Coffee beans are actually seeds or pits, which I’ll still incorrectly refer to as beans for continuity, found on Coffea plants belonging to the Rubiaceae plant family. Coffea, known as coffee trees, bear blossoming fruit that hold the “beans” inside. Commercially cultivated coffee is grown across a vast strip of the globe referred to as the coffee belt, which covers countries in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Coffee needs moderate temperatures, without extreme weather shifts, to grow so it’s farmed in areas between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Ethiopia is considered to be the first country to start brewing coffee, while Brazil is currently the biggest exporter of beans. Coffee is an economic staple for many countries, since it is one of the most profitable natural commodities, second only to oil. Each country and farm has its own cultivating and processing techniques that affect the taste of their beans way before they are roasted.
While bean varieties and farming techniques do greatly affect the final coffee product, you’ll find that soil still heavily dictates aroma and taste. For instance, in my drinking experience, Costa Rican beans yield nutty and smooth cups while Ethiopian beans yield fruity and acidic cups and Indonesian beans yield more earthy and savory cups of coffee. Coffee is subjective but if you do a single-origin taste test—trying out brews from one single type of bean rather than a blend—then common flavor notes can be found based on geography. Once the beans are harvested and processed, the next factor in taste is how the beans are roasted. This depends on the coffee company and it’s here that I’ll again advocate for American third wave roasters! Don’t assume that a dark roast means more caffeine because roasting is about flavor and not caffeine dose. If you drink from a third wave roaster that medium roasts most of their beans, your taste buds can focus on the difference in bean varietal and geography. The sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious variety in tasting notes will help you identify what type of coffee, from which region, you prefer.
Some of life’s simple pleasures have fascinatingly elaborate origins. Researching more about coffee and taking it more seriously may actually increase your enjoyment of it. Especially, if you’re a coffee nerd like me who thinks learning is fun. I’ll continue discussing coffee farming and processing next week but feel free to drink wisely on your own until then.