After almost a year of roasting my own coffee beans, and writing about the basics of roasting at home, I’ve encountered a fair number of coffee flavor experiences, drinking coffees from various geographic regions, roasting to different colors, and preparing with various coffee makers. Learning how coffee varies from region to region in appearance and flavor could be considered the reward of home roasting, other than the cost of course. Much like whisky, the nuances of coffee flavors are lost those first few times you look for them. The two beverages, coffee, and whisky, share a progression of flavor in a way for the thoughtful consumer. The first phase is a transition from recognizing the beverage purely for its bitter flavors, to an acceptance of those flavors as palatable. From there two possibilities emerge: either you turn this acceptance into a dependence, based on the stimulating or relaxing qualities of the beverage, or you turn the acceptance into confidence, and start to expect more of the flavors of each beverage.
For me, this evolution began as recognizing that coffee had some basic qualities such as more bitterness, or more sweetness. As you taste more and more over time while looking for those subtle differences even when they’re not apparent, the palate is slowly but surely trained and a snapshot of different beans and roasts emerges. While processing and farming have inherent effects on flavor, I’m going to focus more on geographical differences today, since that is usually the starting point when buying beans. I often refer to the body, which means how mouth filling the flavors feel, and acidity, which means how tart or refreshing the coffee is.
Yes, I’m thinking about Juan Valdez and the donkey right now. Colombian coffee flavors could be described as the cliche coffee flavor, with aromatics not unlike full-bodied red wine and a deep chocolaty body. It is quite flexible with different roast levels.
Brazil and Peru
If you drink espresso-based drinks at a local coffee shop, chances are some of it is from Brazil. These beans have low acidity even at light roasts, combined with the deep chocolaty notes that Columbian beans possess. Perfect for the filler coffee that beefs up your run-of-the-mill latte. Peruvian beans are similar in character, although higher altitudes do sometimes add a bit more acidity.
Guatemala and El Salvador
Often these beans have a more yellow than a green appearance before roasting. Once prepared, there is no shortage of sweet notes such as Maduro tobacco, sweet milk chocolate, and maybe even roasted nut butter and cocoa. Perhaps the abundance of volcanic soils lends this sweetly dark character. The aromas of these coffees are very reminiscent of the trendy coffee bars we all know and love.
A snappy, bright, and nutty coffee that is popular in breakfast blends and for decaf processes.
I’ve tried two different single origin coffees from Sumatra, and they were startling in their deep, soil-driven earthiness. The flavors can almost be described as chewy, and therefore is not a refreshing cup but rather the savory one. Lots of complexity of flavor if slightly less aromatically. Sulawesi and New Guinea are similar but less rough, leaning more in balance towards coffees from Central America.
Kenya and Rwanda
Lighter in body, like Mexican, but the good ones have a streak of bright, fresh acidity that start to remind you of citrus fruits, melons, and fresh berries. Whereas most coffees are pungently aromatic, these are usually much more delicate. Perhaps a good comparison in the wine world is Beaujolais. The Rwanda coop produces coffee with this amazing fresh aromatics but with a nice plump body.
Yemen and Ethiopia
This is a playground for the adventurous. The first time I tried Ethiopian coffee I was convinced it was terrible, with some animal fur and volatile chemical smoke elements. But everyone is very unique, and often you aren’t sure exactly where the beans came from. There are lots of earthy flavors, not as full-bodied as Indonesian, but with nutty dry finishes. Definitely pungent aromatically. Quite often the beans themselves look a little rough before you start, and I wonder if some of those strange elements are actually pure bean flavors or not.
Jamaica and Hawaii
The luxury products of Kona and Blue Mountain are decadent indeed and seem to pack the body of Indonesian coffees with the bright acidity and exotic aromatics of African coffees. 100% pure Kona coffee is usually outstanding but I haven’t bought much in the last year because the price is so high for both. A treat that is worth seeking out at least once.