Education: Coffee Origins

Coffee is grown in a number of typical regions that each have their own characteristics, both because of climate, soil and processing methods each coffee undergoes. While not all of these characteristics are uniform, it’s helpful to become familiar with the overarching differences between growing regions and the coffees they produce. Soil, elevation, rainfall, varietals and how the coffee is processed all affect the end result, making long-term, involved relationships between the roaster/green buyer and the farmer, as well as terrior research projects, extremely important.

Not to over simplify the nuances and particularities of individual growing areas within these larger regions, there are some general characteristics that can be found in South/Central American, African, and Asian/Indonesian/Pacific coffees. These characteristics refer to body, flavor, aromas, and acidity (not referring to pH, but more to brightness in the flavor).

South/Central America

It is common to find that South/Central American coffees tend to be medium bodied with medium acidity. General tasting and aroma notes found in these coffees are chocolate, spice, herbal and sometimes floral heading into South America.

Both Guatemala and Colombia have extremely diverse growing regions with their own microclimates. Guatemala has 8 designated regions: Acatenango Valley, Antigua Coffee, Traditional Atitlan, Rainforest Coban, Fraijanes Plateau, Highland Huehue, New Oriente, and Volcanic San Marcos. Guatemala had been the top producer of coffee in Central America, but was recently surpassed by Honduras. Colombia has three major mountain ranges that make coffee production last all year and produce a wide variety of acidity, body and flavor profiles.

El Salvador is known for producing a great balance between body and complex flavors. The varietals typically used in El Salvador are Bourbon, Typica and Pacas, which is responsible for floral flavor notes, bright acidity, and body. Typically Bourbon and Typica varieties are “neutral” in flavor, allowing the growing region to shine through.

Brazil is the world’s largest coffee producer, but most of the coffee is grown in lower elevation and is commercial grade (can coffee!). The specialty coffee produced in Brazil is often used for espresso blends and is processed using the Pulped Natural process. The typical varieties used are Bourbon and Typica as well as some Brazilian varieties such as Icatu, Mundo Novo and Catuai. Catuai offers a brighter flavor than the others, so when drinking a Brazilian, pay attention to the varietal and see if you can taste the difference.


African coffees are known for higher acidity and offer a wide variety of flavor profiles. Acidity in this instance, doesn’t refer to PH, but rather to bright flavors. Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda being some of the most popular regions. Typical flavors can be rich cocoa, berry, winey, and fruit flavors.

The most well known growing areas in Ethiopia are Sidamo and Harrar. Ethiopia is known for producing the world’s best dry or “natural” processed coffees (a way of processing the berry that leaves the fruit in contact with the bean) in both areas. This processing method leaves the coffee with berry flavors that are easily discernible. Kenya has very high standards and structure for producing some of the world’s best washed coffees, lending to their high acidity and bright flavors.

Since coffee is a native plant in Ethiopia, there are hundreds of different varietals. It is common to see numerical names for these different varieties and often they are blended.

Asia, Indonesia and Pacific

Asian, Indonesian and Pacific coffees are known for lower acidity and earthy flavors like aromatic wood. Often the processing of the Indonesian coffees lends to the woody flavors.

Common growing areas are:

  • Hawaii
  • Java
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Sumatra

Knowing what kind of coffee you like to drink could directly relate to particular growing regions–their processing methods, terrior and varietals. It’s helpful to know these particularities when selecting your coffee, but also to explore other options. Who knew that one could taste three completely different coffees from Ethiopia simply based on where they were grown and how they were processed? These general categories given here are merely a starting point for you to explore these endless nuances. Enjoy!

EducationTricia Howerzyl