Before coffee is brewed and ground, before it is roasted, sold, or traded, and before it’s processed and picked, it must first be grown. Coffee, like most commodities, is a plant. At one time it was wild, and now it’s cultivated. In previous episodes I’ve covered the history of coffee, showing that individual people were key to coffee’s spread through Africa to Europe and eventually to the Americas. The historical narrative of coffee from the time of African legends to the time of Starbucks may seem like a relatively straight trajectory, but it’s actually not. There were people ahead of their time who saw coffee for being more than simply a way to get a caffeine buzz. There were people who jumped history and made a name for themselves in coffee long before Dunkin Donuts graced the city streets of the East.
In this episode I talk about coffee production. The episode is divided in two sections. In the first section, I use the story of early specialty coffee pioneers as a lens through which to view the importance of production. In the second section I discuss coffee production, and how a bean gets from the soil to your cup.
The more I research coffee, the more I find it woven through people’s lives and lacing the pages of history books. For example, while I was looking up a story to start this episode with I happened across something that totally blew my mind. In today’s episode I’m going to talk about coffee in the most naturalistic sense possible; I want to discuss coffee plants, why beans from different places in the world taste differently, and why this is important to you. See, before coffee is brewed and ground, before it is roasted, sold, or traded, and before it’s processed and picked it must first be grown. Coffee, like most commodities, is a plant. At one time it was wild, and now it’s cultivated. In previous episodes I’ve covered the history of coffee, showing that individual people were key to coffee’s spread through Africa to Europe and eventually to the Americas. The historical narrative of coffee from the time of African legends to the time of Starbucks may seem like a relatively straight trajectory, but it’s actually not. There were people ahead of their time who saw coffee for being more than simply a way to get a caffeine buzz. There were people who jumped history and made a name for themselves in coffee long before Dunkin Donuts graced the city streets of the East.
There was a famous man, known throughout the U.S., who loved coffee so much that his drinking vessels were said to be more like bathtubs than mugs. Whether the legends are true or not, this man was said to have drank a gallon of coffee per day at his peak. His kids went on to found a chain of what today we would call “specialty coffee” shops in 1919 – a time when the world was recovering from the first global war and alcohol was about to be federally banned. Oh, and did I mention that this man had been the President of the United States? I’m talking about President Teddy Roosevelt, and I think his love of coffee builds the perfect bridge between the beverage we know and love, and the plants that it all comes from.
I’m Colin Mansfield, and welcome to The Boise Coffee Podcast.
I’m going to do this episode in two sections. In this first section I’d like to finish the tale of the Roosevelt family’s love affair with coffee. I think it’s a great way to show that quality coffee isn’t a byproduct of culture or trends – it’s always been there, waiting to be discovered. Also, I just think the story is amazing and needs to be shared. In the second section I’m going to transition into talking about the coffee plant and fruit. I’ll get into why coffee growing regions exist, and answer some common questions like “what makes a Guatemalan bean different from an Ethiopian bean?” Let’s get started.
As most of us know, Teddy Roosevelt was a sickly chid. He suffered from debilitating asthma and overall poor health. His father was known to take young Theodore on nighttime drives with the windows down. Teddy would stick his head out the window in an effort to force air down his suffering lungs. Strongly brewed coffee was another home remedy for Teddy’s asthma attacks – perhaps this was when he developed his taste for the beverage.
While President Roosevelt certainly loved coffee, it was his kids that created a business around it. Kermit Roosevelt, the President’s second son, had developed a love for coffee in South America. From 1913-1914 he and his father explored the Amazon Basin of Brazil together, and from 1914-1916 Kermit was the assistant manager for the National City Bank in Buenos Aires. During his time in South America Kermit noticed that the coffeehouses of the region were strikingly different from those back home; not only did they serve coffee that was freshly ground, but the atmosphere of the shops was more casual and laid back than he was used to. And he liked it.
It’s important to note here that coffeehouses did exist in places like New York City, but they were not at all the kinds of shops we’re surrounded by today. Generally coffeehouses were more ethnic, catering to recent immigrants and foreigners. Upon Kermit’s return to the states, he saw a huge opportunity to bring what he had learned from South America to a more mainstream audience on the streets of New York. Kermit approached his siblings with the coffeehouse idea, and they were all on board. Kermit, Ted, Archie, Ethel, her husband, and their father’s cousin Philip Roosevelt made up the initial business venture – and they were all between the ages of 21 and 31.
The business was based on two key things: first, Kermit was willing to bet that the relaxed atmosphere he had experienced at coffeehouses in South America would appeal to New Yorkers as a way to get away from busy city life. Second, prohibition was about to hit the United States. Overnight, all legal alcohol sales would dry up, meaning that there was a whole new group of people willing to trade one vice with another. The Roosevelt siblings wanted coffee to fill that hole.
In November of 1919, just a month after the Volstead Act had passed (a pre-curser to the Constitutional Amendment that would enforce prohibition), the Roosevelts’ Brazilian Coffee House opened. The press was quick to spread the news – a New York Times multitiered headline read “Roosevelts Start Coffee House Chain; Houses Similar to the Ancient Institutions of London to be Established.” The interior design of the coffee shop was likely handled by Ethel Roosevelt – it featured walls papered with green and gold print of Brazilian bamboo, and hanging portraits of celebrated coffee lovers. Voltaire, Shakespeare, and her father Teddy all had their own spots on the wall.
The room itself was strikingly similar to what we’re used to today. Thirty small oak tables and chairs scattered the floor, and each table had a compartment containing ink, envelopes, and special stationary inscribed with “Brazilian Coffee House.” Dictionaries and Encyclopedias were within reach as well. It’s not unreasonable to draw a correlation between modern computers and the internet to these analogue counterparts. Philip Roosevelt told a reporter, “What we desire to do is to provide a place for people to come, where they can talk, write letters, eat sandwiches and cake, and above all, drink real coffee.” If that doesn’t sound like exactly the sort of thing a modern coffee shop owner would say, I don’t know what does.
The store’s manager, a young Brazilian named A.M. Salazar, functioned as barista and head coffee snob. He would often say things like “Americans don’t really know how to appreciate good coffee” and lamented at how modern techniques boiled coffee and killed the tastes that make each bean unique. He would put on elaborate demonstrations, grinding coffee in front of customers and producing pour-overs through a specially prepared strainer. He was known to lecture people on proper temperature and roasting, and he discouraged customers from adding milk or cream to their beverage. Sound familiar?
In 1921 the Brazilian Coffee House was forced to change its name after a brief legal squabble, and they settled on rebranding it as the Double R Coffee House – the R’s stood for Roosevelt and Robinson (Monroe Douglas Robinson, Teddy’s nephew, had joined the venture as well). Eventually, the Double R grew to include four locations around New York City, named after various South American Regions: there was the original Brazilian branch, the Argentine, the Colombian, and the Amazon. The Roosevelt clan had plans to take the chain national – Archie even scouted sites in Chicago and had trips to Boston and Philadelphia planned as well.
Although their national coffee chain dreams were never fully realized, the shops did succeed in a major area: they brought people together. The original Brazilian location was situated in New York City’s arts district and attracted actors, artists, writers, newspapermen, and musicians. H.P. Lovecraft, the famous fiction writer who inspired a generation of novelists including Stephen King, was known to frequent the location along with his circle of friends. He even wrote a short ode titled “On the Double R Coffee House.”
“Here may free souls forget the grind
Of busy hour and bustling crowd
And sparkling brightly mind to mind
Display their inmost dreams aloud”
The Roosevelt siblings had interests as diverse as their father’s: by the end of the 1920s their minds were beginning to drift away from coffee. In 1928 Ted Jr. and Kermit were planning their newest expedition – a lengthy exploration of Indochina to collect plant and animal specimens. These eccentricities led the siblings to survey potential buyers of their coffee houses. The obvious choice would’ve been Maxwell House; Teddy Roosevelt had apparently loved their coffee – they claim that their slogan “good to the last drop” was uttered by the President himself, though the truth of both the statement, and whether or not T.R. had actually said it are disputed to today.
In the end, Maxwell House didn’t buy the Double R. Instead, a couple named Zivko and Aneta Magdich purchased the local chain. Their interest was as much financial as it was emotional: the couple had first met at the Double R. Unfortunately, it’s not clear what happened after the Magdich’s came into ownership. The best guesses say that their business went on until the 1929 stock market crash. While a sad ending, the Double R was around serving great coffee for nearly 10 years. That’s a great run, even by modern standards. More importantly, the Double R showed something that nobody had yet proven. More about that, after the break.
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The story of the Roosevelt family’s Double R Coffeehouse illustrates a key point that I’d like to highlight before moving on to the next section of this episode. At the time that the Roosevelts created their business, coffee was seen as a static beverage – almost like a soda. There was no well-known way to make coffee taste any better or worse – it was all just coffee, as far as the average American consumer was concerned. The Roosevelts showed that coffee has latent potential that nobody was tapping in to at that time. And, more than that, they showed that there was a market for it. Their business venture was about 80 years ahead of its time, yet it still captured the hearts and minds of New Yorkers. As we move into talking about coffee in terms of botany, processing techniques, and origins, I’d like you to keep this in mind: great tasting coffee isn’t new. While it’s en vogue now, quality beans have been around for centuries. Kermit Roosevelt became passionate about coffee because he saw it at its source. Now, I’d like to give you brief look at how coffee is processed, and where it comes from.
The word “coffee,” botanically speaking, is a broad term. It’s like saying the word “Rose;” just as there are different species of roses, there are different species of coffee. The two most well known coffee species are Coffea Arabica and Coffea canephora, better known as Robusta. Robusta is actually more of a brand name given to Coffea canephora to highlight its strong – or robust – flavor. It was discovered in the Belgian Congo (what is now Zaire) in the late 19th century. At that time Coffea arabica, or just Arabica for short, was the only form of coffee being widely traded and sold. Robusta coffee plants, as it turned out, were able to grow and fruit at lower altitudes, higher temperatures, and were more resistant to disease. This made them ideal to mass-produce and be grown in climates where Arabica couldn’t. There’s just one itsy bitsy problem with Robusta coffee – it tastes horrible. While the very best Robusta can potentially taste better than the worst Arabica beans, that’s not really saying much. Coffee aficionados generally describe coffee made with Robusta beans as having a woody, burnt-rubber quality with low acidity. Suffice it to say that most people don’t enjoy common Robusta coffee.
That doesn’t mean that Robusta flat-lined: it’s actually still widely grown today. The Italian espresso tradition commonly uses Robusta beans for their strong brews, but its bigger market is something we’re all familiar with: instant coffee. In instant coffee, price is king above flavor, and Robusta is much cheaper to buy on a large scale. Some big coffee companies like Folgers and Maxwell House actually mix Arabica and Robusta beans to keep prices low. Robusta coffee also packs a bigger caffeine punch than Arabica, meaning that coffee companies can get people hooked on their bitter brews much more easily using this mixed method.
It’s interesting to note that on a genetic level Robusta and Arabica aren’t siblings or distant relatives: Robusta is actually the parent of Arabica. Some time in the distant past, likely in southern Sudan, Robusta crossed with another species called Coffea euginoides (I’m probably butchering that pronunciation) and produced Arabica. Coffea arabica spread from there, taking root in Ethiopia where it was first discovered by humans.
Currently there are 129 species of coffee that have been identified, mostly through the work of Kew Gardens in London. Most of these look very different from the coffee plants and beans we cultivate today. Many of these species are indigenous to Madagascar, though others have been discovered in parts of southern Asia and as far as Australia. Also, none of these plants are being grown or produced commercially, though scientists are beginning to show more interest for the simple fact that there’s little genetic diversity in the plants currently cultivated. This lack of diversity puts coffee plants at risk: a disease that can attack one plant can potentially attack them all.
For the rest of this episode, when I refer to coffee beans, plants, and cultivation techniques I’ll be talking about Arabica exclusively. Not only is it the plant most widely produced and harvested, it also is the only species from which specialty coffee is made.
Coffee plants demand a ton of care and patience to grow and harvest. A newly planted seedling will take up to three years before it fruits properly. Additionally, as we’ll discuss a little later, coffee plants are very sensitive to temperature, moisture levels, sunlight exposure, soil composition, and altitude.
Most coffee trees have one main harvest per year, though some have a second smaller harvest. The first harvest is triggered by a prolonged period of rainfall, causing the trees to bloom in beautiful white blossom flowers with a strong scent, almost like jasmine. Arabica trees are able to self-polinate, though they are often assisted by insects like bees. After flowering, it takes up to nine months until the fruits are ready for harvest. Unfortunately, coffee cherries rarely ripen all at once – this puts growers in a tough place: they can choose to harvest all the fruits at once, then pick out the unripe and overripe fruit before processing, or they can pay pickers to make multiple passes of the same trees to get perfectly ripe cherries. The method used is usually determined by how much money and time the growers have. Regardless of the method, it’s rarely perfect. Some unripe cherries always make it into the processing stage and must be removed later on.
The coffee fruit is usually about the size of a small grape, but unlike grapes nearly the entire inside is dominated by the seed – or bean. All cherries start out green, and turn a bright shade of red or yellow as they ripen. Occasionally, trees that produce a red fruit and trees that produce a yellow fruit will cross breed and to produce an orange fruit. Trees that produce yellow fruit are sometimes avoided, as it can be harder to tell when the cherry is perfectly ripe and ready to be picked.
Coffee cherries essentially have five parts: the outer skin, the internal pulp, the parchment which surrounds the seed, the silverskin – a layer directly around the seed, and the seed itself. Most coffee cherries actually contain two seeds, facing each other. Occasionally, only one seed inside a berry will germinate and grow – these are known as peaberries. Peaberries are usually set aside to be sold separately. Some coffee drinkers claim that peaberries are more flavorful and sweeter, while others say there’s really no difference.
Here’s where things start to get interesting: not all Coffea arabica is the same. The species, Arabica, is divided into about 15 varieties with distinct biological makeup. I’m going to list them in a second, but it’s important to note that when people talk about different kinds of coffee, usually they’ll do so in reference to the countries where the coffee is grown rather than varieties. There’s not a lot of research around how the variety of the arabica tree impacts the end result in your cup, and for that reason I’m not going to dwell on them too much. Also, you might sometimes here the word “Cultivar” tossed around in relation to coffee plants – this is simply a mashup of the words “cultivated variety” and is swapped interchangeably.
Alright, here are the coffee varieties: Typica, Bourbon, Mundo Novo, Caturrah, Catuai, Maragogype, SL-28, SL-34, Geisha or Gesha, Pacas, Villa Sarchi, Pacamara, Kent, and S795. There are also wild arabica varieties which are usually crossbreeds that haven’t been specifically identified. Not much work has been done so far to catalogue or explore the genetic diversity and cup quality of these wild varieties.
After coffee cherries have grown, ripened, and been picked, they have to be processed. As I discussed earlier there are outer layers of the coffee cherry that need to be stripped away in order to get at the internal seed. This may sound like a simple thing to do, but when you’re dealing with thousands of cherries at once, you have to get creative. There are essentially two types of processing: natural, sometimes called dry, and washed. I’m going to break these down into their basic steps, but know that there are also hybrid and derivative processes used in some parts of the world that mix these two due to the needs of the farmers, or the desires of the buyer.
The natural process starts with removing unripe cherries that made it past the picking stage. That can either be done by hand, or using a flotation tank. If it’s done by hand, people will pick out individual green cherries from the batch before moving to the next step. When a tank is used, all the cherries are dumped into a massive water tank – the ripe berries sink to the bottom, and the unripe berries float to the top. From there, the ripe cherries are spread out in a thin layer on brick patios or specially designed drying tables. The sun beats down on these cherries, drying them until the outer husk of skin and fruit are able to be easily removed from the bean. While drying, the cherries have to be turned often, usually by some kind of rake, to keep them from molding or drying unevenly. Once ready, the beans are separated from the husk and fruit mechanically, using a specifically designed machine. After the seeds are separated, they are rested for 30-60 days before they are shipped. Before shipping, the beans are mechanically hulled to remove any protective parchment left over.
The natural process is usually used in areas where access to water is very limited. Because of the many manual steps involved, an entire batch can be easily ruined by one hiccup, and for that reason the dry process is somewhat polarizing in the coffee community. The natural process usually imbues the final beans with fruity, complex flavors sometimes described as blueberry, strawberry, or tropical fruit. In bad batches, however, they can taste more like barnyard, wild, ferment, and manure.
The washed process has the same goal and end-result in mind: strip coffee cherries down to the bean and ready them for shipment. The way this is accomplished, however, is very different from the natural process. The washed process is more expensive, but the results are more predictable and dependable.
In the washed process, the ripe cherries are separated using the tank method mentioned earlier. From there, the outer skin and fruit flesh are stripped off of the coffee cherries by a mechanical depulper. Next, the coffee is placed in a clean trough of water where they are fermented to remove the remainder of the flesh. Coffee fruit flesh contains a lot of pectin that is firmly attached to the seed. Fermentation breaks it down, after which it’s washed away. The amount of time that fermentation takes depends on the amount of water used, the altitude, and the ambient temperature. If coffee is fermented too long, negative flavors can start to creep in, making this a crucial step.
After the coffee is fermented and washed, it’s left out in the sun and turned regularly to dry before being rested for the same 30-60 days mentioned earlier. Also, just as before, the beans are hulled one last time prior to being shipped off.
The method and quality of processing impacts the way a cup of coffee tastes a great deal. Regardless of which method is used, I can’t emphasize enough just how strenuous and time consuming this step in coffee production is. This is a big reason why specialty coffee shops and roasters are getting more involved at the farm level in recent years: they want to make sure that their coffee is being taken care of from the time the tree is planted, to when the green beans arrive at their shop ready to be roasted and sold. It’s also important to point out that these coffee farms rely on the quality of their end-product a great deal. For many communities in poorer parts of the world, coffee is their primary way of making money. If their product is bad, it won’t sell. If it doesn’t sell, they might not have enough money for food, let alone clothing, education, etc. This is a big reason I believe it’s important for companies that buy coffee from the source to create a relationship with the farmers and find out how they can help the community best. It’s also important as a consumer to know where your coffee comes from, or at a minimum that the shop you’re buying it from has integrity and strong moral values. This isn’t always easy to spot from the outside, but it’s nonetheless extremely important.
As I mentioned earlier, usually when we talk about different types of coffee we do so by country. For example, you might see a sign at your local coffee shop advertising new guatemalan beans, or something similar. I’d like to take a moment to touch on the big coffee producing countries, and what sets their beans apart.
The first thing you need to know is that Coffea arabica is extremely sensitive to changes in climate, altitude, and sunshine. For that reason, farms are incredibly specific about where and when coffee trees are planted. You’ll find some farms on the side of a hill, under natural shade – the farmers likely found the perfect altitude and ambient temperature needed to grow the ideal beans for their region.
Because of these reasons, not all coffees from an individual country taste the same. There are actually several coffee growing regions within each country that produce unique beans due to their climate, altitude, soil composition, and other factors. There are literally entire books written about coffee growing regions, so I won’t be able to get into all of them here. I can recommend that you pick up “The World Atlas of Coffee,” a book that I’ve used as a source for much of the content in this episode. It’s a well-put-together book that breaks complicated subjects down into easily understandable english, and it’s a great reference for coffee all-around.
We’ll start with the original home of coffee: Africa. The first regions we’ll tackle is Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a well-known coffee producer with six main regions. Ethiopian coffees are grown in forests, gardens, as well as large plantations. My favorite coffee from Ethiopia comes from the Yirgacheffe region. These beans are well-known in the specialty coffee world for their explosively aromatic flavors full of citrus and floral notes, along with a light and elegant body. Most Yirgacheffes are grown between 5,750ft and 7,200ft and are usually subjected to washed processing. There are naturally processed coffees as well, and these can be just as unique as their washed counterparts. Other regions in Ethiopia include Sidamo, Limu, Jima in the southwest, Ghimbi/Lekempti, and Harrar. Many Ethiopian coffees, regardless of the region, are light and floral in taste, but Harrar has the distinction of growing coffees in areas requiring extra irrigation. Great Harrar beans are extremely complex, and have opened the eyes of the specialty coffee world to how every flavor doesn’t necessarily fit in a neat and tidy description.
Other coffee growing powerhouses in Africa include Kenya, with 10 separate regions, Tanzania, with six regions known for their acidic beans, and Zambia, with only one region. Zambia was largely overlooked in the specialty coffee community for some time, but when you can get your hands on some beans you’ll find them to taste bright, clean, and highly complex. Their are many other coffee growing countries and regions in Africa to look into, but for now we’ll move on to Asia.
Asian coffee growing countries include India, with their famous Monsoon Malabar beans – produced through controlled monsoons using lots of water, Papua New Guinea, with 3 separate growing regions, Vietnam – though a high quality Vietnamese coffee is difficult to find – the country largely produces Robusta beans, Yemen – known for their wild, pungent, and distinctive coffee that extremely polarizing – you either love it or hate it – and Indonesia. I’d like to take a second to talk about a few growing regions in Indonesia, starting with Sumatra. Sumatra is an island with three separate internal growing regions. Many times, when you buy a bag of Sumatran coffee, you’re getting beans from all three regions creating a literal “mixed bag.” Because of unchecked coffee plant breeding and the time that green beans can sit at the port of Medan before shipping, Sumatran coffees can vary greatly in quality. The best Sumatrans are usually low in acidity, with a heavier body and a slightly spicy flavor.
Other growing regions in Indonesia include Java, with their large coffee estates due to the colonial history of the Dutch, Sulawesi, Flores, and Bali. Bali is a more recent addition to the team, and its coffee production suffered following the 1963 eruption of a volcano on the east side of the island. 2,000 people died, and it took until the early 1980s for coffee production to get back to relative normalcy. Today, around 80% of the coffee produced in Bali is Robusta.
Next we’ll talk about the Americas. There’s a lot of ground to cover here, and I’ll be skipping around a bit. We’ll start with Brazil.
Coffee was first brought to Brazil in 1727, and by 1830 Brazilian grown coffee made up 30% of the world’s supply. By 1840, it was 40%. Unfortunately, until the middle of the 19th century the Brazilian coffee industry was reliant on African slave labour. When the British put an end to Brazil’s international slave trade in 1850, they turned to migrant labor. Their second big boom came came in the early 20th century. This was partially due to increased demand worldwide, and internal systems that kept Brazilian coffee flowing, even during rough periods. The Brazilian government established systems, not unlike those in place in many countries today, where the government would buy coffee for an inflated price during periods where the market was low, and hold it until the market was high. This kept prices relatively stable, and prevented oversupply from lower coffee prices.
Today, Brazil is home to a billion dollar industry surrounding coffee. They are undeniably the most advanced coffee producing country in the world, with industrialized techniques focused on yield and production. Unfortunately, this comes at the cost of taste. Most coffees grown in Brazil are from large farms, where the bottom line is more important that consistent quality. For example, unripe cherries often make it through to the end product. Still, great Brazilian coffees are out there. They usually have low acidity, with chocolate and nutty flavors that are sweet rather than savory. There are at least 9 different growing regions in Brazil including Cerrado, Espirito Santo, and Bahia.
Colombia is the next powerhouse we’ll discuss. Where Brazil has focused on their mass farming techniques, Colombia has poured most of its national effort into developing its brand. You’ll often see “100% Colombian Coffee” or “Mountain Grown Coffee” on bags from Colombia, and just about everybody has heard of Juan Valdez, the farmer who represents the Colombian brand. He’s probably the country’s greatest success, having been portrayed by three different actors over the years and adding a recognizable flair that’s popular in the U.S. Colombian coffees have a large variety of flavors ranging from heavier, sweeter beans to complex, fruity lots. That’s no surprise, considering there are about 13 different growing regions throughout the country. These include Sierra Nevada, where coffee is grown at lower altitudes; between 3000ft and 5200ft, where coffees are heavier and not very lively, as well as places like Nariño, where coffee lots are found between 4900ft and 7500ft. These higher altitudes can often produce challenges for plant growth, but Nariño is close enough to the equator that the effects are negligible. The coffees produced here are stunningly bright and very complex.
Next up is Ecuador, where coffee production is beginning to live up to potential. Manabi, one of four regions in Ecuador, produces 50% of the country’s total Arabica yield, but is at an unfortunately low altitude. Loja, in the mountainous south, is the best place to look for specialty-level Ecuadorian beans. Unfortunately, difficult whether has had a history of damaging crops here as recently as 2010. The most expensive coffees from Ecuador come from the Galapagos islands, where proponents claim that the climate mimics higher-altitude growing regions. Exercise caution when looking into purchasing Galapagos beans: a higher price doesn’t necessarily mean a better product.
Guatemala is next, where coffee was allegedly introduced by the Jesuits around 1750. As with Colombia, Guatemalan coffees range from bright and acidic, to chocolatey and rich. Some of my very favorite coffees come from Guatemala – unfortunately you’ll have to wait until next winter to find them: the Guatemalan harvest happens between January and March, depending on the region. Regions include well-known Antigua – so well-known, in fact, that its fallen victim to copycats and mislabeled fakes from across the world. It’s still possible to find genuine Antigua coffees, but I’d recommend only purchasing them from a transparent specialty coffee roaster or shop to ensure authenticity. There’s also Atitlán, with its private nature reserves, and San Marcos where early rainfall provides challenges to post-harvest drying. In all, Guatemala is home to 8 different growing regions.
Jamaica is another huge name in the coffee world. Their Blue Mountain region is the subject of perhaps the most successful pieces of marketing in coffee’s history. Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee can only be grown between 3000 and 4900ft in the parishes of Saint Andrew, Saint Thomas, Portland, and Saint Mary. Any coffee grown at higher altitudes is known as “Jamaica High Mountain,” and anything lower is “Jamaica Low Mountain” or “Jamaica Supreme.” Despite these strict guidelines, the Jamaican Blue Mountain brand is still fraudulently used to mislabel coffees for a higher price tag. Properly labeled bags of Jamaican coffee will not only say whether or not they’re “Blue Mountain,” but will also state the mill at which the coffee was processed.
Finally, we’ll end in the only place where you can buy coffee grown in the United States: the Hawaiian islands. Kona, one of the best known regions in the world, has a long history of coffee production that helped cement the reputation of the region. Unfortunately, with a big reputation came big problems. Finding genuine Kona coffee is a chore, resulting in the carefully controlled “100% Kona” trademark. A farm called Kona Kai in California had previously fought the awarding of this trademark, or any similar name, but in 1996 the executive was found to be filling his bags of “Kona Coffee” with beans from Costa Rica.
Hawaiian coffee is rarely complex, with low acidity and more body. It’s an approachable coffee, despite the hubbub from casual coffee drinkers. It’s grown on six islands, separated into 11 different regions. As with any island grown coffee, Hawaiian farms are at a lower altitude, with the highest at just over 2400ft.
As we wrap up, I want to be clear that I’ve barely scratched the surface of worldwide coffee production in this episode. If you found this interesting, I’d encourage you to do some digging or contact me for more information about coffee origins, growing regions, and tasting notes.
Whether we’re talking about the Roosevelt family’s headlong plunge into the early world of Specialty Coffee, or the altitudes where you can find acidic beans in Guatemala, I hope that this episode has imparted the fact that growing coffee, producing it, and selling it is incredibly complex. The people that get the bean from the ground to your cup do so with passion, tenacity, and the hope that you’ll come back for more. Regardless of where you get your coffee from and where you drink it, I hope that the next time you’re sipping and “displaying your inmost dreams aloud” as Lovecraft wrote, you take a minute to appreciate the many hands that brought you the beverage you love.
Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Boise Coffee Podcast. As always, I’m your host Colin Mansfield. Today’s episode was brought to you by Audible: to start your free trial and receive a free book of your choice, visit audibletrial.com/boisecoffee. If you liked today’s episode, please leave me a review on iTunes and let me know your favorite part. If you’d like to get in touch with me, you can contact me on my website, BoiseCoffee.org, or on Twitter. My handle is @BoiseCoffee. The information in this week’s episode comes from the Smithsonian Magazine’s article about the Roosevelt Family’s Coffeehouse, as well as The World Atlas of Coffee. Thanks again for listening, and have a great rest of your week.