Coffee is one of the most popular drinks on the planet and is enjoyed by billions each and every day. Yet, most people are unaware of how it gets to your kitchen. Many think that with all the technology we have, anyone can grow coffee and produce the flavor they want. This is wildly inaccurate.
Coffee is a delicate plant that needs very specific conditions to not only thrive but produce excellent coffee. It only grows along one strip of the Earth, and with the changes that are happening with our climate, that strip is shrinking each day.
You have probably heard of the regions that produce coffee but do you know what makes them so famous? With this guide, I hope to clear the air about how fragile our coffee cultivation is and help you find a coffee blend that maybe you didn’t know existed but turns out to be your absolute favorite.
The Origins of Coffee
It’s believed that coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia many centuries ago. This is widely considered the birthplace of coffee. The story of a goat farmer named Kaldi is the most popular, although no one will ever know for sure.
It is said that Kaldi was high up in the mountains when he noticed his goats had more energy than usual and were having trouble sleeping at night. He determined that it must be from the ‘cherries’ they were eating and decided to try them himself.
Once he confirmed their effects, he brought them back to his village, where many were skeptics and even said the cherries were sent by the devil. Upon burning them, the smell was too enjoyable for them to maintain their initial theory, and eventually, they came around and began to enjoy this new offering from nature.
Coffee Growing Conditions And Requirements
Despite coffee being abundant in our everyday lives, growing and growing well is quite challenging. It requires very specific conditions to get the best yield and also the best taste. Farmers are at the mercy of mother nature, but the world’s love of coffee is so strong that they are willing to navigate the demanding needs of this one-of-a-kind bean.
Coffee beans are very high-maintenance; they cannot handle big temperature swings and need a stable environment to flourish. Year-round, the temperatures must stay between 15 – 30° C (59 – 86° F).
Monitoring sunlight is also essential to control the temperature. Too much sun throughout the day will result in the temperature getting higher than 30° C. To combat this, farmers will either use nearby trees to shade their coffee plants or grow at higher altitudes.
Almost all coffee is grown at a minimum altitude of 3000 feet up to 6600 feet. It’s in this sweet spot that the temperatures stabilize, and rainfall is more predictable. For less caffeinated beans, the altitude is crucial as it wards off any unwanted pests that would target them at lower altitudes.
An unexpected result of coffee grown at altitude is the acidic flavor that it imparts. While coffee is mainly known to be on the bitter side, when grown higher up in the mountains, it can add a complex layer of acidity that many coffee aficionados look for.
If there’s one thing any plant needs, it’s water, and coffee is no different. However, coffee plants are a bit pickier than other flora and fauna.
Coffee needs the moisture that tropical climates provide, but they also need a dry season. Almost all coffee farmers rely on mother nature for their water source during the heavy rainy season. But they also depend on a subsequent dry season in which to harvest their coffee. This is where altitude helps again to stave off any surprise rainstorms.
I saved the best for last. Up until this point, you may have been thinking that you can start your own coffee farm with the proper water, light, and altitude, but the soil is paramount to the distinctive flavors that each bean has.
The ideal soil for coffee is fertile volcanic red earth or deep sandy loam. So unless you live on top of any inactive volcanoes, you may have to put a hold on growing your own.
The Coffee Belt
With coffee being this picky, it’s hard to imagine how it grows in the wild at all. But Mother Nature is full of surprises and has dedicated a vast region perfect for cultivating coffee cherries.
The coffee belt or the bean belt is the area of Earth that sits between the tropic of cancer and the tropic of Capricorn. It includes 70 coffee-producing countries that all have prime conditions to cultivate coffee crops.
Out of the 70 countries, only 44 produce a significant amount of coffee that those outside the coffee belt can get our hands on. The top ten producing countries are;
Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Honduras, India, Uganda, Mexico, and Peru.
Next time you find yourself in one of these countries, you can enjoy a cup of coffee straight from the source.
Types Of Beans
With all this land and experience, you may think that there must be hundreds upon hundreds of different beans you can get, all with their unique flavor. You’re sort of right, they do have different flavors, but all coffee comes from one of two beans or a blend of both.
This is the most popular of the two but also the more delicate. Arabica thrives best when properly tended to. It offers a more complex flavor with a lower level of caffeine and higher sugar content. Higher altitudes suit Arabica better because it’s more vulnerable to pests.
Robusta coffee grows more easily at lower elevations and can tolerate sun and drought better than Arabica coffee plants. While the flavor is not quite the same, these beans are great for combining with Arabica to create a unique flavor profile.
Coffee Production Regions
Let’s have a closer look at how different parts of the world create their own coffee varieties.
Latin America is at the top of the coffee industry, specifically Central and South America. Multiple countries will tell you they have the best coffee, but Costa Rica seems to be the country that the majority can agree on.
Costa Rica’s unique geographical location provides near-perfect growing conditions in Central America and allows farmers to continuously produce mass amounts of coffee berries.
As you head into South America, the earthy flavors vary but are still popular, with Colombia being the most talked about. Colombia is known for being a perfect balance of fruity and light flavor notes but with a level of richness that gives it great texture. Brazil is still the top dog when it comes to mass production; they produce more than any other country in Latin America.
Africa And The Middle East
As we head east, there are two countries that jump out as the top producers in the African coffee region, Ethiopia and Kenya.
Ethiopian coffee is known for its rare qualities as they have conditions that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. These unique conditions produce flavor notes of jasmine, bergamot, and lavender. It’s these distinctive features that make Ethiopian coffee easy to identify but hard to find.
Kenya is one of the biggest producers in Africa as most other countries will piggyback off their ideal growing conditions. On the sides of Mount Kenya, you’ll find an uncharacteristically damp climate that nurtures the coffee trees to provide a similar floral flavor profile as Ethiopian coffee beans.
Asia & Oceania
There are fewer options in this part of the world for coffee but what is produced is very popular worldwide. Vietnam is the leader in producing mild, delicate-flavored, medium-bodied beans. This balanced flavor has made them the world’s second-highest exporter of coffee.
Indonesia is the next most popular country for coffee production in this part of the world but not near the numbers of Vietnam. The coffee, however, is on par with Vietnam and mimics a medium body that is enjoyed by many different types of coffee drinkers.
And now for the bad news. As we all know, our climate is changing at an alarming rate, and this is having adverse effects on all aspects of our lives. The most affected are farmers of all types, and coffee producers are amongst the most affected.
The coffee belt is shrinking with rising temperatures and less rainfall. These conditions increase the chance of coffee leaf rust disease and the coffee borer beetle. Both are detrimental to the mass production of coffee.
Experts predict that by the year 2050, the coffee belt region will be half of what it is today. This will put enormous strain on existing coffee plantations and will drive the price up to unfathomable levels.
As of right now, most of the change being seen is closer to the equator. As time passes, these changes will spread and start to affect the larger producing countries. Here’s hoping that we can do something about this before it reaches a point of no return.
Can You Grow Coffee Outside the Coffee Belt?
Yes, you can grow coffee outside the coffee belt but at a price. We have the technology and knowledge to do so, but the costs are so prohibitive that it’s not common. Most of the enjoyment of coffee is knowing where it came from and sampling different regions. Growing outside the coffee belt would diminish the culture, but with climate change happening so ferociously, we might see this sooner than we’d like.
Where Does The Best Coffee Come From?
The best coffee comes from Costa Rica. While this is a subjective answer, Costa Rica produces a rich and velvety flavor that is popular around the world. They are not the biggest exporter of coffee, but governing laws and a long history of experience and pride ensure that all imports are of the highest quality.
Where Was Coffee Discovered?
Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia. Legend has it that a goat farmer named Kaldi noticed his goats were more energetic and had trouble sleeping after eating a newly found ‘cherry.’ After trying it himself, he brought it back to his village, where it was deemed evil and thrown in the fire. After smelling the incredible aroma, the villagers changed their minds and began to embrace this new form of delicious energy.
What Are The Two Most Popular Coffee Beans?
The two most popular coffee beans are the Arabica and the Robusta. They are both grown in the rich soils of the coffee belt but produce many different flavors. Arabica is more complex with higher levels of sugar, while Robusta is hearty and much easier to grow.
How Many Coffee Regions Are There?
There are three main coffee regions in the world; Latin America, Africa/Middle East, and Asia/Oceania. Latin America is the highest producer, while Africa is known for their unique coffee taste. Asian coffee primarily comes from Vietnam and Indonesia.
To Sum Up
On my bucket list is to do a tour of some of the best countries in the coffee industry. If anyone is lucky enough to take on this endeavor before me, I’m sure you’ll be treated with a unique experience that will demonstrate the differences that each country offers.
Like wine, there are so many different techniques each region uses within its own geographical area. Couple that with hundreds of ways to prepare your beans, and you could embark on a lifelong expedition. Still, I’m up for it if you are!