The Perfect Partner: A Beginner’s Guide to Coffee
Coffee is a very complex and multidimensional thing and just like in human relationships, you must really get to know it before you can understand it. There are a lot of things that affect the taste of your coffee, and I wanted to tell you shortly about some of those things. So sit back, relax and start deepening your relationship with coffee.
Demanding Arabica vs tough Robusta
Like in any relationship, you need to find the perfect match for you: the one that suits you and your taste the best. Coffee is no exception. And if you’re not sure yet what you like, the only solution is to try different things. That’s how people find their perfect husband or wife as well. There’s heaps of variation in the market, so be bold and explore.
About 70% of the world’s coffee are varieties of Arabica and the rest is varieties of Robusta. I like to think that Arabica is like women; very sophisticated with a lot of different nuances, flavors and aromas. It’s more expensive and well-defined and most of all harder to please and requires additional care and attention. Changes for example in rainfall, sunshine and temperature can ruin the whole harvest, so Arabica is very demanding – just like women most of the time. Robusta on the contrary is tougher and stronger, it can handle changing situations better and doesn’t really need any extra care. So just like most men in this world. But don’t get me wrong, there are also not so good Arabica and also more high-level Robusta. Anything is possible, and we don’t want to make unconditional allocation between those two.
A big part of the coffee that we’re used to drink is 100% Arabica. That’s simply because of the better and more complex taste Arabica has compared to Robusta. One of the biggest reasons why it tastes better, is the fact that the coffee cherries take longer to ripe because of the higher altitude and the cooler weather. That gives the bean inside the cherry more time to absorb all the wonderful, exciting ingredients for the flavor that are coming to life after roasting. Robusta’s flavors are strong, earthy, similar to tobacco and it has way more body than Arabica beans. That’s why it’s normally used in small amounts in espresso blends to get a good shot with good crema in it.
There are other species as well, but none of them are commercially significant. In the Philippines for instance, people are growing species called Liberica. It’s just small amounts and basically only for their own consumption. People are experimenting also crossbreeds between Arabica and Robusta, so that both of their good qualities could be combined and life would then be even more wonderful.
Where does your coffee come from?
You can find coffee growing within the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. This area is called Coffee belt (also known as Bean belt) because it goes around the Earth just like a belt goes around your waist. In that area the climate and soil are suitable for growing coffee and they get along very well.
Even though the climate is pretty much the same everywhere around the equator, the ground and the different coffee species that each country is growing affects the flavor of the coffee. There are around 60 different countries (the biggest being Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia) that are producing coffee at the moment, and each of them have their own individual style. I’ll tell you later roughly what kind of coffee you get from different countries. But first, few things about what growing coffee requires.
Arabica needs very steady growing environment. High altitude (around 1200-2000m above sea level), warm days and a bit cooler nights (18-22 Celsius) and the often volcanic soil are ideal for the best Arabica species. The cooler environment makes Arabica beans more aromatic and naturally more expensive too. All this is in danger though due to the climate change and global warming. (Read more how the world's best coffee-growing regions are changing.) If you want to learn more about how climate change actually affects coffee, read Niks’ blog post about coffee and climate change.
Robusta is more of a tough guy like I mentioned before and it survives in rougher environments. Growing altitude is usually lower (around 200-800m above sea level) and air temperature higher (22-27 Celsius). It also has a lot more caffeine in it, which protects the plant from insects and diseases. Caffeine works as a natural pesticide and for that reason it is way easier to farm. It is also a lot cheaper than Arabica. However, Robusta is not even close to be as popular and valued as Arabica. It has a reputation of low-quality product (often used in instant coffee for instance), but in the future this might change when people are starting to realize the effects of the climate change and starting to find ways of producing also specialty Robusta coffees.
Different coffee characteristics
Even though coffee is growing within the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, it doesn’t mean that all the coffees will taste the same. But just like you might generalize that all the Finns are quiet and shy and all the Latinos are lively and loud, you can roughly describe coffee flavors and aromas the same way. That might help you to choose your favorite, just like in human relationships.
South and Central America
Let’s start with South and Central America. Brazil, the biggest coffee producing country in the world, is known to have coffee that is quite low in acidity, fairly sweet and has round and smooth mouthfeel. It’s quite often the basis of different coffee blends, and if you’re a new learning coffee drinker, Brazilian coffees are usually a good starting point due to their approachable characteristics. Colombia has a huge variation of coffees, but you can say that they are usually medium bodied, rich in flavor and acidity and it’s quite common to find nutty or chocolate-like, fruity or berry-like tones in your cup.
When you move to the Central America, Costa Rica is probably the first country that comes into your mind. They are only farming Arabica beans because Robusta was made illegal by the government in 1989. Costa Rican coffee is well balanced and the pleasant sweetness of the coffee will put a smile on your face. In 2004 Panama got huge fame when one of its farms, Hacienda La Esmeralda, won the “Best of Panama” coffee competition with their Arabica variety called Gesha. This coffee is known all around the world and it’s one of the most expensive and highly appreciated one. The body is fairly light, almost tea-like, and in the aroma you’ll find floral and citrus notes.
Africa, and more precisely Ethiopia, is the birth place of coffee. Africa used to have a large take on producing coffee in the world, but it’s only about 10% nowadays. Most of the quality coffees coming from Africa are grown on the east side of the continent (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda etc). Ethiopian coffee is sweet and has quite often delicate floral (jasmine) and citrus notes, but you can find clear berry flavors too. It is really complex and interesting coffee growing country, so be prepared to be excited about it. Burundi is the country that more and more people are talking about at the moment. The Burundian coffee is often described as bright and clear. You can usually find notes of Darjeeling tea and red fruits and berries. It’s also quite complex like all African Arabica coffees. Kenya is known to produce high quality coffees and in this case quality wins over quantity. The coffee is acidic yet with a full body, and for example different currants are fairly easy to find in the aroma and especially in the flavor.
Asia is farming mainly Robusta beans and just small amounts of Arabica beans. Vietnam is the second biggest coffee producing country after Brazil and their coffee is 95% Robusta. Robusta is not as multidimensional as mentioned before, so what you can expect to find in your cup is coffee that has a full body and the mouthfeel is quite heavy or buttery. Earthy and even tobacco-like flavors are quite easy to find. When you move to Indonesia and try their Arabica coffees, you’ll come across with wild combinations of flavors. Sweetness, chocolate, citrus, spicy notes and heavy body; all this can be found in Indonesian coffee. However, only around 25% of all the coffee grown in Indonesia is Arabica. The rest is Robusta which is full bodied, earthy and wooden, just like its Vietnamese cousins.
Choosing the right coffee
Remember that these are not absolute universal truths, more like a direction for you to learn about different regions around the world. It is also very important to remember that the processing method, the roasting level (read more about roasting from Sampo's blog) and the brewing method (read how to brew good coffee from Jori's blog) has a high impact on the flavors and aromas of your choice of coffee. What kind of relationship you have with your favorite coffee is between you and the coffee, no one can tell you if it’s good or bad, or how you should live your life with your coffee. Only you can define that. Just like in any relationship.