| Lynsey Harley

Where in the world is speciality coffee grown?

Where in the world is speciality coffee grown?

In our recent article on ‘What is Speciality Coffee?’, we mentioned how the quality and characteristics of a coffee can be determined by its origins - a lot like wine. In this run of articles we’ll take a closer look at some of the world’s most prominent regions for growing speciality coffee, and discuss what makes them so awesome. But first it’s important to consider where in the world is coffee grown...

Where in the world?

The common belief goes that first Coffea Arabica plants were discovered growing naturally in Ethiopia, before they were exported and re-planted all over the world - this is very much the abridged version!

From then it became apparent just how delicate coffee plants can be, in effect they died pretty much everywhere they were planted around Europe and North America. This was with the exception of an area spanning continents, that you could mark on a map with an almost perfect line. This line runs either side of the Equator between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.

So, it’s no surprise to see why Brazil, for example, produces over a quarter of the world’s coffee, when most of this huge country resides directly within that perfect zone.

Without going into too much detail, you can probably already assume what makes for the best coffee growing conditions, based one huge thing these countries have in common; climate. So let’s look at that in a little more detail.


Climate

Let’s remember that coffee beans start out inside cherries that grow on the plants. So just like any other fruit, coffee plants go through a cycle of growing and maturation. In order to produce great coffee, farmers need lots of rainfall whilst it is growing, but also prolonged dry spells too for maturation. Air moisture, base temperature, wind and even the chemical composition of soil are also very important, but that’s where farming changes from a matter of science, into a fine art.

It is hard to define on a calendar when coffee goes through these periods of growth and maturation as there are thousands of varieties and a lot depends on the country too. It’s generally safe to assume that most coffees are harvested once they have matured (ripened) throughout the dry season in their respective countries.

Some of the most naturally warm and humid climates in the world are found in rainforests, which again would explain why Brazil and Colombia produce huge quantities. But even places we would normally assume to be extremely dry for most of the year, like Kenya and Rwanda, offer the perfect climatic conditions for making some of the world’s finest coffees. There’s a very good reason why…

Altitude

That’s right altitude. Have you ever wondered why some coffee labels tell you how high above sea level your coffee was grown? Well the reason for this can be explained using the diagram above. The majority of coffee farms lie well above sea level, on rain-soaked plains. There’s  a natural reason for this and it also explains why altitude has a major impact of the flavour of your coffee.

Being a fruit, coffee plants are susceptible to attack from pests who are after their ripe and juicy cherries - not to mention some unpleasant micro-organisms too. So mother nature gave the coffee plants a natural insect repellent in the form of caffeine. Caffeine is an alkaloid, which on its own or in large doses is very bitter and quite unpleasant to taste.

Robusta coffee plants are loaded with caffeine, which allows them to survive at much lower altitudes (sub 1000masl). This is great for farming but not necessarily for flavour on its own. That’s why robusta coffee is commonly used for rich espresso blends, as it’s designed to give them a much ‘stronger’ flavour - side note, when we refer to ‘strength’ in coffee flavour, what we’re usually referring to is its bitterness. Believe it or not, some of the lightest tasting filter brews can contain just as much, if not more caffeine than the harshest tasting espressos.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that robusta coffee is a minor footnote to the industry however, roughly 30% of the world’s coffee produced is from robusta plants. It is most commonly grown in Vietnam, Indonesia and India, although these countries do also produce arabica coffee in smaller amounts as well.

Most arabica coffee plants are cultivated around 1500m above sea level, but plantations have been as high as 2800m. Why? Arabica has a much lower natural caffeine content than robusta, so needs the advantage of growing at altitudes where less pests and threats to their cherries are less likely to survive.

At these altitudes the weather can play an even more important role too in developing the flavour of the coffee produced. On mountains and huge hills, valleys and secluded vistas in rain-forests have been carved (either by man or nature) to create the perfect micro-climates for growing coffee. Here the temperature, air moisture and rainfall can combine to create just the right conditions, consistently year on year.

This, combined with the lower caffeine content explains why it is easier to identify more sweetness and subtle floral notes in arabica coffees. Over time it has also become much easier to attribute specific flavour notes to the region where the arabica coffee was grown, just like wine.

It is these unique micro-climates that have consistently produced the world’s best coffees and even played a part in defining the criteria for ‘Speciality Coffee’. Once you get past the back-breaking effort of farming at these altitudes, they really are a picture of paradise!

We now know the the key ingredients for growing Speciality Coffee and we can point on a map to where most of these conditions come naturally. For the next article in this series we’ll take a closer look at some of the origins most famous for producing incredible coffee.


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