The highlands of Guatemala produce several of the world’s finest and most distinctive coffees. The mountain basin surrounding the austerely beautiful colonial city Guatemala Antigua produces the most distinguished of these highland coffees: Guatemala Antigua, a coffee that combines complex nuance (smoke, spice, flowers, occasionally chocolate) with acidity ranging from gently bright to austerely powerful. Fraijanes displays similar cup characteristics. Other Guatemala coffees, perhaps because they are more exposed to wet ocean weather than the mountain-protected Antigua basin, tend to display slightly softer, often less powerful, but equally complexly nuanced profiles. These softer Guatemalas include Cobán, admired for its fullish body and gentle, deep, rounded profile, Huehuetenango from the Caribbean-facing slopes of the central mountain range, and San Marcos coffees from the Pacific-facing slopes. Coffees from the basin surrounding Lake Atitlan in south central Guatemala typically offer the same complex nuance as Antiguas but are lighter in body and brighter in flavor.
There are many excellent Guatemalan estates. To name just a small selection: in the Antigua Valley San Sebastián, La Tacita, San Rafael Urias, Pastores, and Las Nubes. In Huehuetenango Santa Cecilia, Huixoc, and El Coyegual. In the Coban region Yaxbatz, Los Alpes, and El Recreo. In San Marcos, Dos Marias.
Small-holder coffees predominate in Huehuetenango and Coban, but transportation difficulties and wet weather during harvest may compromise quality. Perhaps the best small-holder Guatemala coffees come from peasant farmers in the Lake Atitlan basin, who are organized into cooperatives that run their own mills and turn out meticulously prepared coffee. These cooperatives are clustered near the lakeside towns of San Juan La Laguna, San Lucas Toliman, and Santiago Atitlan. A San Juan La Laguna cooperative markets its excellent coffee under the poetic name "La Voz que Clama en el Desierto." The Lake Atitlan cooperatives that I have visited practice coffee production at the ultimate end of environmental correctness: organically grown in a dense, bird-sheltering shade canopy of native trees and plants. The coffee is processed with passion and precision, although delays in getting the freshly picked coffee fruit down the mountainside to the cooperative mills sometimes imparts a slight, giddily fermented twist to the cup. Atitlan cooperative coffees are a perfect choice for those in search of both cup quality and a coffee grown in exquisite harmony with earth and the aspirations of people on it.
The highest grade of Guatemala coffee is Strictly Hard Bean (SHB). The regionally designated coffees (Antigua, Atitlan, Cobán, etc) are tasted and approved as meeting flavor profile criteria established for these regions by ANACAFE, the Guatemalan coffee association. Those coffees that do not meet regional flavor profile criteria are only allowed to be sold as Strictly Hard Bean without regional designation.
Generally, Guatemala has preserved more of the traditional typica and bourbon varieties of arabica than many other Latin American growing countries, which may account for the generally superior complexity of the Guatemala cup. Most Guatemala coffee is grown in shade, ranging from rigorously managed shade on large farms to the serendipitous thickets of small growers.
Most Mexico coffee comes from the southern part of the country, where the continent narrows and takes a turn to the east. Veracruz State, on the gulf side of the central mountain range, produces mostly lowland coffees, but coffees called Altura (High) Coatepec, from a mountainous region near the city of that name, have an excellent reputation. Other Veracruz coffees of note are Altura Orizaba and Altura Huatusco. Coffees from the opposite, southern slopes of the central mountain range, in Oaxaca State, are also highly regarded, and marketed under the names Oaxaca or Oaxaca Pluma. Coffees from Chiapas State are grown in the mountains of the southeastern-most corner of Mexico, near the border with Guatemala. The market name traditionally associated with these coffees is Tapachula, from the city of that name, but coffee sellers now usually label them Chiapas. Chiapas produces some of the very best and highest-grown Mexico coffees.
The typical fine Mexico coffee is analogous to a good light white wine — delicate in body, with a pleasantly dry, acidy snap. If you drink your coffee black and prefer a light, acidy cup, you will like these typical Mexico specialty coffees. However, some Mexico coffees, particularly those from high growing regions in Chiapas, rival the best Guatemala coffees in high-grown power and complexity.
Mexico is also the origin of many of the certified organically grown coffees now appearing on North American specialty menus. These are often excellent coffees certified by various independent monitoring agencies to be grown without the use of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, or other harmful chemicals.
Coffee from many of the most admired Mexican estates seldom appears on the United States market, but is sold almost exclusively into Europe, particularly Germany. Some of these names, should they ever become relevant for the North American aficionado, include Liquidambar, Santa Catarina, Irlandia, Germania, and Hamburgo.
Generally a mildly acid coffee, light-bodied but flavorful and aromatic, Peru is considered a good blender owing to its pleasant but understated character. Peru also is widely used in dark roast blends and as a base for flavored coffees. But the best Peru coffees are subtly exceptional: light and levitating with a vanilla-nut-toned sweetness that deserves appreciation as a distinctive specialty origin.
Wet-processed coffee from the Chanchamayo Valley, about 200 miles east of Lima in the high Andes, has the best reputation of the Peru coffees. The Cuzco region, particularly the Urubamba Valley, also produces respected wet-processed coffee. The highest grade is AAA. Certified organic coffees from cooperatives of small farmers in Northern Peru are often excellent, and represent the socially progressive side of specialty coffee at its most admirable.
Brazil is not only the world’s largest coffee producer, it is also the most complex. It turns out everything from mass produced coffees that rank among the world’s cheapest to elegant coffees prized as the world’s finest origins for espresso brewing. In Brazil, fruit is removed from the bean using four different processing methods, and it is not uncommon for all four methods to be used on the same farm during the same harvest.
One thing Brazil coffee is not is high-grown. Growing elevations in Brazil range from about 2,000 feet to 4,000 feet, far short of the 5,000-plus elevations common for fine coffees produced in Central America, Colombia, and East Africa. Lower growing altitudes means that Brazil coffees are relatively low in acidity. At best they tend to be round, sweet and well-nuanced rather than big and bright.
Santos Brazils, Estate Brazils. The most traditional Brazil coffee, and the kind most likely to be seen in specialty stores, has been dried inside the fruit (dry-processed) so that some of the sweetness of the fruit carries into the cup. It also frequently comes from trees of the traditional Latin-American variety of arabica called bourbon. The best of these coffees are traded as Santos 2, or, if the coffee comes exclusively from trees of the bourbon variety, Bourbon Santos 2. Santos is a market name referring to the port through which these coffees are traditionally shipped, and 2 is the highest grade. On specialty coffee menus the 2 is usually dropped, so you will see the coffee simply described as Brazil Bourbon Santos or Brazil Santos.
Some years ago the Brazilian government deregulated the coffee industry, allowing large farms to market their coffees directly to consuming countries without regard to government-mandated grading structures. Consequently, coffees similar to Santos or Bourbon Santos also reach the American market directly from large farms, called fazendas. Names of very large fazendas that you may see on specialty menus include Ipanema, Monte Alegre, and Daterra, all of which produce excellent coffee. Respected smaller fazendas include Lagoa, Lambari, Fortaleza, and many others. The farms operated by Ottoni and Sons, particularly Fazenda Vereda, produce very fine coffees. Improving organic coffees are produced by Fazenda Cachoeira and a farm that markets its coffees as Blue de Brasil.
The premium coffees arriving in the United States from these farms are usually dry-processed or "natural" coffees. However, estate Brazils also may be wet-processed, which turns them a bit lighter and brighter in the cup, or they may be what Brazilians call pulped natural or semi-washed coffees, which have been dried without the skins but with the sticky fruit pulp still stuck to the beans. Typically these pulped natural coffees absorb sweetness from the fruit pulp and are full and sweet in the cup like their dry-processed brethren.
Risks and Rewards of Dry-Processing. When coffee is dried inside the fruit, as most classic Brazil coffees are, lots of things can go wrong. The seed or bean inside the fruit is held hostage, as it were, to the general health and soundness of the fruit surrounding it. If the fruit rots, the coffee will taste rotten or fermented. If microorganisms invade the fruit during that rotting, a hard or medicinal taste will carry into the cup. At the most extreme medicinal end of this taste spectrum are the notorious rio coffees of Brazil, which are saturated by an intense iodine-like sensation that American coffee buyers avoid, but which coffee drinkers in parts of Eastern Europe and the Near East seek out and enjoy. In fact, in some years these intensely medicinal-tasting coffees fetch higher prices in the world market than sound, clean-tasting Brazil coffees.
At any rate, harshness is the risk Brazilian farmers take in their attempt to achieve the round, sweet fruitiness of the best dry-processed coffees. One Brazilian farm, Fazenda Vista Alegre, has made a name in the United States for allowing its dry-processed coffees, in part at least, to dry directly on the trees rather than after picking. These interesting coffees, unfortunately, often tend to reflect the downside of dry-processing rather than the up. The Vista Alegre coffees I have cupped frequently display the slightly hard edge of compromised drying.
Brazilian Growing Regions. Three main growing areas provide most of the top-end Brazil coffees. The oldest, Mogiana, lies along the border of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais states north of Sao Paulo, and is famous for its deep, richly red soil and its sweet, full, rounded coffees. The rugged, rolling hills of Sul Minas, in the southern part of Minas Gerais state northeast of Sao Paulo, is the heart of Brazil coffee country and home of two of the largest and best-known fazendas, Ipanema and Monte Alegre. The Cerrado, a high, semi-arid plateau surrounding the city of Patrocinio, midway between Sao Paulo and Brasilia, is a newer growing area. It is the least picturesque of the three regions with its new towns and high plains, but arguably the most promising in terms of coffee quality, since its dependably clear, dry weather during harvest promotes a more thorough, even drying of the coffee fruit.
Hawaiian Kona. The tiny Kona growing district on the southwest coast of Hawaii, the "Big Island" of the Hawaiian chain, produces the most famous and the most traditional of Hawaiian coffees. Entirely hand-picked, wet-processed and from trees of a splendid local strain of typica called Guatemala, Kona is grown on clusters of tiny farms above the Pacific on the lower slopes of Mount Hualalai and Mauna Loa.
The coffee trees are shaded by a cloud cover that appears regularly most afternoons, followed by tourist-discouraging drizzles that often escalate into downpours. The combination of regular rain and cloud-cover, the temperature-moderating influence of the Pacific, and very porous soil (sometimes the trees grow straight out of the volcanic rubble) seems to mimic the effect of higher growing altitudes. Although grown at altitudes of 800 to 2,500 feet, very low for arabica, Kona often displays the powerful acidity of much higher-grown coffees.
But it is the gently acidy, fragrant, sometimes wine- and fruit-toned cup of the more typical Konas that made Kona’s reputation as one of the world’s premier coffee origins. In the late 1990s the soft, aromatic cup, tourist-inspired demand, limited supply, and palms-and-sand romance made Kona the highest priced coffee in the world, with prices exceeding even those attracted by Jamaica Blue Mountain.
Kona Deceptions and Evasions. At the millennium Kona prices have moderated somewhat, but the extremely high prices paid for Konas in the 1990s apparently encouraged one mill-owner and supplier to sell Costa Rica and Panama coffees in Kona bags. After a few years of successful deceit he was uncovered and indicted for fraud. The resulting scandal shook the little world of passionate, outspoken Kona growers and mill owners. The end result seems to be positive, however, as the growers work with authorities toward clearer control of the Kona coffee identity.
However, retail sales of Kona coffee continue to be rife with dubious marketing practices. Commercial roasters produce Kona style coffee, Kona blend coffee, and Hawaiian hotels brew coffee vaguely labeled Kona that probably consists in large part of (often low-grade) Central America beans. In fact, it is difficult to find a good cup of Kona coffee in Kona, and flat-out impossible in hotels. The colorful bags of Kona coffee sold in Hawaiian supermarkets and airport gift stores are almost always poor quality and stale. Tourists who visit Kona often do come across that one splendid cup, however, and driven by its fragrant memory, plus recollections of the warm air insinuating itself under their newly purchased aloha shirts and muu-muus, spend the next six months trying to find a comparable coffee experience through mainland supermarkets and specialty stores. Most, I suspect, give up and buy something else.
"Other Island" Hawaiis: Maui, Molokai, Kauai. Today, Kona is no longer the only coffee grown in Hawaii. Visitors to the "other" islands – Kauai, Molokai, and until recently Maui – could encounter an entirely different coffee spectacle. In place of Kona’s family plots shoehorned in among rocks and rusting cars, long, regular lines of coffee trees undulate like gleaming dark-green hedges over low coastal plains where sugar and pineapple once grew. Rather than isolated groups of pickers balancing their way over rocks, ingenious harvesting machines roll across the nearly flat terrain, coaxing ripe cherries off the trees with hundreds of fiberglass rods vibrating through the branches like tireless fingers. The soil is deep and red, and rainfall, less frequent than in Kona, is supplemented by meticulously managed drip irrigation systems.
These coffee farms — Malulani Estate with 460 acres on Molokai, and Kauai Coffee with an astonishing 4,000 acres on Kauai — are revivals of earlier efforts to grow coffee on a commercial scale on the coastal plains of Hawaii. Kaanapali Coffee, which had 450 acres on Maui, closed its operations in late 2001. Cheap labor and lower operating costs in other parts of the world contributed to the shut down of Kaanapali Coffee’s farm as well as the less productive of the big pineapple and sugar plantations. Growers and the State of Hawaii continuously look for replacement crops that will prevent rural Hawaii from turning exclusively into a playground for tourists and bedroom community for hotel maids and helicopter tour operators.
Experiment and Innovation. Coffee is one such crop. Coffee romantics may entertain existential attitude problems with these highly technified coffees and their corporate sponsors. For some aficionados, however, the experiment and innovation they represent can be as engaging as Kona’s tradition. These farms are among world leaders in the effort to maximize quality and offset extremely low growing altitudes through superior, highly efficient processing and seed selection.
Kauai Coffee produces a highly selected coffee called Kauai Estate Reserve from trees of the hybrid yellow catuai and the typica varieties. These are consistent, agreeable coffees that will please those who prefer a full-bodied, sweet, low-acid cup.
All Molokai coffee is grown at the Coffees of Hawaii estate in the central part of the island at around 850 feet. Most comes from trees of the hybrid (but admired) red catuai variety. The wet-processed Malulani Estate and the dry-processed Moloka’i Muleskinner coffees are medium-bodied, sweet, low-acid coffees with complex, attractive bouquets that often include unusual herbal tones.
The coffees of central Costa Rica comprise one of those classic origins that is respected but not fawned over. Although Costa Rica produces a variety of coffees, those that reach American specialty coffee menus usually are very high-grown Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) coffees from regions near the capital of San Jose in the central part of the country: Tarrazu, Herediá, Tres Rios, Volcan Poas. At best Costa Rica coffees from these regions are distinctive in a way that defies simple, romantic description. When good they are clean, balanced, and resonantly powerful. When ordinary they are clean, balanced, and rather inert.
The relative lack of innuendo in Costa Rica coffees ironically may be owing to the advanced state of the Costa Rican coffee industry. They tend to come from trees of relatively recently developed cultivars of arabica like caturra or catuai, and usually are impeccably wet-processed using technically advanced techniques that eliminate the oddities of flavor that derive from traditional or regional variations in processing.
Unlike many coffees of the world, Costa Ricas generally are identified either by the estate or farm (finca) on which they were grown, or by cooperative or processing facility (beneficio) where they were processed. This piece of information, which is often available to the roaster or importer, is seldom passed on to the consumer except in the case of well-known estates like Bella Vista or La Minita.
La Minita Farm has become particularly prominent owing to the quality of its almost fanatically prepared coffee and the skillful publicity efforts of its owner, William McAlpin. The La Minita coffee appearing in specialty stores is likely to be so labeled: Costa Rica La Minita, La Minita Tarrazu, etc. Bella Vista can be almost as remarkable, although recently it has been available only from Starbucks.
Coffees from the Dota area of Tarrazu are the exact opposite of the classic-at-best, boring-at-worst Costa Ricas. Apparently owing to a local variation in fermenting technique, Dotas walk a thin, wild edge between disturbing overripeness and exciting fruit and chocolate, and are a good choice for those who prefer romantic risk to perfection.
Colombia is the paradox of the specialty coffee world. Its 100% Colombia campaign, featuring the ubiquitous Juan Valdez, is a model of successful coffee organization and marketing. Colombia remains the only premium single origin coffee able to compete successfully in the arena of canned supermarket blends. Although it ranks second to Brazil in total coffee production — with about 12 percent of the world’s total coffee production compared to Brazil’s 30 to 35 percent — most of Colombia’s 12 percent is excellent coffee, grown at high altitudes on small peasant holdings, carefully picked, and wet-processed. The Colombia Federation of Coffee Growers ranks among the world’s most thorough-going and successful efforts at organizing and supporting small-holder coffee farmers.
Nevertheless, for most specialty coffee aficionados and professionals Juan Valdez is Rodney Dangerfield’s Latin cousin. Colombias carry nowhere near the insider panache of the coffees of Kenya, Guatemala, even of Papua New Guinea and Zimbabwe. Colombia sells well in specialty stores only because it is the sole name on the menu that coffee neophytes recognize.
It would appear that Colombia’s remarkable success at producing large and consistent enough quantities of decent quality coffee to position it at the top of the commercial market has doomed it as an elite origin. The Colombia Coffee Federation has evolved a system wherein hundreds of thousands of small producers wet-process their coffee on or close to their farms, and deliver it to collection points and eventually to mills operated by the Federation, where the coffee is sorted and graded according to rigorous national standards. There is an inherent leveling effect in such an arrangement. One farmer’s wet processing and microclimate may be exceptional and another’s may be mediocre, but both end up mixed in the same vast sea of coffee bags in which the only discriminations are the broad ones imposed by grading criteria. The regional origins famous in the earlier part of the 20th century — names like Armenia, Manizales, Medellin — are now lost in a well-organized but faceless coffee machine.
Private Mill Colombias. In fact, until recently the only viable specialty coffees to come out of Colombia were developed by private mills and exporters operating largely outside the institutional structure of the Coffee Federation. These "privates" often supply coffees from single farms and cooperatives or from relatively narrowly defined growing regions. They may offer coffees produced exclusively from traditional, heirloom varieties of Coffea arabica like typica and bourbon, rather than from a mixture of varieties including newer, Federation-sponsored hybrid cultivars like the controversial Colombia or Colombiana.
By contrast, the standard Colombia coffees exported by the Coffee Federation are distinguished by grade only. Origin is not specified. Supremo is the highest grade, Extra second. The two are often combined into a more comprehensive grade called Excelso. If the only qualifying adjective you see bestowed on a Colombia is a grade name like Supremo or Excelso, you are almost certainly contemplating a standard Colombia from the Colombia Federation of Coffee Growers. Nevertheless, these standard Colombias will not all taste the same. Some lots will display much more quality and character than others, and skillful coffee buyers will find them for their customers.
However, if a Colombia coffee is identified by a regional or market name rather than grade name, it may be either a private-mill coffee or one of a new group of specialty coffees developed by the Colombia Federation of Coffee Growers. Most of these regionally specific coffees come from traditional cultivars, either bourbon or typica, and most display more character than standard lots of Colombia. Those with the most character and distinction tend to be produced in the southwestern part of the country, in the departments of Narino, Cauca (market name Popoyan), and Southern Huila.
Colombia coffee at its finest is, like Costa Rica, a classic. No quality is extreme. The body tends to be medium, the acidity vibrant but not overbearing, and the cup lively and nuanced by understated fruit tones.
At one time, Venezuela ranked close to Colombia in coffee production, but in the 1960s and 70s, as petroleum temporarily turned Venezuela into the richest country in South America, coffee was relegated to the economic back burner. Today Venezuela produces less than one percent of the world’s coffee, and most of it is drunk by the Venezuelans themselves. However, some interesting Venezuela coffees are again entering the North American specialty market.
The most admired Venezuela coffee comes from the far western corner of the country, the part that borders Colombia. Coffees from this area usually are called Maracaibos, after the port through which they are shipped, and may include one coffee, Cúcuta, that is actually grown in Colombia, but may be shipped through Maracaibo. The best-known Maracaibo coffees, in addition to Cúcuta, are Mérida, Trujillo, and Táchira. Mérida typically displays fair to good body and an unemphatic but sweetly pleasant flavor with hints of richness. Táchira and Cúcuta resemble Colombias, with rich acidity, medium body, and occasional fruitiness.
Coffees from the coastal mountains farther east are generally marked Caracas, after the capital city, and are shipped through La Guaira, the port of Caracas. Caripe comes from a mountain range close to the Caribbean and typically displays the soft, gentle profile of the island coffees of the Caribbean.
Regardless of market name, the highest grade of Venezuela coffee is Lavado Fino, meaning "fine, washed."
Coffee from the Dominican Republic is occasionally called Santo Domingo after the country’s former name, perhaps because Santo Domingo looks romantic on a coffee bag and Dominican Republic does not. Coffee is grown on both slopes of the mountain range that runs on an east-west axis down the center of the island. The four main market names are Cibao, Bani, Ocoa, and Barahona. All tend to be well prepared wet-processed coffees. The last three names have the best reputation. Bani leans toward a soft, mellow cup much like Haiti; Barahona toward a somewhat more acidy and heavier-bodied cup, closer to the better Jamaica and Puerto Rico coffees in quality and characteristics.
Panama is a relatively new player in the specialty coffee market. The best Panama coffee is grown in the Boquete region, just south of the border with Costa Rica. Although processing methods are technically advanced, growing practices tend to be traditional, and the majority of Boquete coffees come from trees of the traditional typica variety grown in shade. Perhaps owing to the predominance of traditional shade-grown varieties, Panama coffees generally tend to display more complexity and distinctive character than coffees from neighboring Costa Rica.
Several very well-run estates (Lerida, Berlina, and La Torcaza, among others) produce meticulously prepared coffees that range from lively but gently acidy and round to others that are rich, complexly nuanced, and boldly acidy. In short, Panama Boquete is a superior Central America wet-processed coffee with all of the range and potential virtues of those coffees.