Like wine grapes, different types of coffee cherries produce unique flavors and qualities. Factors including the varietal, soil, altitude, climate and ultimately the roast all affect how the final cup will taste. Discovering your coffee preferences is fun and with over 1,000 different varietals reported in Ethiopia alone it is practically impossible to experience them all. However even with so many different varieties existing certain generalizations can be made to help narrow your selection. Let's explore a few of them to help get you started.
Species & Varieties
Virtually all specialty coffee grown is varietals belonging to the Arabica species. Although it yields less and doesn't have as much caffeine Arabica is favored over Robusta for it's wider and richer spectrum of flavor. Subspecies of Arabica are referred to as Varietals and are often mentioned in the names of the coffee along with the country of origin. Certain coffee varieties are often more prevalent in specific parts of the world where climate and geography may favor some over others and farming resources are shared, making the country of origin a great indicator of what to expect in terms of species.
Country of Origin
The name of a coffee almost always makes reference of the country of origin and based on this we can make a few presumptions. Remember to take all of these generalizations with a grain of, well, coffee :) There are always exceptions to any rule and occasionally you may discover something new and delicious by mistake.
South American flavors tend to be more mild and balanced with notes of chocolate, nutiness and are often sweeter.
GuatemalaTending to have either a spicy or smoky flavor compared to other countries in Central America. The beans here have a greater hardness due to cultivation at higher altitudes and are processed using wet-process methods. Browse →
BrazilCoffee grown in Brazil is often dry-processed and used as the basis for espresso because of its heavier body. The difference is largely due to altitude where it's grown and the processing method. Browse →
Flavor profiles of African varietals are very diverse but are often floral and fruity. Expect complex flavors and lighter roasts.
EthiopiaDifferent from that produced in many South American countries with a more complex flavor and aftertaste reminiscent of wine or berries. Arabica coffee is indigenous to Ethiopia. Both wet- and dry-processing is used here. Browse →
KenyaSimilar to those of Ethiopia, however, they are generally cultivated on smaller farms with an unusually sharp eye for quality. The coffee is highly acidic with black currant undertones and processed using wet methods. Browse →
Once green beans have been purchased by a roaster, often directly from the farmer, it's time to toast 'em. Roasting coffee is an art form and in this stage the roaster strives to bring out the unique quality and character of the bean. Many variables are at play when roasting coffee and although two roasters may be roasting the same green bean the end result can be very different.
In a light roast the difference between different origins is at its most distinct and the unique qualities of each varietal are most obvious and distinguishable. At this point the bean also has the highest acidity and brightness. As the roasting continues you begin to add body, increase oil, decrease acidity and see a drop in origin distinction. Every varietal is unique and the process the roaster uses will play a very important role in the taste of the final product. Many of us have roast preferences but since every varietal has unique qualities I encourage you to occasionally try something that you typically wouldn't, you may be surprised!
Many variables are present when brewing coffee and all play a role in how the final cup tastes. Different brewing methods, different types of filters, water temperature, milk and even water quality will all impart an influence on your cup. Between all the different varietals and brewing variables present it's important to remember to always give new methods and flavors a chance because you can only discover all the variety of flavor coffee has to offer by taking a few risks!