Just like wine, the taste of coffee reflects the geographic region in which the beans have been grown, as well as the exact species of the coffee plant. Each region has distinctive characteristics, depending on the soil, elevation and farming methods of the individual grower. Other factors that can influence taste include whether the beans are shade-grown or organic, the methods of enriching the soil and processing the beans, and whether the farmers and pickers are paid enough so that they care about doing a good job.
There are two main varieties of coffee beans: arabica and robusta. Both varieties are grown all over the world; however, robusta beans are easier to grow and the plants don’t require high elevations in order to thrive. In general, robusta beans are cheaper to buy, and they tend to be used for the mainstream commercial coffee blends. Their flavour is harsher and more nut-like, and they have higher levels of caffeine. Artisan coffees tend to feature the arabica variety of bean, which has a more balanced taste that is sometimes called “winey” or “soft.”
Because so many factors influence the final taste of coffee, it’s hard to generalise about specific regions. The website or printed material from a good coffee roaster will be able to tell you about the specific crop of beans that they are roasting and selling, and this will be more relevant than generalisations about growing locations. However, there are a few regional generalities to be aware of:
CENTRAL AMERICAN AND COLOMBIAN coffees tend to be familiar to Americans, since most of their major brands are sourced there. They are mainly fairly light and well-balanced, a bit acidic, with good fruity undertones.
BRAZILIAN coffees often consist mostly of robusta beans, and they are used for many supermarket brands and espresso blends. They have a heavy mouth-feel, sometimes with chocolaty overtones, and they are often used in darker roasts.
ETHIOPIA is where coffee plants originated. Here they have more biodiversity than other growing regions. Many of their coffees are described as syrupy, with strong overtones of strawberry or blueberry.
KENYA features bold-tasting coffees that some people find tropical, with a black-currant quality and sometimes even a tomato-like acidity.
INDIA coffees tend to be heavy, creamy and low in acidity, but rarely particularly complex.
INDONESIAN coffees have a dark earthy or smoky quality with a long aftertaste reminiscent of unsweetened cocoa.
HAWAIIAN coffees have a sweet scent and a mild, floral mellowness.