How this magical bean has grown from a wild shrub, likely discovered near the Horn of Africa, to worldwide fame… started back in the 14th century.
Time for a little coffee history!
Coffea Arabica Plant
The Coffea arabica plant was, most likely, discovered in the highlands of Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia). The first wave of propagation occurred when seedlings were exported across the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula.
The real story of this little bean’s catapult to current status begins in the ancient port town of Mocha, off the coast of Yemen.
For almost 200 years, starting in the 15th century, the Port of Mocha was the world’s most famous coffee marketplace.
To this day coffee beans from Mocha still are highly valued for their specific flavors.
By the end of the 17th century, Dutch merchants were importing coffee seeds to their colonies on the islands of Sumatra and Java (present-day Indonesia).
Exports of the coffee grown in this region would become so popular that Java became a nickname for coffee all over the world.
Journey to the New World
By 1728, the coffee plant had reached the new world and was well on its way to taking root in the fertile volcanic soils of the Americas in countries like Jamaica, Guatemala Costa Rica, and Cuba.
Today, we can enjoy coffees grown in vastly different conditions and processed in varying ways.
These variations allow coffee lovers to experience the luxury of a wide selection of flavors and aromas.
The Sweet Spot for Coffee’s Cultivation
On Earth, there’s a special, perfectly situated region where ideal temperatures, rich soils, and just the right amount of rainfall are precisely adapted for growing this prized cherry.
The Coffee Belt, also known as Bean Belt, is defined as an imaginary geographic band traced around the equator.
When drawn, it covers a group of countries that all together provide nearly the entire world demand for coffee.
This belt is located between latitude 25°N and 30°S, and it passes through every continent while including more than 70 countries.
It covers Africa at close to its full width. Extends to Central and South America, then skips across the Pacific Ocean to sweep through Asia.
The first coffee plantations sprouted in this fertile zone nearly 600 years ago.
What difference does it make where coffee is grown?
As it turns out, a tremendous amount! The exact flavor profile your next cup of coffee will exhibit starts with variables in growing conditions.
Geology of the soil plays a major role, as richer volcanic soils will result in denser flavor profiles.
The precise altitude makes a difference, as does whether it’s been shade-grown or sun-grown.
For instance, sun-grown plants need pesticides and herbicides to replace the natural protection that shade-grown coffees enjoy.
After the harvest
And it goes far beyond the growing conditions!
Each region (or even each farm within a region) can have different ways in which they process the cherries after harvest. Using either a wet or dry method of removing the bean from its outer pulp is the first step.
Beans extracted using the wet method are sun-dried on racks until they reach the optimal moisture level.
Next, they’re hulled and polished before being graded and sorted.
Finally what’s left are premium green coffee beans ready to be packed into burlap sacks for export. Each of these elements plays a small but synergistic roll in determining that exact flavor that will arrive at your cup.
For a more in-depth discovery of the processes involved with growing and bringing coffee to market, check out our post, From Seed to Sip. How Coffee gets to your Cup.
Main growing regions and the flavors they produce
There are three main regions of the globe that produce coffee; Africa, including parts of the Middle East, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia.
These three geographic areas provide nearly 100 percent of all the coffee grown on Earth.
The unique ecological and environmental conditions of each region result in an incredibly wide array of flavor profiles.
Africa and the Middle East
The Arabian Peninsula and Africa are leading the way in terms of well-known coffee.
Kenya has the distinction of producing sweet and savory varieties, with tartness like you may find with black-currants.
In contrast, Yemen, on the Arabian Peninsula, produces a product with complex and pungent tones.
Ethiopia is the 5th overall coffee exporter worldwide and the oldest coffee-producing county on the planet.
Their coffee products are famous for having a wide variety of full-bodied flavor profiles. Everything from lemongrass and jasmine to strawberry and even blueberry essence.
Central and South America
Out of these three regions, the Americas produce a majority of all coffee beans consumed globally.
Brazil and Colombia can claim two of the top 3 spots. Honduras, Mexico, and Guatemala are all within the top 10 producers by volume.
Flavor notes from these regions usually express as mild, medium-bodied, sweet, and very aromatic coffee.
Guatemala is known for producing an arabica bean called Guatemala Antigua, which embodies citrus, plum, and spicy chocolate notes.
Southeast Asia is not far behind on the list. Vietnam and Indonesia are the main producers of this region.
Along with India, they make up 3 of the top 10 producing countries worldwide.
Indonesian coffees pride themselves on expressing earthy, deep flavors.
In contrast, Vietnamese coffee is prized for its high caffeine content and bitter profile (resulting from the robusta beans they primarily grow).
Okay, so it’s true that all these regions grow essentially the same genus of plant.
But the specific variety grown, unique geological and ecological conditions, harvesting techniques, and processing methods cause distinctive variations.
To the delight of coffee connoisseurs everywhere, no doubt!
So, where is The Best Coffee grown?
As you can see, choosing a location that grows the best coffee in the entire world is really a subjective task.
Even if we narrow down the possibilities to a section of Earth, the range of options, flavors, and aromas available means you just have to test as many as possible to find the perfect variety for your taste.
Have you already discovered your favorite origin? Let us know in the comments below!
Thanks for the great read in the article. My question would have to do with what did they use to ground the coffee back in the early times?
Hi Dikran. Great question! Most likely a Pestal and Mortar type grinding device would have been used. It’s something we’d like to look into more in depth and perhaps do a write up on coffee preparation methods before modern conveniences like electricity.