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Geographic Origins

Anyone who reads a newspaper is aware of how arbitrary the concept of nation state can be. National boundaries often divide people who are similar, and cram together those who are different. A Canadian from Vancouver has considerably more in common culturally with an American from across the border in Seattle than with a fellow Canadian from across the continent in Quebec, for example.

The concept of country often plays a similarly arbitrary and misleading role in understanding coffee. Countries tend to be large, and coffee growing areas small. Ethiopian coffee that is gathered by hand from wild trees and processed by the dry method hardly resembles coffees from the same country that have been grown on larger farms and processed by the wet method. On the other hand, some families of taste-alikes transcend national boundaries. In the big picture, for example, high-quality coffees from Latin American countries generally resemble one another, as do coffees from East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. And both tend to differ from coffees from the Malay Archipelago: Indonesia, New Guinea, and Timor.

But the notion of generally labeling coffee by country of origin is inevitable and well established. Hence the organization of the next section of this chapter by continent and country. It is well to keep in mind, however, that in tasting coffee, as in thinking about history, the notion of country is no more than a convenient starting point.

Coffees from the Americas

Latin-American coffees are grown all along the mountainous backbone of Latin America, from southern Mexico south through Central America, Colombia and Bolivia to Peru, as well as in the highlands of the larger islands of the Caribbean and on the high plateaus of Brazil. At their best, the classic coffees of Latin-American manifest bright, lively acidity and a clean, straightforward cup. They provide what for a North American is a normative good coffee experience.

Within this very broad family of coffees, however, there are many variations in cup and character. The very highest grown coffees of Central America and Colombia tend to be boldly and intensely acidy and full-bodied. These are the coffees that attract coffee purists of the old school. Caribbean coffees, including the celebrated Jamaica Blue Mountain, tend at their best to be big-bodied and roundly balanced with rich, low-key acidity. The best Nicaraguas are meaty and full-bodied. Lower grown coffees from Central America tend to be soft and round in profile, as are the often exquisitely sweet coffees of Peru.

The character of the classic Latin-American cup derives in part from the clarity of flavor achieved through wet-processing. The coffees of Brazil offer a different world of experience based on a much wider variety of processing methods, from dry-processing, which produces the classic Brazil Santos cup, low-toned, spicily complex and rich, to semi-dry or pulped natural processing, which promotes a softly complex, delicately fruity cup, to classic wet-processing, which produces a cleanly understated, pleasingly low-acid cup much like the one offered by the finer lower grown coffees of Central America.

Mexico

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.

Brazil

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.

Jamaica

The central Blue Mountains of Jamaica are an extraordinary landscape. The higher reaches are in almost perpetual fog, to which the tropical sun gives an otherworldly internal glow, as though the light itself has come down to settle among the trees. The fog slows the development of the coffee, producing a denser bean than the relatively modest growing elevations (3,000 to 4,000 feet) might produce elsewhere. Coffee grown in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica is the world's most celebrated, most expensive, and most controversial origin.

Jamaica Blue Mountain has been an admired coffee since at least the early 19th century, when for a brief time Jamaica led the world in coffee production. After World War II the British colonial government, alarmed that undisciplined production was on the verge of ruining the Blue Mountain reputation, instituted a rigorous program of regulation and quality control under leadership of the newly established Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica. After Jamaica achieved its independence from Britain, the new Jamaican government continued that coffee policy, requiring that all Blue Mountain be wet-processed at government sanctioned mills and dried, dry-milled, cleaned, and graded at centralized facilities.

Volume Increases, Quality Decreases. In the mid-1970s, when I first tasted Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee from a mill that exported a famous mark called Wallensford Estate, it was indeed a splendid coffee: without drama, perhaps, but extraordinarily rich, balanced, resonant and complete. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, the Coffee Industry Board began investing in Jamaica Blue Mountain with money provided by Japanese interests. New mills were constructed that use a short-cut version of the wet-processing method called aquapulping or mechanical demucilaging, and volume increased dramatically while quality decreased despite the Coffee Industry Board's efforts to maintain it.

The famous Wallensford mark now has become close to meaningless: It simply describes coffee wet-processed at a mill that pretty much resembles all of the other government mills. (True, the Wallensford mill is located in the central part of the Blue Mountains, which may give its coffees a slight edge in altitude over coffees produced by some of the other mills.) Most Blue Mountain coffees now are a decent to mildly impressive version of the Caribbean taste profile: fairly rich, soft, with an understated acidity that is sometimes gently vibrant, other times barely sufficient to lift the cup from listlessness.

Blue Mountain Estate Coffees. A prolonged recession in Japan (Japan supported Jamaica coffee prices by buying Blue Mountain heavily) and a general, worldwide plunge in coffee prices has the Jamaica Blue Mountain industry in trouble. At the same time, the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica has embarked on an unprecedented experiment by allowing several farmers to wet-process their Blue Mountain on their farms and export their coffees as separate and distinct estate coffees, rather than as generic Blue Mountain. These new estate Blue Mountains include Alex Twyman's Old Tavern Estate, and the RSW Estates, a group of three family-owned farms that wet-process their coffees at a common mill. All of these estate coffees are processed using the traditional ferment-and-wash technique, rather than the mechanical demucilage method used to process generic Blue Mountain.

I do not have sufficient experience with RSW Estates to evaluate its coffees. However, I am very familiar with Alex Twyman's Old Tavern Estate Jamaica Blue Mountain, and can vouch that it often approaches the original Wallensford Blue Mountain in its combination of gentleness and deep, vibrant power. However, Old Tavern currently suffers from inconsistency: A slight, almost undetectable hardness sometimes haunts its bouillon-like richness. Time will tell whether Old Tavern becomes a consistently exceptional coffee, and whether it, the RSW Estate coffees, and more vigorous leadership from Jamaica coffee officials can help lead the Jamaica Blue Mountain industry generally out of its quality doldrums.

Jamaica Blue Mountain's fame and high prices have encouraged the usual deceptive blender creativity: Blue Mountain Blends that contain very little actual Blue Mountain, or Blue Mountain "Style" blends that contain no Blue Mountain whatsoever. These coffees may be excellent, but they are not Blue Mountain.

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