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,
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
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 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
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.
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