If you paid attention during geography lessons at school, you might remember the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. While also titles of once-banned novels by author Henry Miller, these tropics are really circles of latitude on Earth marking the most northerly and southerly positions the Sun may appear directly overhead.
So that takes care of pirates and sex. But why are these imaginary lines of great interest to coffee lovers worldwide?
Well, besides literature and navigation, the area bounded by the tropics also forms a band known as the Bean Belt. This region offers some of the best temperature, rainfall and sunshine for coffee growing. The soil is also typically rich and porous.
Here you may find the best of the world’s coffee.
“Can you taste where this coffee is from?”
To date, there are over 50 countries where coffee may be farmed but each country or region imparts their own unique characteristic to the beans due to the difference in climate, altitude and soil. Variance in growing conditions, harvesting and processing methods also matters.
This can be rather fun for those of us who love guessing games.
Recently while having my usual cuppa at RAWcoffee, I was asked by barista Michael Tan to identify the origin of my coffee, along with other café regulars. Some of us offered continents – South America, Central America or Africa. Others tried to be more specific naming countries or even specific regions.
None of us got the answer right, but here’s a guide that may help you if you find yourself in a similar situation.
Latin America (both Central and South) is considered the juggernaut of the coffee world.
The coffees from this region tend to be light and tangy. This makes them perfect as a base for coffee blends. Some exciting producers include Panama (famed for its Geisha coffee), Costa Rica, Jamaica (their Blue Mountain is adored by the Japanese, who import over 80 per cent of its production), and Guatemala.
On the flip-side, coffee-producing countries in Asia offer a thicker coffee, more full-bodied and often with very distinct notes. This makes them ideal for pairing with Latin American beans, to add heft to coffee blends. Indonesia is the dominant player here in terms of interesting beans; the expensive kopi luwak being the most notorious and much-maligned example.
My personal favourite is East Africa. I find the coffees here to be more complex. You can get really unusual notes such as citrus, cocoa, blueberry and even scented spices here! When in doubt, I usually guess Africa though you can go deeper – is it a Kenya or more of an Ethiopia?
World’s top coffee producers
When it comes to coffee production, most will think of Latin America or even Africa. So it may come as a surprise that two of the top three coffee producing countries in the world are, in fact, in Asia.
Coming in third place is our neighbour Indonesia. Some of the finest Arabica beans in the world are planted in this archipelago, with different islands offering different growing conditions. For example, contrast a smoky Mandheling from Sumatra with its spicier, sweeter cousin from Java.
Fellow ASEAN nation Vietnam takes the runner-up spot. As Vietnamese beans are generally not considered specialty coffee, their growing global market share (nearly 15 per cecnt) is largely due to Robusta beans destined for use as commodity coffee. Your next cup of instant coffee may well contain beans from this former French colony.
The world’s largest producer of coffee is none other than Brazil. This coffee giant accounts for a third of coffee production worldwide, most of it Arabica beans. Ideal climate and mineral-rich soil ensure their continued dominance. Brazil’s prominence also means better processing and production facilities, guaranteeing a highly consistent quality of coffee.
So, the next time you have a cuppa, why not pause and reflect on the journey the beans have taken to reach your local café? It may be as exciting a journey as the taste of your coffee.
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on September 6, 2013.