Kenneth Davids is a coffee expert, an author, and a co-founder of Coffee Review, a site that serves as a coffee buyer’s guide. Davids conducts blind, expert cuppings of coffees and reports the finding in 100-point reviews, much like those that exist in the wine industry.
Some of the advice Davids gives is basic but bears repeating:
- When evaluating coffee, first smell it. Begin by sniffing the coffee after it is freshly ground, then smell the brewed coffee to compare the two aromas.
- Next, taste the coffee. To get the fullest flavor, slurp it, taking the liquid into your mouth so that it spreads evenly over the surface of your tongue and reaches all of your taste buds at once.
- Take your time, and enjoy the process. The more you taste, the better you get at it.
Every coffee has particular characteristics, but there are taste generalizations for the three major coffee-growing regions that can be helpful to keep in mind:
- Latin American coffees are known for their clean “mouth feel” and slightly sweet, lively acidity. In some coffees, the acidity sparkles clearly above the other flavor components; in others, it provides a subtle but crisp accent.
- African and Arabian coffees often have sweet flavors reminiscent of the aroma of a bowl of fresh fruit. Flavors from these regions range from mellow and winelike to zesty and citrusy.
- Coffees from the Pacific region are generally rich and full-bodied, with nutty and earthy flavors. Most can be described as smooth in acidity with a slightly dry finish.
Here’s a drill-down on some of the different coffees that can be found around the world and the characteristics that give them their unique flavor:
Jamaican Blue Mountain
Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee has long been considered one of the rarest and most expensive of all coffees. Grown in fog-shrouded mountains at relatively modest elevations, the bean is dense, producing a rich taste and a very distinct aroma.
Remarkable. Distinctive. Delicious. These adjectives apply to a plethora of coffees grown along a north-south axis that stretches from East Africa down to Zimbabwe. Coffees from Kenya exhibit berry tones, those from Ethiopia have citrus and floral tones, and those from Zambia are medium-bodied and wine-toned.
The celebrated Arabian Mocha bean grows in mountains of the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Cultivated and processed in the same fashion for more than 500 years, the Arabian bean produces a coffee that is acidic, fruity, and highly fragrant.
Grown along the spine of mountains that runs from southern Mexico to Panama, coffee from Central America is widely diverse in nature. The highest-elevation coffees of Guatemala and Costa Rica tend to be bold and full-bodied. Lower-elevation coffees are softer and have a more rounded flavor. Nicaraguan coffees are truly hearty.
Hawaii’s Big Island possesses that rare combination of ideal growing conditions: high elevation, volcanic soils, cool mornings, warm afternoons, and natural shading. The result is a superior, rich-tasting coffee. The Kona bean grows on the lower slopes of Mount Hualalai and Mauna Loa. A typical Kona cup is gently acidic, fragrant, and wine- or fruit-toned. Not to be missed!
The best-known and most distinctive Pacific coffees are grown in the Malay Archipelago, a chain of islands that include the nations of Indonesia, Timor, and Papua New Guinea. Deep-toned, traditionally processed coffees from Sumatra, Sulawesi, and Timor exhibit complex fruity, earthy, and musty notes. The wet-processed coffees of Sumatra, Java, and Papua New Guinea are bright and floral. The Indian subcontinent produces Arabica coffees that are sweet, floral, and low in acidity.
South American coffees grow in a mountainous region that stretches from the north — Colombia and Ecuador — down to the high plateaus of Brazil. Robust and flavorful, the classic South American cup is the product of wet processing. Brazil produces the heralded Brazil Santos coffee.
This guide originally appeared in The 10 Best of Everything: An Ultimate Guide for Travelers (National Geographic Books) by Nathaniel Lande and Andrew Lande.