Everyone has slightly irrational things that grind their cogs, and for me, it’s people telling about ‘Italian Coffee’. I have no problem with Italy, it is the home pizza, tiramisu, pasta, and gelato… oh and some famous buildings, lakes and stuff. I have no problem with Italians. What I do have a problem with is people telling me they like ‘Italian coffee’… no, no, no, you don’t.
Coffee does not grow in Italy. What you like is a coffee, usually a blend, usually dark roasted and often incorporating a robusta bean created with the intention of being ‘Italian style’, and there is nothing wrong with that. And what I like, is to be pedantic. The best coffee does not come from Italy, so where does it come from?
What country does the best coffee come from? You may like light and fruity coffee, in which case you may look to an African country, or you may prefer heavier chocolaty coffee from a South American country. But it’s not as simple as country of origin.
Every country has a variation in quality, lower quality coffee from one farm maybe sold cheaply and used for instant coffee, and the farm up the road maybe growing some of the best coffee in the world and selling it for ten times the price.
Then, there is roasting the coffee. The best roaster in the world cannot make a poor coffee taste great, but a poor roaster can roast a great coffee badly and make it taste terrible.
There is a professional scoring system in place which scores coffee between 1 and 100. Aything over 80 being classed as ‘specialty.’ This means coffee is deemed (by coffee tasting professionals) to be some of the best in the world. It will also have been grown ethically and responsibly and purchased at a higher price, often directly by the roaster.
Assuming you’re buying quality coffee beans (or ground coffee) from a roaster or brand you like, we can now look at what general characteristics you can expect from coffee from different coffees from different countries. So here are my Top 8 Coffee Producing Countries (ordered by continent).
Africa – Kenya
Kenyan coffees are famous for their bright, sweet berry-like flavors. They tend to be high in sweetness and high in acidity. They also happen to be my favorite. Kenya has its own grading system for coffee beans, which grades by size (size can also be linked to quality). The most common grades are AA which tends to fetch the highest prices.
AB is the next highest, and the lowest grade is C. You may also see PB, which stands for a peaberry. Peaberry coffee beans are beans where only a single seed has developed in the cherry rather than the usual two. They are therefore smaller and rounder than a standard coffee bean.
The other grade you might come across is E which stands for elephant beans, and unsurprisingly these are very large beans.
Best to brew in a: Black filter coffee (V60, Aeropress, or Batch Brew)
Africa – Ethiopia
Most people regard Ethiopia as the original birthplace of coffee. It is the place where the ‘coffea arabica’ tree first started to grow at scale. Ethiopia grows a large amount of coffee, so flavor-wise it can be a bit of a mixed bag; however, some of the best coffee from Ethiopia are complex delicate, and tea-like.
The cupping notes I most commonly see from Ethiopia are floral, citrus fruit, and bergamot. You most commonly see Ethiopian coffees from an area called Yigracheffe. I would say this is a good example of a place where you can see a real mixed bag of quality, but if a good Yirgacheffe gets into the hands of a good roaster, both Ethiopian washed, and naturally processed coffees can be extremely delicious.
Best brewed in a: Black filter coffee (V60, Aeropress or Batch Brew), often great in a very short milk drink like a macchiato.
Africa – Rwanda
The flavors you can expect from Rwandan coffees are fruity and fresh. I’ve often seen the cupping note of cola cubes on Rwandan coffee, which I apt for its sweet fruity, sometimes floral profile.
Watch out for something called the ‘potato defect’ in Rwandan coffee. If you ever get a coffee from Rwanda that tastes oddly like potatoes, that’s due to a defect only found in Burundi and Rwanda. This is a bacteria entering the cherry skin and causing the coffee to taste like raw potato. This is not harmful to you, but it’s also not particularly pleasant.
Best breewd in a: Flat white, or piccolo. Too much milk, and it will drown out those delicate notes.
Asia – Indonesia
I have not drunk a lot of Asian coffee as it is less prevalent in Specialty coffee compared to many of the other countries on this list. Coffees from Asia tend to be heavy-bodied, earthy, and low in acidity. But, if you like a Cappuccino that will wake up your taste buds in the morning, with none of this delicate floral stuff, this could be for you.
Indonesia is where ‘Kopi Luwak’ coffee is produced. Kopi Luwak, or as I like to call it, ‘cat s**t coffee’ is something I have been frequently asked about during my career in coffee because of the intrigue around it. However, in my opinion, force-feeding cats coffee cherries and then picking them out of their poo and processing them is cruel, disgusting, and probably the worst tasting thing you will ever put in your mouth. It’s definitely proof that just because something is very expensive, it does not mean it’s good.
Best brewed in: A big milky morning brew (like a latte).
South America: Brazil
I always think Brazil is one of the most famous countries for coffee production because of the sheer quantity produced (it’s been at the top of the production list for over 150 years!). Brazilian coffee is often found in espresso blends because it is heavy in body and has sweet chocolate and nutty flavors, which work really well in all the common drinks you see in cafes.
It works especially well in milky drinks like cappuccinos and lattes. The chances are if you like coffee, you will have drunk plenty of Brazilian coffee, even if you haven’t realized it.
Best brewed in a: A flat white from your favorite coffee shop on a cold winter morning.
South America: Colombia
Columbia probably has the most diverse flavor profile of any coffee I have tasted. There are both coffees, like those in Brazil, which are heavier and have chocolate notes. There are also coffees that are lighter, fruity, and sweet. This is one of the things that makes Colombian coffee fantastic. If you are never unsure which coffee to buy and there’s a Colombian on offer, it’s usually a good place to start.
Best in a: anything, its versatility is its superpower.
South America: El Salvador
When I first got into coffee, El Salvador was my favorite country where coffee is grown. The first time I drank espresso, which I truly enjoyed, it was from El Salvador. It was sweet but well-balanced and tasted like caramel with apple acidity. A coffee that tastes like a toffee Apple – what’s not to love?
El Salvador grows a lot of a coffee variety called bourbon. This variety, combined with its amazing volcanic soils, are some of the contributory factors to it often being so sweet and delicious.
Best brewed in: Something milky, like a flat white or cappuccino. But it was an espresso which first caught my attention.
South America: Panama
Panama has been mentioned on this list because of one coffee, from one farm, alone. Hacienda La Esmeralda is a farm in Panama run by the Peterson family. They have been growing a variety of coffee called ‘geisha’ for many years.
This coffee has broken records for the high price it’s sold for, won competitions for its quality, and has become legendary in specialty coffee. If you would like 150g of coffee from this farm, expect it to cost you at least $20. It is light like tea and very floral, usually with citrus notes.
I think it’s nice.
Best brewed in a: Oh god, do not put milk in it. The pro baristas would have a heart attack. Brew in a V60 whilst worrying you will mess it up, and it will have cost you about a tenner or a badly made coffee.