Coffee Regions: A World of Flavor

Just like wine, a coffee’s flavor is greatly impacted by where it is grown. Besides location, other factors affect the quality and flavor of coffee including soil, climate, altitude, species variety, harvesting and processing methods. Throughout 2007, we will profile specific coffee-growing regions around the world to help you get a better feel for where a specific coffee comes from.

Indonesia and the Pacific Islands
Indonesia is the world’s third largest producer of coffee. Ironically, only about 15 percent of the crop is arabica, with a limited number of quality beans available for the specialty coffee industry. Even though they are a small percentage of the total production, arabica coffees from this region are some of the best in the world, prized for their richness, full body, long finish, earthiness and gentle acidity.

Sumatra is one of the largest of the 13,700+ islands comprising the Republic of Indonesia, with some of the most famous and well-known coffees hailing from here. Sumatran coffees are considered some of the heaviest, smoothest and most complex coffees in the world. Their concentrated spicy, herbal notes and earthy aromas are the telltale signatures of these much-loved coffees.

The finest of the traditional arabica coffees from Sumatra are sold under the market names Sumatra Mandheling and Lintong. Mandheling and Lintong are grown in the province of Aceh on the volcanic mountains near Lake Tawar. The growing altitude of 2,500 to 5,000 feet is ideal for cultivating what some consider to be the finest gourmet coffees in the world. Coffee from this region is cultivated on small, well-maintained, shaded farms and processed by Sumatra’s signature “semi-washed” method. This method depulps the coffee cherry from the coffee seed before they are dry, thus cleaning the coffee seed from the fruit pulp that naturally surrounds it. Mandheling is known for its herbal aroma, full body, low acidity, and rich, smooth flavor. Often, it is referred to as a coffee for romantics.

Coffee grown further west on the island of Sumatra is usually marked Sumatra Gayo Mountain and comes from a large mill near Takengon. The mill’s Gayo Mountain Washed Arabica is processed by a meticulous wet method following strict international standards, and is certified organic by a Dutch agency. Gayo Mountain ranges from thin and grassy to sweet and subtly rounded, a higher-toned, lighter-bodied version of the Mandheling/Lintong flavor profile.

Sulawesi or Celebes
Coffees from Sulawesi, formerly known as Celebes, are processed using the dry method and possess an intriguing combination of sweetness and earthiness. The Sulawesi coffee most likely to be found in specialty stores today — Sulawesi Toraja or Celebes Kalossi — comes from the mountainous area near the center of the island and is named after the colorful indigenous people of the region. Coffees from Sulawesi are low in acidity with a deep body resembling maple syrup. These coffees are more expensive than Sumatran coffees because of small yields and the fierce demand for them in Japan.

Early Dutch explorers brought the first Coffee Arabica trees to Java at the beginning of the 18th century. The island quickly became the world’s leading producer of coffee, that is, until a rust disease wiped out the entire industry. Farmers replanted, only to see their crops devastated again by military occupation during World War II. The acreage was again replanted with disease-resistant robusta stock, but with the support of the Indonesian government, arabica made a modest comeback on several of the original Dutch estates. Estate Java is a wet-processed coffee that is more acidic, lighter in body, and quicker to finish than other coffees in the region. Nut, spice and vanilla tones are often present. Some Javanese coffee is stored in warehouses for two or three years and is referred to as Old Java. This aging process causes the coffee to lose acidity and gain body and sweetness.

New Guinea
Papua New Guinea, which occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, is usually where coffee labeled New Guinea, often abbreviated to PNG, is grown. With seedlings from the Jamaica Blue Mountain region, cultivation of coffee began in Papua New Guinea in the late 1930s. Although the island has ideal conditions for growing coffee beans, the plantations are often secluded at high elevations that are accessible only by foot. Because of these accessibility issues, many Papua New Guinea coffees are grown organically and processed completely by hand. However, this slower processing time makes for a better quality of coffee.

Two of New Guinea’s most famous coffees are Sigri and Arona. These coffees are less acidic and aromatic than the best coffees of Sulawesi and less full-bodied than the best Sumatrans, but nonetheless they are well-balanced with a fruity aroma and earthy body. They offer a full, syrupy body, balanced snappy acidity, and wonderful complexities. Some even say they are reminiscent of what Jamaica Blue Mountain used to taste like.

– Beans & Leaves, By Kristin V. Montalvo