There’s something about coffee that seems somehow mystical, even magical. The process of grinding the fresh beans, brewing the pot and sharing an aromatic cup brings with it an air of the ancient– a communal ritual that dates back more than 500 years and spans our entire planet.
Coffee’s roots can be traced to northeastern Ethiopia, and there’s archaeological evidence in the Sufi shrines of Yemen suggesting that it was consumed regularly as early as the 15th century. From its original cultivation in southern Arabia, the sacred bean began to spread across the Muslim world into Europe, India, Indonesia and, eventually, the Americas.
Now, over 2.25 billion cups are consumed every day, with beans harvested from the cherries of trees cultivated in more than 70 different countries.
As technological innovation and globalization has led to a world that feels increasingly small, coffee connoisseurs seem willing to go much further afield in search of exotic varieties to give them their daily java fix. Here, we present a gourmet java aficionado‘s guide to the best coffee around the world:
Africa is the birthplace of coffee, so it’s no surprise that virtually every central African nation grows it, (including 7 of the world’s Top 25 coffee exporters). Kenya has emerged as a perennial favorite among connoisseurs, in part because of its unique combination of climate, soil and elevation. But, according to Jeff Taylor of PT’s Coffee Roasting Company, Roast magazine’s 2009 Roaster of the Year, what really separates Kenyan coffee is the variety of trees they use.
“Farms in Kenya often use a mix of varieties called SL-28 and SL-34, which have proven year after year to produce exceptional coffee. They were originally developed by Scott Laboratories decades ago, with the intent of being disease-resistant, but they also happened to be exceptional in flavor.” Compared to some of the world’s other gourmet coffees, Kenyan varieties are a relative bargain, averaging under $30 a pound.
Arguably the trendiest gourmet coffee in the world originates in southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. There, Asian Palm Civets feed on the sweetest coffee cherries they can find. The beans move through the civet’s digestive tract after fermenting in the stomach, where enzymes break down the proteins that give coffee its bitter taste. Once it passes, farmers collect the droppings, which are then washed, sun-dried, roasted and sold as Kopi Luwak or Wild Civet Coffee.
According to Alanna Price of Doi Chaang Coffee Company, “The eliminated civet beans have less protein, bacteria and different compounds compared to other gourmet coffee beans. The aroma and complexity of the beans produce a coffee that is syrupy, with hints of chocolate, and has an incredibly smooth taste.” It’s also incredibly rare, which explains why prices average a whopping $60 for 50 grams.
But an increasing number of hotels and coffee shops are no longer selling Kopi Luwak, due to an investigation into wild civet farms that revealed terrible animal welfare abuses being inflicted on the civets during the production process.
With the Dominican Republic the only country in the area ranking among the top 25 coffee-producing nations in the world, the Caribbean can’t compete with Africa, Asia or Latin America in terms of quantity. But, for some java aficionados, the quality of Caribbean coffee is second to none. The most sought after is Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee, which is grown in one of the highest mountain ranges in the Caribbean.
There, the mixture of cool air, high rainfall, rich soil and excellent drainage create the perfect climate, leading to a coffee renowned for its mild, almost sweet flavor. Blue Mountain Coffee is regulated by Jamaica’s Coffee Industry Board, which monitors its cultivation, quality and geographical boundaries. A pound will set you back around $35, but over 80% of the island nation’s 4.6 million pound annual output is sold to Japan.
Nearly every country in Latin America exports coffee, with Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, Peru and Honduras all among the Top 10 nations in terms of annual production. But Panama, which produces a mere 13 million pounds per year (compared to Brazil’s 5.6 billion), is emerging as one of the world’s hottest gourmet coffee markets.
According to Jeff Taylor, credit for the region’s recent success can be attributed to the 2004 discovery of a variety called Geisha, which is indigenous to Ethiopia. “Hacienda La Esmeralda discovered Geisha on their farm, and separated it from the rest of their crop. The result was very unique, very floral, so they decided to enter it into the Best of Panama Coffee Competition. Now it sells for $60 per pound green, which means it’s over $120 per pound roasted.”
But it’s not the most expensive Latin American coffee, by a long shot: Taylor says Guatemala’s Finca el Injerto Mokka sold for $500 per pound in an online auction last June.
There’s not a single country in Europe known for growing coffee. But brewing it? Italy, home of the espresso, has elevated that process to an art form.
Espresso involves water heated to 190-200ºF, then passed through 8 grams of coffee at 130 psi for 25-30 seconds. The first espresso maker patent was issued to Angelo Moriondo in 1884, but it was Hungarian-born Francesco Illy who invented the first automatic coffee machine that substituted compressed air for steam in 1935. He also devised the packaging system in which coffee cans were filled with inert gases rather than pressurized air, which allowed the Trieste-based illy brand to be sold all over Italy.
“His inventions made it possible to enjoy consistently pleasant-tasting espresso,” says illy’s Master Barista Giorgio Milos, “which was a random event until then. Out of that grew more innovation throughout the country, a deep passion for perfecting coffee, and the emergence of baristas as skilled professionals. That led to an expectation of quality, and a coffee culture that emerged from that, with coffee part of everyone’s lives throughout the day.”
Grown only in the Kona districts of Hawaii’s Big Island on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Kea, 100% Kona coffee is arguably among the world’s rarest and most treasured varieties of coffee. Its origins can be traced back to the 1820s, when Brazilian tree cuttings were first planted in the rich volcanic soil. When combined with extremely sunny mornings and regular afternoon showers, the result is a delicately flavored brew unlike any other.
Asked about the product’s $30 per pound price tag, Brazen Hazen Coffee Estate farm manager Brian Axelrod says, “Kona coffee commands a higher price point primarily due to its uniqueness of cup, and also for its limited availability. Kona coffee is hand picked upon ripening throughout the season. Many large operations in other countries mechanically pick, so their coffees include some overripe and some immature beans.”
It’s hard to argue with the results, the perfection of which Axelrod credits to sound farming technique and the blessings of Mother Nature. –Bret Love
This post was brought to you by PT’s Coffee Roasting Co., a company committed to working with coffee farmers who are true artisans of coffee cultivation. For more info or to make a purchase, visit PT’s Coffee Roasting’s Coffee Store.
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