There's a lot of information available about coffee. Here's a quick round up of info about what really matters and what it's trying to tell you. Most of this is - and needs to be - generalization, and those generalizations will often break down on a specific-coffee level.
But knowing what these mean and imply can at least assist them in being valuable information to your buying decisions.
Origin Info: Location, Elevation, Soil type, and Processing method. Also, notes about Shade Grown and Organic farming methods.
Where in the world a coffee is grown. This impacts the other three, as elevation changes from place to place, as do soil attributes, while processing method is often a regional or national 'style' that will be fairly consistent across different farms from the same region.
Each general origin location is characterized by general taste profile similarities. Two coffees from the same area are more likely to be similar to one another than to another coffee from elsewhere, but it's important to remember that two different coffees even from neighboring farms are more likely to differ more than they match.
The Big Four regions of coffee growing, and their general taste profiles, are
South America: are typically richer bodied coffees with nutty, cocoa, and caramel, often with bright acidity and sweetness.
Central America: tend to have mellow acidity and 'sugar'-y sweetness, with medium body and an overall well-balanced taste profile.
Africa: tend to be very clear, very fruity or floral, coffees with a lot of distinctiveness and generally lighter body, with the earlier fruity notes providing the sweetness.
Southeast Asia ('SEA'): are typically earthy, chocolate-y coffees, with unusual and distinctive aromatic notes, often described as either berry-like or herbacious.
The height above sea level that a coffee is grown. Coffee grown at higher altitudes is often considered better, but high altitude doesn't guarantee high quality - instead, it improves whatever quality was already present.
Higher altitudes have three main features that may help coffee quality:
- coffees mature more slowly due to less oxygen availability
- increased moisture levels (*needs to be verified)
- larger difference in temperature between day and night
Higher-altitude berries tend to have more complex aromatics and acids, as well as a higher concentration of sugars in an often-smaller bean. How exactly altitude itself plays a role in perceived quality is still hard to say, though.
In the end, elevation is something to keep in mind, but it isn't a great indicator of quality. However, higher altitude beans do have higher acidity -- so if they are roasted similarly, will likely have more brightness than lower grown beans from a similar area.
Soil type most assuredly plays a role in how your coffee tastes, as the availability of specific nutrients and water conditions is fundamental to how the plant grows and develops. Coffee prefers soil with ample free nutrients and reasonable drainage.
The two big soil types are
Volcanic tends to grow aromatic, complex, and balanced coffees.
Loam tends to grow earthy, well-bodied, and rich coffees.
Process or Processing:
The most common processing type. Coffee (with the cherry intact) is placed in a wet mill and the cherry is removed from the seed before drying and fermentation.
Washed process coffees result in:
- more consistent coffee : defective cherries float to the top of the wet mill and can be easily removed
- cleaner tasting coffee : less chance for off fermentation of the beans -- the beans themselves are not fermented, just the outer parchment.
- less fruitiness & complexity : there is no time for the sugars and aromatics to, effectively, leech into the beans as there is with natural or dried process coffees
- less body
Most of our coffees are shade grown, and many without necessarily mentioning it in the description, but speaking generally, this is the state coffee grew in naturally in the wild - as forest floor cover, under the shade and protection of larger trees. Most coffee today thrives best under these conditions, generally with lower crop yields than direct sun plantations but higher end quality.
Additionally, this is the least environmentally disruptive farming method, allowing coffee plantations to still serve as viable habitat for local fauna in addition to its crop quality benefits.
While the actual value, to the cup, of organic methods is highly debatable, we find that high-quality coffee producers often opt to use organic methods, and that many of the coffees we want to stock and work with are mainly or only available with an organic certification.