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How Different Coffee Origins Taste (usually)

At Angels’ Cup, we ship blind coffee tasting flights to our subscribers to help them develop a sharper sense of taste. People sometimes wonder what flavor notes they should look out for in each coffee, so we’ve compiled a short list explaining what flavors can most commonly be found in coffees from various origins.

One quick caveat before we begin: no matter how hard you try, you probably won’t find flavors in your coffee if you make either of the following two mistakes. 1) You add milk or sugar to your coffee. Not trying to be a coffee snob, I encourage you to drink coffee however you like. But if you were trying to develop taste in wine, you probably wouldn’t buy an exceptional bottle of Bordeaux and proceed to add orange juice and fruit to it. It’s just not conducive to learning. 2) Your coffee is roasted too dark. Again, this is a matter of taste, you might not like light roasted coffee. If you like dark roast coffee, that’s cool, stick with it. Lighter roasts tend to be sour, darker roasts tend to be bitter, and in-between is an oasis of sweetness and balance. But lighter roasts are more complex, and you may have to sacrifice sweetness and endure sour to get the most out of your coffee. But sour can be nice. Most fruit is sour, as are lollipops and fruit rollups. We promise you’ll never have to endure more sourness drinking good coffee than your average sugar crazed 6 year old endures eating a tootsie pop. ??

The list below is arranged roughly in order of how obvious and striking the flavors are. If you’re new, I recommend starting at the top, finding a coffee to try from each region, and working your way down. Oooorrrrr, try subscribing to Angels’ Cup! You’ll get an amazing variety of coffees selected specifically to help you learn how different regions taste, and you’ll avoid all the stinkers.

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(click all pictures to enlarge)

Ethiopia (naturally processed)

For many, naturally processed Ethiopians (also called “dry-processed”) are a gateway drug into specialty coffee. Just grinding this coffee fills the room with blatant blueberry aroma, and that flavor comes through in the cup as well. The blueberry flavor in naturally processed Ethiopian coffees is the most unmistakable flavor characteristic in the world of coffee, you cannot miss it. In addition to blueberry, look for strawberry, artificial grape flavor (like a purple ice pop), muffin, and cream cheese. Another thing that sets natural Ethiopians apart is the creamy texture and the fact that this coffee packs tremendous fruit flavor without overwhelming acidity. People who are into coffee generally think of acidity as a good thing, average coffee drinkers… not so much. Natural Ethiopians are a win for everyone.

Ethiopia (washed process)quills-coffee-colombia-ethiopia

That’s right, Ethiopia has the first AND SECOND most identifiable coffee flavor profile of all the coffees on Earth. ?? Surprisingly, washed Ethiopian coffees taste completely different from naturally processed coffees, even from the same farm. They have three dominant flavors. Tea, lemon citrus, and florals, with every coffee presenting these flavors in different proportions. The dry aroma is striking, and after smelling it once or twice you should be able to recognize it 85% of the time (assuming it’s not too dark). Some of the best washed Ethiopians also present secondary flavors of peach, bergamot, Froot Loop lime, and honeysuckle. This coffee is very light, and some people dismiss it at first saying “I didn’t come here to drink tea”. To which I say “good, more for me”. If you don’t like your first one, try a few. It will grow on you.

verve-kenya-espresso-hondurasKenya

Right next door to Ethiopia, Kenya has an exceptionally distinct flavor profile all its own. Almost always, Kenyan coffee has a syrupy thick mouth coating quality with dominant flavors of tomato stew and raisin (or other dried fruit). Some of the best Kenyan coffees will also offer grapefruit and bubblegum. This coffee is divisive though, as the acidity/sourness is very prominent, especially in the higher quality offerings. Chocolate is also not uncommon, which combines with the raisin for a really nice Raisinette flavor.

Burundi, Rwanda & the rest of Africa

Generally speaking, coffee from the rest of Africa tastes like it’s from Kenya, but not as distinct. While there are some standouts which really wow us with interesting flavors like ginger and winter spice, it’s a more challenging region to buy coffee from.

la-colombe-workshop-panama-jaramillo-geishaPanama Geisha

There’s one variety of coffee grown in Panama called Geisha (or Gesha). It’s generally the most expensive coffee in the world, and particularly favored by coffee professionals competing in barista competitions. Production is evenly mixed between natural and washed, but the dominant flavors are generally floral, with honeysuckle and bergamot standing out the most. Other coffee from Panama is not like Geisha, and Geisha from other countries is not like the product of Panama. But because it’s so expensive, you’re probably best off waiting for a special occasion to try this one. It’s too expensive to have every morning.

gimme-coffee-indonesia-java-blue-bataviaIndonesia (ex Papua New Guinea)

Indonesian coffee is known for its heavy (almost sandy) body, and an earthy, woody flavor. It is very distinct, but not a go-to choice for most coffee people because acidity and complexity can be lacking. However, we have had some recently that present really nice tropical fruit flavors, cinnamon, and cola. So it’s worth trying given the opportunity!

Yemen

All coffee from Yemen (that’s we’ve seen) is naturally processed, and so it has a certain wildness to it. The region has a bad habit of producing coffee that tastes like a barnyard. But when they get lucky and produce good coffee, it’s exceptional. Dominant flavors are probably sandalwood, nutmeg and cinnamon spice, and berry.

ristretto-colombiaColombia

Colombia is our favorite growing region in the Americas. There isn’t necessarily one flavor profile that really stand out, but the best coffees from colombia have cola, cherry, orange, vanilla, chocolate, florals, and maybe even apple flavors. It also can have excellent sweetness and balance. If you’re getting a ton of complexity but don’t think the coffee is from Africa, chance are Colombia is a good guess.

joe-bean-nicaragua-don-roger-naturalNicaragua

Coffees from Nicaragua stand out for almost always having a very pleasant tobacco flavor. I’m assuming that’s because tobacco is grown nearby.

Brazil & Mexico

In the Americas, the further away from Colombia you move, the more complexity is lost. What’s left behind is usually chocolate and nuts (mostly peanut). Brazil is as far south as coffee production goes, and Mexico is as far north. Both regions produce somewhat similar cups. The best examples will have decent sweetness and acidity, with a chocolate and peanut combo reminiscent of peanut butter cups. They can be really nice. But they can also taste like cardboard or newspaper. Many are used as fillers for dark roasted espresso blends.

crema-coffee-costa-ricaGuatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, & Costa Rica

Coffee from these regions are very difficult to tell apart. I sometimes get miso or seaweed as a flavor, which is a giveaway, but usually they just taste like they’re somewhere between Colombia and Mexico. It’s all a blur.

All other regions

The regions listed above probably make up 99% of what you’ll see in the specialty coffee world. Occasionally we’ll get to try something special from a place like Myanmar, Thailand, Hawaii, etc., but it would be hard to try 50 different coffees from those regions to really get a sense for how they taste.

10 Responses to How Different Coffee Origins Taste (usually)

  1. Jim Stephen Schilling December 22, 2017 at 5:57 pm #

    LOL, this is the biggest waste of time reading this. No science, just pure personal and non-factual references to coffee tasting.

    • Heng August 11, 2019 at 11:31 am #

      Could you please point somewhere more scientific about regional coffee flavors?

      • Jeff Borack September 23, 2019 at 2:53 am #

        I’m not sure if there is more scientific data about regional coffee flavors. Unfortunately I think at the end of the day, taste is somewhat subjective. Perhaps it could be possible to, for example, measure the sugar content of coffee, or test for citric or malic acids. However, the results of such a study would be dependent on the green bean selection and roast profile. The best path to understanding (when it comes to taste), might be simply to taste.

  2. Ty & Carli December 26, 2017 at 11:38 pm #

    Very interested in taste testing for our own coffee shops ! For purchase .

    • Jeff Borack June 21, 2019 at 2:04 pm #

      Thanks! We have a lot of coffee shops that subscribe to Angels’ Cup for ongoing employee training. It’s a lot of fun!

  3. Claudia January 10, 2018 at 1:42 pm #

    Mexican coffee is very different to the coffee in Central America. Actually Mexican coffee grown in the border with Guatemala is so different that you can tell due to the volcanic soil in Guatemala.

  4. Jason August 3, 2018 at 2:03 pm #

    I have never tasted El Salvador but I can say that Honduras and Guatemala are worlds away from Costa Rica. Guatemala can be inconsistent but generally caramel, vanilla, sometimes chocolate and is usually very smooth. Honduras likewise is similar but with less complexity, overall delicious. Costa Rica on the other hand is one I can not drink due to its grassy notes.

    • Jeff Borack June 21, 2019 at 2:49 pm #

      Yea I can see that. Honduras often stands out for its sweetness, which is wonderful. Costa Rica is notable for experimenting with different processing techniques, which makes the region fun to explore. Guats are consistent and your right about the flavor notes, but it’s rare that one knocks our socks off.

      For beginners, Central America is not the region I would most focus on to start, at least from the perspective of being able to identify the origin. Definitely not as distinct as Ethiopia or Indonesia. Just my two cents!

  5. Norron Lee March 29, 2019 at 3:55 pm #

    What, if any bearing does coffee bean roasting have on the final flavoring?

    I am attending a Coffee EXPO and want to know more about Ethiopian vs Kenyan coffees.

    • Jeff Borack May 9, 2019 at 7:43 pm #

      Hi Norron, coffee roasting has a huge impact! Even the difference between beans roasted roughly the same amount can be dramatically different. Our tasting flights are a great way to experience those differences, and we also have a Roaster Competition where you can try the same coffee roasted by four different roasters. Customers vote on their favorites, and the best roaster makes it to the next round of the competition. They’re available throughout the year. Sign up for our email newsletter to be the first to know when they’re released: https://mailchi.mp/angelscup/email

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