The Bean Belt: Where Coffee Grows

In coffee, as in real estate, the three most important things are location, location, location.

A sack of delicious coffee beans.
Photo by James Worrell
A sack of delicious coffee beans.

Plants of the genus Coffea like warm days and cool nights, high humidity and high altitude (roughly 3,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level). Where do all those requirements come together? In a belt around the equator that extends as far north as Mexico and India and as far south as Bolivia, southern Brazil and Madagascar.

Botanically, coffee plants are evergreen shrubs. At altitudes above about 6,000 feet, colder temperatures stunt the plant’s growth and increase the risk of frost damage. Below 3,000 feet, the plant grows too fast. At either extreme, says Adam Bossie, CEO of Coffee Afficionado, “the coffee is going to have an underdeveloped character.”

The Coffee Belt produces and sells nearly 20 billion pounds of coffee a year, according to the International Coffee Organization. Beans are universally shipped in 60-kilogram (132-pound) burlap sacks. Virtually all of the beans brewed in the United States are one of two species: Arabica or Robusta.

Below are the top 10 coffee-exporting nations of 2014, with their annual exports and comments on flavor and style by Greg Lewis, a 30-year industry veteran who owns Fair Mountain Coffee in Atlantic Highlands.

1. Brazil, 45 million bags

Brazil’s (mostly Arabica) beans, have a “delicate but rich” taste, Lewis says, with “slightly sweet undertones.”

2. Vietnam, 27.5 million bags
While Vietnam exports more Robusta than Arabica, its arabica beans typically have “low acidity, with nutty and chocolatey undertones.”

3. Colombia, 12.5 million bags
Colombia’s all-Arabica crop is “full-bodied” with “rich acidity and nice fruitiness.”

4. Indonesia, 9 million bags
Arabica and Robusta beans from the islands of Indonesia (which include coffee-famed Java and Sumatra) have a “very distinct, deep flavor” with a “slight spiciness and syrupy” taste. Indonesian coffees are generally full-bodied.

5. Ethiopia, 6.6 million bags
Ethiopia’s all-Arabica crop produces a medium-to light-bodied coffee with “overwhelming floral notes” a “soft acidity” and hints of lemon.

6. India. 5.7 million bags
Lewis terms India’s Arabica, the smaller part of its crop, compared to Robusta, as “pleasant, low keyed, sweet,” with chocolate and floral undertones.

7. Honduras, 4.7 million bags
“Not an overwhelming coffee” says Lewis of Honduras’s all-Arabica crop. “But the best can be sweet, low keyed and full-bodied.”

8. Mexico, 4 million bags
“Brisk,” with a gentle acidity, Mexico’s all-Arabica beans have a delicate flavor that works well in blends. Those grown at higher elevations have “more complex and brighter flavors.”

9. Uganda, 4 million bags
Uganda grows more Robusta than Arabica, the latter “exhibiting berry, chocolatey and slightly spicy” flavors.

10. Guatemala, 3.5 million bags
The crop (more Arabica than Robusta) is known for “complex” flavors with “rich acidity” and spiciness that makes for a medium- to full-bodied drink.

Arabica or Robusta?
Of the hundreds of species of Coffea, only two figure strongly in the coffee we drink: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica, you might say, is the elegant belle of the ball, while Robusta is, well, more robust, at least in terms of its caffeine content. While Coffee Afficionado’s Adam Bossie allows that “great Robustas do exist,” he says they often produce a “rubbery” taste. To get the picture, all you have to do is compare amounts: About 65 to 70 percent of all coffee beans grown and traded are Arabica.

Yet don’t count out Robusta. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that world production of arabica will decline while Robusta production will rise, not only because it packs about 30 percent more caffeine, but because it is easier to grow and resists leaf rust, a disease that takes a large toll on Arabica plants. Bossie notes that the Robusta plant, which can do well at lower altitudes, is basically “the weed of coffee…They grow on their own.”

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