Coffee By Country
About 80 percent of India's coffee is grown in the southern state of Karnataka, and is often sold as Mysore, after the former name of that state. At its best, Indian Mysore is a lesser version of the Indonesian coffees: rich, sweet, and full-bodied. At its worst, it is heavy and lifeless.
Monsooned Mysore coffees have been exposed for several weeks to the moist winds of the monsoon, which yellows the bean and reduces the acidity, imparting a heavy, syrupy flatness reminiscent of aged coffees. Monsooned coffees are considered a delicacy by many, perhaps because of the romance of the name and the process. They strike me as mainly useful in blends to mellow and give richness to rougher, more acidy coffees. The best monsooned coffee is called Monsooned Malabar.
Some of the most famous coffees of the world are grown on the gigantic islands of the Malay Archipelago: Sumatra, Sulawesi or Celebes, and Java in Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. Whereas Central American coffees are distinguished by their dry, winey aftertaste, the coffees of Indonesia and New Guinea are noted for their richness, full body, long finish, and an acidity that, though pronounced, is deep- toned, gentle, and enveloped in the complexity of the coffee. Many consider the Mandheling and Ankola coffees of Sumatra the world's finest. They are often hard to find, but still moderate in price. Of the two, Mandheling is the more admired, and the Lintong mark of Mandheling probably the most admired of all. Both Ankola and Mandheling are grown near the port of Padang in west-central Sumatra, at altitudes of 2,500 to 5,000 feet. Mandheling is probably the most full-bodied coffee in the world; you can feel the richness settling in the corners behind your tongue. It has a relatively low acidity, but enough to keep the cup vibrant and interesting. The flavor, like the body, is rich, smooth, and full.
These are dry-processed coffees, but the dried husk of the fruit is removed by washing in hot water, giving the coffee a more uniform appearance than is the case with many other dry-processed coffees. It may be that the unusual preparation of Sumatran and Sulawesi coffees, which combines prolonged contact of coffee bean with dried fruit characteristic of the dry method, and the meticulous cleaning and sorting usually associated with the wet method, contributes to the unique flavor characteristics of these fine coffees.
Sulawesi or Celebes; Toraja
The island of Sulawesi, formerly Celebes, spreads like a four-fingered hand in the middle of the Malay Archipelago. The Celebes coffee most likely to be found in specialty stores today is Toraja, from the mountainous area near the center of the island, in the palm of that hand. Celebes Toraja is a splendid coffee very similar to the best Sumatran coffees, though perhaps a little less rich and full-bodied, and a bit more acidy and vibrant in the upper tones. Like Sumatran, it is arguably one of the world's finest coffees.
The Dutch planted the first arabica trees in Java early in coffee history, and before the rust disease virtually wiped out the industry, Java led the world in coffee production. Most of this early acreage has been replaced by disease-resistant robusta, but, under the sponsorship of the Indonesian government, arabica has made a modest comeback on several of the old estates originally established by the Dutch.
Java, like New Guinea, shares the low-toned richness of the other Indonesian and New Guinea coffees, but tends to be more obviously acidy, a bit lighter in body, and quicker to finish. Lurking in the acidity is a slight smoky or spicy twist.
Of the revived "old" estates that provide most of the good Java arabica, Djampit is the most likely source of the Java coffee in your specialty store.
Coffee labeled New Guinea usually comes from Papua New Guinea, which occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea. These coffees are grown in peasant patches and small plantations throughout the rugged mountain highlands. The best New Guinea coffee is estate- or plantation-grown. In general, New Guinea is a low-key version of the great Indonesian coffees: not as full-bodied as the best Sumatra, less acidy and aromatic than the best Celebes, but a comfortably rich cup. Coffee marketed as Arona seems to be the currently preferred New Guinea coffee among specialty roasters.
Kona, on the southwest coast of Hawaii, the largest island of the Hawaiian chain, produces the most famous and the most traditional of Hawaiian coffees. Coffee has been grown in smaller quantities elsewhere on the islands since the early days of European settlement, but encouraged by the impending closure of sugar and pineapple plantations and the tourism-induced popularity of Hawaiian coffee, large commercial concerns now have established plantations on the islands of Kauai and Molokai. Similar efforts soon may follow on other islands.
The original Kona coffee was, and still is, grown on small farms above the Pacific on the lower slopes of Mauna Loa. The coffee trees are shaded by a cloud cover that appears regularly most afternoons (the famous "automatic shade"), just in time to protect them from the full devastation of the tropical sun.
In years past, the original Kona coffee appeared to be on the way to becoming a luxurious memory. A tourist-inflated economy, low coffee prices, and an aging population of grower-landowners appeared to be conspiring to doom the Kona coffee industry. In addition, local schools no longer timed their vacations to coincide with coffee-picking season. But that was before the coffee price hikes of 1977, before a flood of tourists began carrying the romance of Kona coffee back to their kitchens, and before a new generation of small, quality-oriented coffee producers appeared to consolidate and capitalize on the revival. That revival is now in full swing. Whether it has produced a better Kona coffee or simply more of it is still subject to debate, but the tourists are happy and the little coffee towns are humming again.
In the process Kona has become a bit pricey, perhaps too pricey when compared with some of the world's great and undervalued coffees, such as the best Sumatran, Guatemalan, and Kenyan. Furthermore, its cost has created an equivalent to the Jamaican Blue Mountain syndrome: We now have commercial roasters producing Kona style coffee, Kona blend coffee, and coffee vaguely labeled Kona that probably consists in large part of Central American beans. In 1991 most "Kona Blend" coffees sold in Hawaii contained at most 5 percent actual Kona. Proposed regulations up the minimum percentage required by law to 51 percent.
Regardless of the hucksterism surrounding it, Kona is a unique and valuable American phenomenon, and at its most authentic is medium-bodied, fairly acidy, with some subtle winey tones, very richly flavored, and overwhelmingly aromatic when fresh. If you like to tantalize yourself with coffee fragrance before you drink, or find Indonesian coffees too rich, African coffees too winey, and Central and South American coffees too sharp, Kona may be the coffee for you.
The best grade is extra fancy, followed by fancy and number one grades. There are many excellent small estates in the Kona district; generally the coffee they produce is both better and more interesting than the Kona coffees that are pooled and sold generically.