Coffees from the opposite, southern slopes of the central mountain range, in Oaxaca State, are also highly regarded, and marketed under the names Oaxaca or Oaxaca Pluma. Coffees from Chiapas State are grown in the mountains of the southeastern-most corner of Mexico, near the border with Guatemala. The market name traditionally associated with these coffees is Tapachula, from the city of that name. Most Mexican coffees currently in specialty stores appear to come from either Oaxaca or Chiapas.
But the fine coffees of Mexico are a different matter. They are not among the world's greatest coffees, because they often lack richness and body, but at their best they are analogous to a good light white wine delicate in body, with a pleasantly dry, acidy snap. If you drink your coffee black and like a light, acidy cup, you will like the best Mexican coffees.
Guatemala; Antigua, Coban, Huehuetenango
The central highlands of Guatemala produce some of the world's best and most distinctively flavored coffees. The most famous regional market names are Antigua, from the countryside west of the old capital of Guatemala; Coban, from Alta Verapaz, a district a hundred or so miles northeast of Antigua; and the less celebrated Huehuetenango, from a district about a hundred miles northwest of the old capital. The Antigua coffees are most famous, but some specialty roasters feel that they have become inconsistent owing to the complacency of many of their producers, and prefer the similar but lesser-known coffees of Huehuetenango. Some shops may advertise their Guatemalan coffees by grade; the highest grades are strictly hard bean, indicating coffees grown at altitudes of 4,500 feet or higher, and hard bean, indicating those grown between 4,000 and 4,500 feet. Well-known Guatemalan estates include San Miguel, Capitillo, San Sebastian, and Los Volcanos.
The best Guatemalan coffees have a very distinct, spicy or, better yet, smoky flavor that sets them apart from all other coffees. They are very acidy, and the spiciness or smokiness comes across as a twist to the acidy tones. The finest Guatemalan coffees are medium to full in body and rich in flavor. You will like Guatemalan coffees if you like their smoky, distinctive flavor and fairly rich cup.
Although the recent misfortunes in El Salvador have presented many opportunities for stirring journalism, coffee from this country poses a contrasting problem for writers of coffee brochures: They don't know what to say about it. The general consensus is that El Salvadoran coffee has a flavor somewhere between neutral and mild. One brochure calls it slightly sweet, which is about the most positive comment I've heard about it. I'd say El Salvadoran coffee has decent body but rather ordinary flavor. The best grade is labeled strictly high grown.
For several years in the 1980s, Nicaraguan coffee was not imported into the United States because of the political differences between the U.S. and Nicaraguan governments. It is now widely available again.
Nicaraguan coffee presents still another challenge for coffee describers. One brochure tells us it's like the coffees of Mexico, but different. In general, I find it as middle-of-the-road as El Salvadoran: decent, straightforward flavor, fairly acidy, with medium to light body. Jinotega and Matagalpa produce the best-known Nicaraguan coffees.
Costa Rica; Tarrazu, Tres Rios, Heredia, Alajuela
Costa Rican is a classically complete coffee; it has everything and lacks nothing. The best displays an exceptionally full body and robust richness. Good Mexican coffees are brisk; good Costa Rican coffees are hearty.
Costa Rican coffee is grown primarily in the countryside surrounding the capital, San Jose. Four of the most famous coffees by district are San Marcos de Tarrazu, Tres Rios, Heredia, and Alajuela. Altitude may be a more important factor in determining flavor than district; strictly hard bean indicates a Costa Rican coffee grown above 3,900 feet; good hard bean from 3,300 to 3,900. Unlike many coffees of the world, Costa Rican growths generally are identified either by the estate or farm (finca) on which they were grown, or by cooperative or processing facility (beneficio) where they were processed. This piece of information, which is usually available to the roaster or importer, is seldom passed on to the consumer except in the case of well-known estates like Bella Vista or La Minita.
But again, it's better not to become too absorbed in names and labels. If the coffee you taste is rich and hearty, analogous to a good burgundy, and you like it, it is a good Costa Rican coffee.
Jamaica; Blue Mountain, High Mountain
Jamaican coffee is a story of extremes: The lowland coffees of Jamaica are so ordinary that they are seldom sold in the United States except as fillers for cheap blends. On the other hand, the highland coffees traditionally rank among the world's most distinguished, and Jamaican Blue Mountain, however one defines that name, is the world's most celebrated, most expensive, and most controversial coffee.
Some years ago it was not entirely clear whether any high-quality coffee from the Blue Mountain district of Jamaica was entitled to be marketed as Jamaican Blue Mountain, or whether the name properly applies only to coffees grown on a single plantation, the Wallensford Estate. Today, responsible roasters designate estate-produced coffees grown at over 3,000 feet in the Blue Mountain district of Jamaica as authentic Blue Mountain. Most will be either Wallensford (best) or Silver Hill Estate Mountain. If you want to know where a store's Blue Mountain comes from, you can always ask. Jamaican High Mountain usually describes a somewhat lesser coffee than Blue Mountain, grown at lower altitudes in other parts of the island.
The Jamaican situation has been complicated by the many people who, in one way or another, are attempting to profit from the extraordinary prices demanded for Blue Mountain. In particular, other plantation owners in the high mountains of Jamaica are trying to produce a coffee that will ride on the coattails of the original into the pocketbooks and onto the palates of the Americans and Japanese. These entrepreneurs appear honest and well meaning; less admirable, however, are the American roasters who market a "Blue Mountain Style" coffee that has the taste characteristics of Blue Mountain, but may not contain a single bean of actual Blue Mountain.
Today it appears that either Wallensford Blue Mountain has greatly fallen off in quality, or we are drinking something else in a Wallensford Blue Mountain barrel. The original Wallensford coffee from fifteen years ago was an understated masterpiece, a quintessentially classic coffee with enough of everything: rich flavor and aroma, full body and moderate acidity in perfect, subtle balance. The Blue Mountain coffees shipped today retain the body and richness, but lack the acidity; they are smooth, well-bodied, moderately rich coffees deserving to be drunk, but not to be carried on about.
And even if the real thing appeared in the stores tomorrow, would it be worth the prices currently being asked? I would say probably not. Blue Mountain was a great coffee, and some of it may still be great, but at this point it appears to represent still another minor chapter in the long history of vanity, snobbery, and the sacrifice of substance to pretense.
Dominican Republic; Santo Domingo
Coffee from the Dominican Republic is often called Santo Domingan, after the country's former name. Coffee is grown on both slopes of the mountain range that runs on an east-west axis down the center of the island. The four main market names are Cibao, Bani, Ocoa, and Barahona. All are well prepared, washed coffees. The last three names have the best reputation. Bani makes a soft, mellow cup much like Haiti; Barahona a more acidy and heavier-bodied cup, closer to Jamaican High Mountain in quality and characteristics.
Owing to continuing internal political problems, Haitian coffees are difficult to find. The best of many grades is strictly high-grown washed; second best is high-grown washed. Haiti's heavy rainfall and deep volcanic soil combined with low growing altitudes may account for the mellow sweetness that distinguishes the best Haitian coffee. It has fair body and acidity to go with the pleasantly soft, rich flavor.
The Colombian coffee industry is the giant of the fine, mild, coffee-producing countries of the world. Although it ranks second to Brazil with about 12 percent of the world's total coffee production compared with Brazil's 30 to 35 percent most of Colombia's 12 percent is excellent coffee, grown at high altitudes on small peasant holdings, carefully picked, and wet-processed.
Central Colombia is trisected from north to south by three cordilleras, or mountain ranges. The central and eastern cordilleras produce the best coffees. The principal coffees of the central cordillera are Medellin, Armenia, and Manizales, all named for the towns or cities through which they are marketed. Medellin, the most famous coffee of the three, is known for heavy body, rich flavor, and fine, balanced acidity; Manizales and Armenia are, in general, thinner in body and less acidy. For the purposes of large-scale marketing in the United States, these three coffees are often grouped together as MAM, an acronym for Medellin-Armenia-Manizales. If your coffee seller is not clear about the precise provenance of a Colombian coffee, it was probably sold as MAM, which means it could be any of the three.
The two most famous coffees of the eastern cordillera are Bogota, from the region surrounding Colombia's capital city, and Bucaramanga, marketed through the town of the same name. Bogota, considered one of the finest coffees grown in Columbia, is less acidy than Medellin, but equally rich and flavorful. Bucaramanga is a soft-bean coffee, with some of the character of fine Sumatran coffees: heavy body, low acidity, and rich flavor tones.
The highest grade of Colombian coffee is supremo. Again, to simplify matters for commercial coffee buyers, the Colombians combine two grades of coffee supremo and the second best, or extra into one more comprehensive grade, excelso.
In recent years, Colombia has been replacing the older strains of arabica with newer, faster-growing and heavier-bearing strains. These new trees generally produce a rounder, flatter bean, which many roasters and importers feel is inferior to the classic Colombian coffees from the older trees. Although tasting against memory is tricky, I would tend to agree.
Nevertheless, Colombian coffee at its finest is, like Costa Rican or the best Kona, a classic. No quality is extreme. This coffee is generally full-bodied, but not so full-bodied as a Sumatran; acidy, but not nearly so acidy as an Ethiopian or Kenyan; richly flavored, but not quite so rich as a Sumatran or the best high-mountain Jamaican. The best Colombians even have a slight winey tone reminiscent of African coffees, but these winey tones are elusive and never dominate.
At one time, Venezuela ranked close to Colombia in coffee production, but in the 1960s and 70s, as petroleum turned Venezuela into the richest country in South America, coffee was relegated to the economic back burner. Today Venezuela produces less than one percent of the world's coffee, and most of it is drunk by the Venezuelans themselves. Now that petroleum has failed to bring lasting prosperity, the Venezuelan government is attempting to promote coffee growing and exporting again as a means of diversifying and stabilizing its economy.
The best Venezuelan coffee comes from the far western corner of the country, the part that borders Colombia. Coffees from this area are called Maracaibos, after the port through which they are shipped, and include one coffee, Cucuta, that is actually grown in Colombia, but is shipped through Maracaibo. Coffees from the coastal mountains farther east are generally marked Caracas, after the capital city, and are shipped through La Guaira, the port of Caracas.
The best-known Maracaibo coffees, in addition to Cucuta, are Merida, Trujillo, and Tachira. Merida is the most distinctively Venezuelan and most likely to be found in specialty stores in the United States. Trujillo is rather lifeless, only a step above the cheap Brazilian coffees. Tachira and Cucuta are a group in themselves, since their rich acidity makes them resemble Colombian coffees. Regardless of market name, the best grade is Lavado Fino.
The most characteristic Venezuelan coffees, in surprising contrast to the neighbor coffees from Colombia, are strikingly low in acidity. At worst they are spiritless, at best sweet and delicate. The finest, such as the Meridas, have fair to good body and an unemphatic but pleasant flavor with hints of richness. Venezuelan, if you can find it, is a good coffee to balance sharply acid coffees in blends and a comfortable coffee drunk straight.
Ecuador produces substantial amounts of coffee, but little seems to appear in specialty stores in the United States. This is another pleasant but unremarkable coffee in the Latin American style, with thin to medium body and occasional sharp acidity.
Generally a mildly acid coffee, light-bodied but flavorful and aromatic, Peruvian generally resembles the coffees of Mexico. Like Mexican, it is considered a "good blender" owing to its pleasant but understated character. Peruvian also is often used in dark roasts and as a base for flavored coffees. Wet-processed coffee from the Chanchamayo Valley, about 200 miles east of Lima in the high Andes, has the best reputation of the Peruvian coffees. The Cuzco region, particularly the Urubamba Valley, also produces a respected washed coffee, and some good certified organic coffees from Northern Peru are now appearing in specialty-coffee stores.
Brazil; Bourbon Santos
When not suffering catastrophic frosts, Brazil produces 30 to 35 percent of the world's coffee. Vast plantations of millions of trees cover the hills of south-central Brazil. For the commercial coffee industry, Brazil is of supreme importance, a giant in every respect, but for the specialty-coffee trade, it shrinks to something smaller than El Salvador. Despite all the coffee produced in Brazil, none ranks close to the world's best. The Brazilian coffee industry has concentrated from the beginning on producing "price" coffees: cheap, fairly palatable, but hardly distinguished.
Of the many market names for Brazilian coffee, only one, Santos, is of importance for the specialty-coffee trade. Another, Rio, is significant mainly because it lends its name to a peculiar medicinal flavor that coffee people call Rioy.
Santos coffees are grown mainly in the state of Sao Paulo. In the nineteenth century, the harsh flavor of Rio coffee competed for popularity with the mild Santos. Much of the famous New Orleans coffee was Rio coffee, with chicory added, and some coffees dark-roasted in the United States today for the Latin taste may still include Rio coffee. This is because Latins, who drank the cheap, Rioy-tasting natural coffees at home while the more expensive, washed milds were being sold to the United States, may still crave a bit of the old home-country harshness in their dark-roast blends.
Santos coffee, named for one of the principal ports through which it is shipped, comes mainly from the original Bourbon strain of Coffea arabica brought to Brazil in the eighteenth century from the island of Bourbon, now Reunion. For the first three or four years these trees produce a small, curly bean that coffee people call Bourbon Santos. This is the highest-grade coffee Brazil produces, and it will more than likely be the coffee a store sells as Brazilian. After three or four years, the beans begin to grow larger and flat; this coffee is called Flat Bean Santos and is cheaper and less desirable than Bourbon Santos. Bandeirante is a particularly good and consistent Brazilian estate-grown coffee that appears frequently on specialty coffee lists.
Bourbon Santos is smooth in flavor, medium in body, with moderate acidity in short, another decent but hardly extraordinary coffee. Since it generally sells for about the same as more distinguished, unusual coffees, I see little reason to buy it except gourmet curiosity. The cheaper Brazilian coffees are occasionally for sale in specialty stores, presumably to be used by consumers to save money in their private blends.