Central America is incredibly diverse and is home to some of the world’s most beloved coffees. In fact, many of our best-selling beans, and some of my personal favorites, come from Central American. The region of Central America extends from Mexico to Panama and is the heart of the equatorial zone. It is often referred to as the “Bean Belt” because of its nearly perfect growing environment. Due to its close proximity to the United States, the coffee beans you commonly find in the grocery stores or coffee shops are produced in Central America. Unlike many other types of coffee, “Centrals” (as they are sometimes called) have the unique ability to be fantastic single-origins beans while also being complimentary additions in most blends.
So, how did coffee find its way to Central America, and what makes their beans so special?
History & Growing Environment
The countries that make up the Central American “Bean Belt” are Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. You probably recognize, and perhaps have tasted, most of these countries on our website. The origin story of Central American coffee began in the early eighteenth century when a coffee plant was gifted to the King of France in 1714. This “grandparent” coffee plant grew successfully, and in 1723, a fellow plant sailed from France to the island of Martinique. The art of coffee planting and drinking exploded in the Caribbean, and crops spread across various islands around the West Indies. 50 years later, coffee finally found a new home in Central America for commercial growth, and soon become a significant export. Even though we offer coffees from several Central American countries, we will only be examining our most popular regions.
Costa Rica was the first country to begin the coffee industry. After gaining independence from Spain, the coffee production in Costa Rica grew swiftly, increasing their economy and boosting their innovation. Many of the machines used for coffee milling were invented or enhanced in Costa Rica. Most of the coffee grown in Costa Rica was exported to South America. It was not until 1843 that a sea captain convinced Costa Rican farmers to sell their coffee to England, and subsequently, London became their primary export until the 1930s. As a result of Costa Rica’s diverse terrain, many different regions offer far-ranging flavor profiles. Their high elevations, fertile volcanic soil, and mild temperatures provide the ideal environment for harvesting coffee. Fun fact, Costa Rica is responsible for developing the honey process. It is also the only nation in the world to ban all other varieties of beans except Arabica. Not only are they producing coffee en masse, but they also provide some of the most exceptional coffee in the world.
In 1840, Central America started producing coffee for the United States. This is the same year that coffee became a commercially grown crop in El Salvador. Although El Salvador is a small country, its coffee industry increased dramatically as the worldwide need for their other main crop, indigo, depreciated. By 1900, coffee production and exports surpassed indigo, and coffee producers became the head of the wealthy, ruling class. The profits gained immensely improved their society. It initiated the development of infrastructure and unified the indigenous communities with the national economy. There is no other country in Central America that has relied so heavily on coffee to determine the success or failure of their financial state. El Salvador is known for its cultivation of specialty coffee, and 80% of their coffee plants are grown under shade. The majority of El Salvadoran coffee is washed, with honey processing close behind. Cupping methods vary depending on the region of the country, varietal grown, and the processing method. I have offered El Salvadoran coffees for a while now, and have established a close relationship with a producer from the Loma la Gloria farm.
Guatemala’s coffee industry began in 1850 with the helpful kickstart of European investments. Like El Salvador, indigo was their primary crop before coffee. The switch was made by the government when the emergence of synthetic dyes ruined indigo sales. The government fueled Guatemala’s coffee production by distributing millions of seeds to local farmers. Their plan worked, and in 1875, coffee harvesting blew up dramatically. Guatemala excels in their coffee production because they have supplementary water and volcanic soil, even more so than their neighboring countries. The climate in Guatemala is one of the most diverse in the world, and the coffee they cultivate is just as varied. Although Guatemala experienced a civil war that lasted over 30 years and effected their coffee production, they have been able to rebuild and thrive faster than many other Central American regions.
Honduras is currently the largest coffee producer in Central America, closely surpassing Guatemala by 5,000 metric tons. We do not know for sure when coffee was first introduced, but it is safe to assume it arrived in the late 1700s, similar to the surrounding countries. The coffee crops were initially second to bananas, but by 2001, coffee production increased and became their primary crop. Due to Honduras’ late blossoming and lack of infrastructure, it was challenging at first to produce high-quality coffee. An institute established in 1970 called the Instituto Hondureño del Café improved its quality by using coffee-tasting laboratories to assist local farmers. Honduras’ high growing elevations and increased investments in coffee growth allow for organic coffee to be easily accessed. In fact, most of our limited, certified organic coffees come from Honduras.
Coffee Characteristics & Flavor Profile
The region of Central America is vast and diverse, and the beans’ flavors and nuances will vary depending on where they are grown. For example, coffee from Guatemala and Costa Rica tends to fall in the chocolate spectrum. In contrast, coffees from El Salvador and Panama have more red-fruit driven flavor like plums or wine. Coffee grown in Central America, especially in Costa Rica and Guatemala, is rated by elevation with the highest altitudes receiving the best ratings. These high-altitude coffees are graded as “Strictly Hard Beans” (SHB). SHB graded coffees are denser than low-elevated coffees with very rich flavors, floral acidities, and full bodies. As farmers experiment with different coffee varieties and process methods, we (the roasters) discover more differentiation among Central American beans, even ones from the same country. This can make it challenging to describe a homogenized flavor profile for each region. In general, the words most commonly used to describe “Centrals” are bright, balanced, and clean.
While the coffee in Central America has similar characteristics like moderate to high acidity, pleasant mouthfeel, and fruity tones, there is still a divergence of flavor among the countries. Their unpredictability creates an exciting experience for the roaster and consumer. I never know what I am going to get when new “Centrals” make their way in the shop. I highly encourage you to check out our selection of Central American beans so you can discover their unique and notable taste!