The Difference Between South American and African Coffee

 

Growing up I thought that all coffee was the same. I didn’t know a lot about how you even got coffee. I knew it was bitter and had caffeine. And I was told it would stunt my growth. I was also told that the best coffee came from Colombia. Now, I love coffee from Colombia but have since discovered that there are a lot of other countries that offer pretty amazing coffee as well. There’s a term for knowing the regions that are primed for great coffee. It’s the Coffee Belt. If you read our Coffee 101 blog, you’ll see exactly where the coffee belt is. But it’s not enough to be in the coffee belt. The elevation must also be high, the climate must be perfect, the soil must be fertile, the process must be meticulous, and shipping must be done right and timely. 

As the specialty coffee industry has grown many myths have been debunked. As people’s knowledge of coffee has grown, the differences in coffee have risen to the top of people’s minds. Coffee isn’t what it used to be. It’s so much more. And now that single-origin has really picked up steam, the differences in coffee are highlighted even more. Not all coffee is the same. Why have we believed for so long that coffee was bitter, bad for you, and the same no matter where you were? I think as coffee chains sprung and people flocked for their cup of coffee from the same chain in different locations, owners felt the need to provide the same taste regardless of location. You just can’t do that to coffee. Coffee comes from all over the world, making it taste the same by over-roasting is really a crime against coffee not to mention it deprives the coffee drinker of so many flavors. Coffee is a plant that grows in a cherry with prime seasonal harvest times. It’s like growing apples and buying from a store. Sometimes you get delicious apples and sometimes you get apples that are just okay. So much of the fruit harvest depends on the soil, climate, amount of rain, and more. Coffee is no different. It is possible to have the best cup of coffee you ever tasted, buy the same coffee from the same farm a year later and the coffee may be different, maybe it’s even better. Coffee is now an even greater experience. It’s been enhanced by the differences from region to region. 

We’ve established that there is a difference in flavor based on region. But why is that? Is a region the only reason why coffee tastes different when it comes from Africa, Latin America, or South America? What are the possible reasons? 

  1. Is it the varietal?  

First of all, what is a varietal? The varietal is foundationally the coffee plant, but each variety has a slight difference in genetic make-up due to generations of development in different surroundings. Varietals may share some characteristics and may have some effect on the flavor, but different nutrients in the soil, growing practices, harvesting, and processing practices may also impact flavor. Some varietals are stronger than others. Some are more susceptible to disease. When farmers get the seedlings, they start with the varietal. There’s more than just the varietal that may affect the flavor, but that’s one of the reasons we chose to write this blog? How much does the varietal impact flavor? I would imagine the varietal has a big impact. You can’t get high-quality coffee from a low-quality varietal. 

Names of varietals are Bourbon, Caturra, Ethiopian Heirloom, Geisha, Pacamara, SL 28, Typica. SL 28 is among the most well-known varietal native Kenya. It was first used in Africa but now is also used in Latin America. Related to the Bourbon varietal. Commonly found in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Identifying the exact varietal can be difficult in parts of Ethiopia so they are referred to with a catch-all term of Heirloom. Generally, they are fruity and floral but can vary from region to region. While the traceability of Ethiopian coffee has improved greatly, there’s still more work to be done. 

For example, farmers in Ethiopia may bring their cherries to washing stations where they may be mixed and processed together. Since coffee from different farms may be mixed, it’s hard to trace the exact plant so it’s given the term “Heirloom”. If you look at our tasting profile and see the number 74158 and wonder what it means, it means it’s an heirloom from Ethiopia. 

  1. Is it the elevation? 

Most arabica beans are grown in similarly high elevations with some differences. Kenyan coffee is often grown and processed at lower levels so elevation isn't always an indication of quality. They process coffee so well, that a lower elevation doesn’t appear to impact them negatively. Don’t let elevation alone be the deciding factor in selecting coffee. Yes, higher elevations produce excellent coffee, but maybe good farming practices, climate, or rainfall can make up some of the difference for farmers in lower elevations. 

  1. Is it the climate, soil, or rainfall?

The climate in the coffee belt is pretty similar to some drier areas. I was surprised to find out that rainfall in Africa was somewhat similar to rainfall in some parts of South America. Maybe it’s another misconception I hadn’t really thought about. I always assumed Africa was drier and so it made sense that more African coffee is a dry-processed coffee. But when you do a side-by-side comparison, the rain amount isn’t drastically different. If you look at Kenya, they get less rainfall but still do a wet process. All this to say, climate doesn’t seem to be the main reason for differences in flavor. 

Something that appears to be common in regions is volcanic soil. Soils in different regions will have different nutrients. If you look at the East African Rift, there’s a series of volcanoes that run from Ethiopia, through Kenya, and all the way to Tanzania. Some of the best African coffees come from these regions where there has been volcanic activity. I have no way of knowing the difference in the volcanic soil from Africa and South America, and even if I found out, I’m not sure I could decipher what it all meant. All I know is that volcanic soil is awesome for growing coffee and when I decide to get a degree in chemistry, horticulture, and botany maybe I’ll understand why it’s so fertile. For now, I’ll leave it as volcanic soil is awesome for growing coffee. There isn’t much monitoring in Africa for volcanic activity so some of it is a mystery. 

  1. Is it the processing? 

Processing methods have also really expanded in the last 10 years or so. For a long time, it was just wet or dry also known as natural. Now there’s the honey process, hydro honey, fermented processing. If you would like more details about different coffee processes, check out our blog on hydro-honey. There’s a brief summary of coffee processes and how hydro-honey blends processes. There are so many variables when it comes to processing that it's hard to come to a specific conclusion. 

  1. Is it the roast? 

There is a sweet spot when it comes to roast levels and it’s different for every region and sometimes even every batch. If you’re a home roaster, you know the difference in how long it takes to hear that first crack. Not only that but there is a recommended roast level depending on the region and flavor notes. Between the processing method and roast level, those are probably the two stages that have the most impact when it comes to flavor. At Sagebrush we roast to the level that highlights the difference in flavors.

Now that we know some of the different elements that might contribute to the difference in flavor, let’s consider two continents and pick out similarities and differences to determine which one we like the best and why? 

Coffee 

Ethiopia Grade 1 Keramo Village Gold Label 

Kenya Murang’a Kamagogo AB Gold Label 

Colombia Inza las Estrellas  

Gold Label 

 

Brazil Cachoeira da Grama Peaberry 

Elevation 

2260m-2360m 

 

1700m 

 

14500-2000m 

 

950-1150m 

 

Yearly Rainfall 

40-87 inches 

10-20 inches 

High humidity 

40-70 inches 

80-120 inches 

Varietal 

74158 

SL 28 

Caturra, typica, modern hybrids 

Canario, Mondo non Yellow Bourbon 

Flavor Notes 

Cocoa, Blackberries, dried apricot 

Tart apples, grapefruit, rich cocoa 

Honeycrisp apple, cranberry, sugar in the raw 

Milk Chocolate, Almond 

Region 

Sidama, Bensa, Keramo Village 

Murang’a 

San Antonio, Inza, Cauca 

Rainfall avg 35 inches a year 

South America 

Process 

Dry 

Wet 

Wet 

Dry 

Roast level 

City 

City Plus 

Full city 

City Plus 

 

It’s hard for me to approach tasting coffee from a neutral starting point. I’ve been roasting long enough that I know what I like. I like Central American coffee more than coffee from any other region. I like coffee that can be roasted darker because I like the fuller caramel-like flavor over the fruity or floral flavor notes. When I taste coffee that has a lot of fruity notes to it, I have to be honest, I turn my nose up at it a little because I’m not a fan of too much brightness in my coffee. 

If you have followed the story of Sagebrush, you know we opened up a coffee shop in July. Since it had been a while since I had tasted coffee from Africa and South America, I decided I would try what we were serving on our pour-over bar. We had an Ethiopian and a Colombian. The Colombian was a little brighter than I expected. Overall I was surprised at how they could be similar and different at the same time. The brightness and fruitiness, while present in both, were different. After tasting and comparing, I found that I liked the Colombian better, and even though the Ethiopian was brighter than I like, I still enjoyed the cup of coffee and have learned to appreciate the different flavors of different regions. Now I can’t drink a cup of coffee without thinking about the work it took for farmers to plant it, cultivate it, process it, and ship it. And the difference in flavors represents the difference in the soils, climates, elevations and so much more. It doesn’t and shouldn’t taste the same. 

So after reading and researching, I have concluded that while varietal is important because if you don’t have a high-quality seed, you can’t have high-quality coffee, it’s not the only factor for great tasting coffee. If you compare elevations, rainfall, climate, the little we know about soil, I think what factors in the most for flavor is processing and roast level. There is a distinct difference between, wet, dry, honey, hydro-honey, and fermented coffee. We only compared a few for this blog, but in all the time I’ve been roasting, drinking, and comparing coffee I’ve noticed the biggest factor for flavor is the process and overall region. South American coffee will be different from African varieties, but not as different from Central American coffee. There are instances where South American coffees can have similar fruity tasting notes as African coffees but they will still be more like Central American coffee. 

There is so much more we know now about coffee than we did 20 years ago that we can all make more informed decisions about why one coffee tastes better than another. Personal preference is always the best way to pick your favorite. Whether you roast at home or buy roasted coffee, what is your favorite?