Interpreting the Info on your Coffee Bag (Part One - Country + Region)

March 01, 2019

What can country + region tell me about my coffee?


Have you ever picked up a coffee bag and wondered:

What does “Honey Process” mean?

What the heck is “Typica” and “Bourbon?”

Why do I need to know the “Roast Date?”

If so, don’t worry - you’re not alone.  A small but growing number coffee drinkers specifically look for detailed coffee information to help decide which coffee to choose. The information can provide some clues about the taste of the coffee, if it was sourced ethically, or when its at its peak flavor. It can also be distracting and confusing. Here’s what you might see on a bag, what it means, and why you might care.

Country + Region

Okay. An easy one to start out with. The country + region information tells you the geographical location of the plants that produced the coffee beans. You will probably recognize the country name, but perhaps not the region. Region is often the headline on the coffee bag, and is often a foreign language term.

Country + Region is often described as the coffee’s origin. Think of this information as describing the birthplace or residence of the coffee, not its ethnicity. So a coffee plant seedling dug up from Ethiopia and planted in Guatemala would produce coffee labeled as “Guatemala.” (This is a silly example, but meant to illustrate a point.)

A coffee’s origin can give you some clues to what it tastes like. Certain regions are known for specific coffee characteristics, so you may be able to infer something about the coffee’s flavor or body from the country or country and region alone. Sometimes, even the region doesn’t have a specific characteristic, as they may produce a large variety of coffees, so this information is less telling.

For example, coffees from Indonesia tend to taste more similar across the board, with low acidity, high body, and a spicy character. This is due in part to a method of processing distinctive to the country, although the practice or results are not universal.

Ethiopia - the birthplace of coffee - is known for a diversity of flavors. Coffees from Ethiopia’s Yirgacheffe region are known for tea-like citrus flavor. A naturally-processed coffee from Ethiopia’s Harrar region may taste strongly of blueberries, or of earth (pretty different flavors).

These country- and region-based similarities can result from commonalities in processing techniques, soil, altitude, and other environmental characteristics, types of coffee plants indigenous to or well-suited for the area, to name a few. Different locations have different growing seasons as well, so fresh coffee from a given country + region may only be available during a seasonal window, such as May to July.    

Sometimes, Country is rolled up a level-higher into Continent of Origin, such as Africa, Central America, South America, or Asia. Although you may be able to make some general assumptions about the coffee’s taste from the continent, the variability from country to country and region to region makes these assumptions less reliable.

For a full discussion of coffee origin, I highly recommend “The World Atlas of Coffee” by James Hoffman. He covers much more in-depth information for each of the 29 coffee growing countries.

Country + region at a glance

What it is: Literally the location of the plants the produced the coffee beans.

Why you might care: Different countries and regions are known for certain taste characteristics, although a specific coffee may not necessarily show those characteristics.

Examples (in Country + Region format): Ethiopia Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia Harrar, Guatemala Huehuetenango, Mexico Oaxaca, Tanzania Ruvuma, you get the idea.

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