Until recently, I was like most coffee drinkers I know. I would toss the same brand of coffee into my grocery cart each week and rarely give it another thought. But once I started experimenting with different coffee varieties, I found myself taking a closer look at what I was buying. I was amazed to see that the coffee available to me came from so many different countries. And that, of course, got me wondering: Where is the best coffee grown?
Interestingly enough, the answer to this question isn’t just about geography. It’s also about the two predominant types of coffee beans harvested in the world, robusta and arabica. Only when we understand the differences between these two strains of coffee will we be able to formulate an educated answer.
Equatorial Growing Regions
Global coffee production has a restricted geography. Much of our planet is simply too cold for coffee to flourish. Coffee plants can withstand cold temperatures, but they cannot survive frost. The world’s coffee cultivation, therefore, takes place predominantly around the warmest center of our globe, the Equator.
When we look at a map highlighting the coffee-producing countries of the world, however, we realize that not all coffee is grown in areas without frost concerns. Of the over 70 countries that cultivate coffee, frost-proof areas closest to the equator have the advantage of growing coffee year round. Further from the equator, coffee is a summer-only crop.
Of course growing a tropical plant in a frost-prone region has its risks. A mild frost destroys the flowers that develop into the fruit containing the coffee beans (which are actually the seeds of the plant). This inhibits the harvest yields for a single season. A severe frost will kill the entire coffee plant, negatively impacting crop yields for years to come.
Thankfully for those of us who love our morning brew, coffee is a valuable enough commodity to be worth the agricultural risks.
Coffee Plant Basics
Coffee plants are woody, flowering, evergreen perennials, meaning each plant can thrive and flower for years. Left to flourish on their own, coffee plants can grow into tall trees ranging anywhere from 10 to 30 feet high. Cultivated coffee plants are typically pruned to shorter heights for easier harvesting.
It takes three to four years for each coffee plant to mature. Only then will the plant start producing the flowers which will develop into the fruit. The fruit of the coffee plant is edible and typically referred to as a “cherry” because it turns bright red when ripe. As noted above, what we call a coffee bean is actually the plant’s seed: it is the “pit” found in the middle of the coffee plant’s fruit.
Although there are several species of coffee plants, modern cultivation focuses on two varieties: robusta and arabica. These two types of coffee have interesting differences. Understanding what makes each of these coffees unique will help us better determine where the best coffee is grown.
The coffea canephora plant, commonly called coffea robusta, makes up about 30% of the world’s coffee production. Vietnam is the world leader in cultivating and exporting robusta, but it is also grown in India, Africa, and Brazil.
The robusta coffee plant is desirable because it is easy to care for and has high crop yields. This makes robusta cheaper to produce, and less expensive for the consumer.
Roasted robusta coffee beans brew up a strong, full-bodied cup of coffee with low acidity. And robusta coffee beans contain both a high level of caffeine and antioxidants.
So what’s the catch?
Robusta coffee is very bitter.
This limits its uses. Robusta is primarily used to make Italian espresso and instant coffee blends. It is also commonly combined with milder ground coffee as a filler.
Coffea arabica, also known more commonly as Arabian or mountain coffee, accounts for about 70% of the world’s production. Brazil is the top producer and exporter of this coffee bean. It is also grown in Indonesia, Hawaii, and eastern Africa.
Arabica coffee plants make for a more difficult crop than robusta. They are more sensitive to soil and climate conditions and more vulnerable to pests. The arabica plant is also slower to produce, more challenging to harvest, and provides a lower yield per plant than robusta.
So why does it dominate the coffee market?
Because the arabica bean produces a significantly less bitter, more flavorful cup of coffee than its robusta counterpart.
Which explains why the gourmet coffees we know and love are usually produced with high-quality, smooth-tasting arabica coffee beans.
So Where is the Best Coffee Grown?
Since arabica coffee is the most favored coffee around the world, it would be reasonable to name Brazil the grower of the best coffee.
But, like everything having to do with coffee, what’s “best” is highly subjective.
If you’re a lover of Italian espresso, then it may be a high-quality robusta coffee from Vietnam that receives your top honors.
Or maybe you prefer a blend of arabica coffee from one side of the world and robusta from the other.
The truth is, with coffee being cultivated in over 70 countries worldwide, truly good coffee can come from a lot of places. And, as we’ve just learned, what makes up “good coffee” depends more on the type of coffee bean used than the region of origin.
Maybe the real question should be: where is your best coffee is grown?!
While most of us don’t have the time or money to travel the world by plane, train or automobile, we can circle the globe with our coffee cups. So next time you’re shopping for coffee, be bold and try a bag from a new region. I’m betting that once we begin exploring new coffee worlds, we’ll wonder why we kept grabbing the same old brand every week.
If you’re interested in knowing more about how the taste of your coffee is influenced by where it’s grown, check out the fascinating facts in the article Coffee Growing Around the World – The Geography of Flavor.
I always appreciate hearing from my readers, and I’d love to hear how your “coffee travels” go. Please share your adventures in the comments below. Thank you!