What makes a coffee a contender for the best coffee in the world? It’s a combination of factors. From geology to geography, history to culture, and botany to agriculture, many elements play vital roles in the coffee drinking experience. And the ideal bean also needs the ideal treatment.
A lot of love and expertise go into making a stellar cup of coffee — here are the keys to growing and brewing the best coffee, followed by the best selections from popular coffee-producing countries around the world.
Since much of coffee’s quality and character depends on location specifics — such as elevation, micro-climate, and soil — coffee connoisseurs seek out single origin coffees.
One of the primary factors determining the quality of coffee is the type of coffee bean itself. The Arabica coffee plant produces beans superior in complexity and flavor to those of the Robusta plant. Geography also plays a large role in quality and flavor — coffees are identified first by their country of origin.
The harvesting and processing of the coffee cherries (yes — coffee is actually a fruit!) further influences coffee’s quality and flavor. Then there is the proper storage and shipping of the beans to ensure that the coffee’s naturally occurring flavors and aromas remain at their peak.
The Perfect Roast, the Perfect Grind
Coffee roasters also play a large role in determining the flavor profile and characteristics of your brew. The various types of roast — light roast, medium dark roast, and dark roast — each accentuate different notes and qualities. Generally speaking, lighter roast coffees have a bright acidity and let coffee’s fruity and floral notes shine. Darker roasts emphasize deeper flavors, like chocolate, caramel, and nuts.
Having the correct grind of your whole bean coffee is another key factor. From the fine powdery grind for Greek coffee to the coarse grind for a perfect cup of French press or cold brew, having properly ground coffee is essential to success.
Coffee and Consciousness
For the responsible coffee lover, culture and ethics go hand in hand. The best cup of coffee is always a responsibly sourced cup of coffee. Fair trade (or better) practices and environmental sustainability are essential for both good coffee and a good conscience.
The Culture of Coffee
Last but not least, there’s the culture of coffee. Culture plays a role in how we drink our coffee, from a great American cup of joe to a sultry Italian espresso. And coffee, in turn, plays a huge role in culture — for centuries, coffeehouses and coffee shops have been the center of creative and intellectual discussion. Coffee drinkers around the world participate in a legendary tradition.
Coffee-Growing Regions Around the World
Each coffee-growing region has its own terroir, agricultural practices, and processing methods that affect the flavor profile tremendously. Learning about the best coffee-growing regions in the world is a great place to start. Let’s take a tour of the best coffees in the world by exploring some coffee-growing regions and learning about what makes them special.
Ethiopian coffee is a great place to start our tour, because it’s widely thought to be the birthplace of coffee. The legend is that a goat herder named Kaldi saw that his flock was livelier after grazing on the berries of a particular plant. These, of course, were coffee cherries from the Arabica coffee plant — Coffea arabica.
Ethiopia is also where coffee got its name. The province of Kaffa in southern Ethiopia took its name from the Arabic word “qahwa,” the origin of our word for coffee.
In Ethiopia today, coffee continues to play a huge role in culture. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony involves roasting green coffee beans. The whole beans are then pounded and brewed. The brewed coffee is poured gracefully from high up and the coffee is drunk in three ceremonial rounds.
You do not need to master the Ethiopian coffee ceremony to enjoy the high quality coffee of Ethiopia. In the central highlands of Ethiopia is a region called Sidamo (sometimes Sidama). The high elevations there slow the maturation of the Arabica coffee plants. This gives the coffee cherries and beans time to develop a complex flavor profile.
Unique among the Sidamo coffees is the Yirgacheffe, grown at the region’s highest elevations. It’s rich and smooth, with aromas of berries and chocolate.
From the birthplace of coffee, we now travel to the place that put coffee on the map historically. A governor of the Ottoman Empire was stationed in Yemen in the 16th century. He loved the local coffee drink and introduced it to Suleiman the Magnificent. The Sultan loved it, too. Coffee’s popularity spread throughout the Ottoman Empire to cities like Vienna and Budapest, whose coffee cultures remain legendary.
Today, Yemen is back on the coffee lover’s map. High-quality Yemeni Udaini is known for its chocolatey, floral, and spicy notes.
Kenya is rich in excellent coffee-growing regions, most of which are located in the high plateaus between Mt. Kenya and Nairobi. Regions like Nyeri, Thika, and Murang’a — in the foothills of the Aberdare mountains — are known for producing unusually complex Arabica beans. Kenyan coffee varieties include SL 28 and the African K7, a French Mission Bourbon varietal. A Kenya Twiga AA from Nyeri, with its sweet and juicy aromas of citrus and chocolate, is a great introduction to the rich and zesty Kenyan flavor profile.
Kenyan coffee beans have a grading system based on size. Kenya AA coffee beans, together with the larger Peaberry, are among the finest of Africa. Kenya AA is grown at altitudes of 1,700 to 1,900 meters, qualifying them for SHG (Strictly High Grown) and SHB (Strictly Hard Bean) designations.
The history of Kenya’s coffee industry is not a happy one, but it’s getting better all the time. Since the end of British rule, the situation for the coffee farmers of Kenya has improved. The Nairobi Coffee Exchange employs an auction system for the nation’s coffee production in order to establish a transparent system of pricing based on quality.
The Dutch colonists saw the potential for coffee production offered by Indonesia’s climate and high elevations on the Indonesian island of Java, and they introduced coffee plantations.
Indonesia produces a lot of coffee — both Robusta coffee beans and Arabica coffee beans. We’ll focus here on their high-quality Arabica beans. Indonesia’s best Arabica coffees are grown on the island of Sulawesi (known for the variety Toraja), on the island of Java, on Bali (and particularly the region of Kintamani), Papua (the western part of the island of Papua New Guinea), and — perhaps best known of all — the island of Sumatra.
Sumatra coffee is distinctive because of its processing method. Sumatra coffee is wet-hulled — a process called “giling basah.” A good Sumatran coffee has a full body, relatively low acidity, and a rich and earthy flavor profile with notes of tobacco, cocoa, and cedar, among other aromas. Sumatra Mandheling coffee — one of the best known varieties — is grown in the Aceh region in northern Sumatra. Gayo coffee is also from the Aceh region, from an area around the shores of Lake Tawar. Sumatra Lintong coffee grows west of Lake Toba. Sumatra Mandheling — described as being fruity and smooth with a full body and an almost funky, earthy flavor — is the coffee that has introduced Sumatran coffees to the coffee connoisseurs of the world.
Indonesia is known for another type of coffee processing: Kopi Luwak coffee. Also known as civet coffee, this brew is made of coffee beans that have been processed by passing through the digestive tract of the Asian palm civet, a small mammal. This makes it one of the most expensive coffees in the world. Kopi Luwak is an increasingly controversial coffee. Where the processed coffee beans were once gathered in the wild, there are now civet farms where the Asian palm civets are held captive and fed coffee cherries for this unusual method of coffee processing.
Costa Rica is a serious coffee-growing nation. We mention above that Arabica beans are superior to Robusta. In Costa Rica, all coffee is Arabica. The Costa Rican Coffee Institute (ICAFE — Instituto del Café de Costa Rica) conducts research into agricultural practices and coffee plants. Much of Costa Rica’s coffee industry consists of coffee production on small coffee plantations by independent coffee farmers.
The Central Valley region, where the capital San Jose is located, enjoys sunshine with rainy afternoons — excellent coffee-growing weather. High altitudes and volcanic soil also contribute to growing high-quality coffee. A narrow country with sea on both sides, Costa Rica’s mountainous terrain has several stellar coffee-growing regions and produces coffees with a great variety of flavor profiles.
The Doka Estate, in the Central Valley, is known for producing some of Costa Rica’s best coffee. The Cartago region produces the varieties catuai and caturra. For a more bright and citrusy aroma, there is hand-picked Peaberry, a high elevation coffee from the Tres Rios region.
Best known of the Costa Rican coffees is Tarrazu coffee. The high elevation Tarrazu region produces gourmet coffees with an SHG designation. The finest Tarrazu coffee is marked by a heavy body and delicious flavor profile including milk chocolate and sweet cream.
Initiatives in Costa Rica include a chapter of the IWCA (International Women’s Coffee Alliance), and an unusual designation — Bird Friendly coffees. This certification, aimed at increasing biodiversity, means that certified farms have a coverage of some taller trees where birds can nest. Shade also slows the growth of coffee, enabling it to develop in complexity, making this a win-win for birds and coffee drinkers alike. Costa Rican coffee certifications also include fair trade coffee, organic coffee, and rain forest coffee.
Costa Rican coffee beans take well to light roast, medium roast, and dark roast, depending on the flavor profile you are looking for.
Another Central American coffee-producing region of note is Guatemala. Guatemalan coffees have an ardent following, and there is a great variety of Guatemalan coffees to choose from. This is because Guatemala’s coffee is grown in several excellent coffee-growing regions, each with its own growing conditions to produce coffees with a distinct personality.
The high altitudes of the Huehuetenango region (1,500 to 1,800 meters), near Mexico, bring out the brightness and acidity of the bean. Huehuetenango coffees are fruity and complex.
The area around Lake Atitlán has volcanic soil that produces coffee beans with notes of chocolate and nuts. The coffees of Guatemalan Antigua are also grown in volcanic soil and tend to be full-bodied and sweet, and also have notes of chocolate and fruits.
Guatemalan rainforest Cobán coffees are rich and spicy with floral and even winey notes. The Fraijanes Plateau, in a mountainous region surrounding Guatemala City, has altitudes of 1,200 to 1,500 meters and excellent volcanic soil. Fraijanes coffees have a bright acidity and full body. Volcán San Marcos, the wettest and warmest of Guatemalan coffee-growing regions, produces coffees marked by a lively acidity.
This superb coffee from the Huehuetenango region, grown at an altitude of 1,800 meters, combines a lively aroma of cherries with smooth, delicious notes of milk chocolate.
Brazil is a coffee production powerhouse — they grow over a third of the world’s coffee. Brazil is rich in rain forests and it has an excellent coffee-growing climate.
This is the world’s largest coffee producer, and not all of its coffee production is single origin quality coffee. Brazil produces both Arabica beans and Robusta beans, and some Brazilian coffees are used for instant coffee. Brazilian coffee producers also grow coffees used in coffee blends, and especially espresso blends. This is because much of Brazil’s coffee is not grown at the high elevations of some other coffee-producing countries.
Brazilian coffees are often characterized by relatively low acidity and a mild and balanced flavor profile that makes them suitable for blending. Brazil’s coffees, and in particular Brazil Cerrado and Bourbon Santos, also take well to roasting. A dark roasted coffee from Brazil is very often a major component of espresso blends.
Brazil does, of course, also produce some fine coffees. One of these is Bourbon Santos, grown largely in northern Minas Gerais. A Bourbon Santos is characterized by medium body, sweet and nutty flavors, and fairly low acidity. In the fertile soil in the southern part of Minas Gerais grows another Brazilian coffee of note — Carmo de Minas.
One the very finest Brazilian coffees is Mantiqueria de Minas, a coffee rich with the aromas of chocolate, coconut, and nuts.
Colombian coffees are perhaps among the best known, and this is partly due to a marketing strategy. The National Federation of Coffee Growers (Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia) has long promoted the interests of the Colombian coffee industry. They also gave Colombian coffee a face by inventing the character Juan Valdez, an image instrumental in promoting Colombian coffee in the United States in the later part of the 20th century.
Successful mass marketing aside, Colombia also produces some fine coffee beans. Colombian coffee is all from Arabica coffee beans, and most of these are grown by independent coffee farmers on small farms. The growing conditions for coffee plants in Colombia are excellent. High altitude coffee-growing regions with volcanic soil produce quality coffee beans. Coffees here are also often shade grown, giving them time to develop in complexity.
Colombian coffee is grown in the Highlands of the Sierra Nevada, and on the slopes of the Andes Mountains. This Colombian coffee from the Andean region, grown at an altitude of 1,650 meters, has a delightful sweet and fruity acidity, paired with rich, toasty aromas.
Another factor that helps Colombia’s coffee beans shine is the style of coffee farming and the harvesting method, favored in many high-altitude, high-quality coffee-producing countries. On small farms especially, given the rugged terrain, coffee is often harvested by hand. This means that coffee cherries are often picked at their peak of ripeness, while others are left to mature.
Specialty Coffees and Global Coffee Experiences
The origin and quality of coffee beans is important. But coffee is, at its heart, a cultural experience. The coffee cultures of Italy, India, Greece, and Ethiopia, for example, all provide distinctive experiences. The brewing method, degree of roast, grind of the whole beans, and method of preparation are all important factors, but the cultural context and the history of a coffee drink add meaning to enjoying simple cup of coffee.
Greek Coffee Culture
Italian coffee culture is well known to many of us and has had a big impact on how we enjoy coffee in the United States. But Greece — Italy’s neighbor — has a completely different coffee culture with much older roots.
Traditional Greek coffee is technically Turkish coffee. It dates to a time when what is now Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans left, and the rich delicious coffee stayed, virtually unchanged through the centuries. In Greece, until relatively recently, this was the primary kind of coffee. It’s still the coffee served in most homes. It’s also ever-popular in the coffee shops of Athens and elsewhere, an integral part of Greece’s strong coffee culture.
To make Greek coffee, roasted coffee beans are ground to a fine powder. The ground coffee is blended with cold water in a special coffee pot called a “briki” — pronounced “bree-kee.” The amount of coffee can vary, but usually it’s a teaspoon of coffee, along with a teaspoon of sugar for sweet coffee, and less for medium sweet. Then the coffee is brought to a simmer over low heat to medium heat. It’s served in espresso cups or demitasse cups, always with a tall cold glass of water on the side.
Greek coffee breaks are not meant to be rushed. And in fact, you can’t drink Greek coffee too fast. Rich Greek-style coffee does not have the coffee grounds filtered out. You just have to be patient and let the ground coffee settle in the bottom of the cup, and enjoy some conversation in the meantime.
Indian Coffee Culture
Although many people associate tea with India, there is definitely an Indian coffee culture. Preparing South Indian filter coffee — sometimes called mysore coffee, degree coffee, or filter kaapi — makes for an interesting coffee experience.
To make it, you need an Indian coffee filter. The device is similar to that which is used to make Vietnamese drip coffee. You place your ground coffee into the top of this relatively simple coffee maker, pour over hot water, and cover the pot. It needs several minutes for the coffee to brew and collect in the vessel at the bottom. In the meantime, you heat up your milk. South Indian coffee is potent, and takes the hot milk well.
Coffee’s popularity is a matter of region. In Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, coffee is common. The Sufi Muslim saint Baba Budan introduced the drink from Yemen to South India in the 17th century. During British rule, coffee’s popularity rose further.
This sweet milky Indian coffee and the method of its preparation offer a distinctly different coffee experience.
The Best Coffee in the World
Whatever coffee you settle on as being your personal favorite, it’s interesting to note the factors that went into creating it. A coffee’s quality and character depend on geology, geography, botany, and agriculture practices. The freshness, the roast, and the grind are also all-important factors. And that’s all well before it reaches you.