What Even IS Coffee? Growing Regions and Harvest
Welcome back to the second edition of our blog series where we explore the answer to the question…. What even IS coffee, anyway?
This time we’re going to dive deeper into the areas of the world where coffee is grown.
In the interest of full disclosure, here at Three Keys we are not coffee farmers, but all the knowledge that follows has been gathered over many years of being taught by people who are experts in the realms of coffee that we are not.
For Africa, some notable coffee producing nations are Ethiopia, Kenya, and Rwanda, but more and more African nations are starting to ramp up their coffee production efforts. Africa is the origin of coffee as a plant species and as a beverage, and some of the best coffees we’ve ever tasted are from various nations on the African continent.
In Latin America, Colombia probably takes the win for best-known coffee, but Brazil produces the most coffee of any nation worldwide. It's worth mentioning that coffee production in Latin America has been greatly affected by drought and frost in recent years, so access to some time-honored favorites may be more difficult than usual.
For a long time, Indonesia dominated Asia's coffee exports-- one of coffee's most common nicknames comes from the island of Java! As coffee consumption continues to rise worldwide, more countries in the continent of Asia are increasing their coffee exports, both in volume and in quality. Expect to see specialty grade coffee from countries like Yemen, India, and China becoming more common over the next few years.
Harvest ideologies vary from region to region, but generally, all the coffees that Three Keys and your other favorite roasters are buying have been hand harvested at the peak of ripeness. Depending on the variety of the coffee, the colors can vary pretty wildly, but for most varieties peak ripeness is a rich, dark red, sometimes even bordering on purple. (What is variety? You know how there are different types of apples, tomatoes, and bananas available at the grocery store? Same for coffee!)
Some producers will pick cherries and measure their brix, or sugar content, to confirm that the coffee is ripe enough before pressing on with the harvest. More sugar in the fruit tends to mean sweeter coffee with more complex flavor compounds that can be developed in roasting.
Because coffee grows in clusters directly on the branch, many trips through any given coffee orchard is necessary to complete a harvest, which means that harvest season can last weeks or months depending on the region.
(Note that in Brazil, because it’s less mountainous and more commercialized than anywhere else in the world that grows coffee, mechanized harvesting can and does occur. The upside is that harvesting with machines instead of by hand lowers the prices of Brazilian coffee. The downside is that it’s typically not sorted as well, and lots of underripe and overripe coffee will be harvested along with properly ripe coffee.)
After harvest, the coffee is typically hand-sorted to remove any defective or under ripe cherries and other harvest related detritus like sticks, leaves, bugs etc. From there, the coffee moves on to processing, which we’ll cover in more detail in our next installment of What Even IS Coffee, Anyway?