For years, it was standard practice to walk into your corner coffee shop and say, “Give me a cup of coffee,” and pretty soon you’d have a fresh brew sliding across the counter and into your hand, no questions asked. More and more, however, ordering coffee at shops all across the country (like The Roastery) is getting a bit more complicated.
“What kind of coffee do you want? We’ve got an Ethiopian and a Guatemalan on drip. But we can do Tanzanian or Costa Rica on pour over, would you prefer that? How about on Aeropress? We’ve got a Papua New Guinea coffee that tastes great on Aeropress if you want to go that route.”
So what gives? How did something that used to be so simple suddenly become so complex? The short answer is that we know a lot more about coffee than we used to. It used to be that coffee was coffee, and where it came from didn’t matter, but now know that a coffee’s origin is essentially the most important thing about it, because where a coffee comes from can radically affect the way it tastes.
How so? Well, coffee is just like any other plant, in that there are certain conditions that are better for its growth than others. Just like you need to put your houseplants in the window if you want them to get enough light to grow, coffee needs a specific set of conditions to facilitate its growth, and depending on which conditions are met and in which way, the way that the coffee plant grows can change.
For example, African coffees are notorious for their bright, fruity, sweet, complex tastes, and are often cited as the some of the best coffees in the world. This is because Africa is the home of the wild coffee plant, and where coffee was first discovered. Coffee is meant to grow in the African climate, and at the high altitudes you can find on many African mountains. The hardy coffee plant slowly reaches its maturity over several years through the cold temperatures and thin air found at these high altitudes, all the while developing that bright, complex flavor.
By contrast, coffees grown in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea tend to grow and develop quicker due to the lower altitude. This often doesn’t give time for the same complexities found in African coffees to develop, making for an earthier, heavier coffee. This doesn’t make it inherently worse (tasting coffee is a subjective experience, after all), but this coffee’s flavor profile is going to be inherently different because of where it’s grown.
South and Central American coffees, too, grow at lower altitudes than most African coffees, but the two regions’ climates are close enough that coffees grown in South America can develop complex fruity flavors, but are more famous for the nutty, chocolatey notes that develop due to the specific way coffee in this region grows and develops.
So, when the barista asks a question like, “Do you prefer Kenyan or Peruvian coffee?" don’t be intimidated. They’re not trying to make things unnecessarily complicated. They’re just trying to make sure they give you a coffee that tastes exactly how you like.