Sudden Coffee

The Complete Guide To Coffee Bean Origins: Central America

Ever tasted coffee grown on the active volcanoes of Guatemala? What about coffee harvested from farms around the Mayan temples of Honduras? Central America is fascinating and diverse world region—and so is its coffee. Despite being more commonly seen in the United States than other coffee origins due to its proximity, coffee from Central America can still be quite the surprise.

We’re thrilled to explore the coffee producing countries of Central America with you. Not only is it healthy to learn about the cultures and histories of other countries, but it’ll also help you select the right coffee beans for your taste preferences.

It’s disclaimer time: coffee flavor can change dramatically from region to region and farm to farm within a single country. When we make generalizations about a country’s coffee flavor, please keep in mind that the typical flavor profile is certainly not the only flavor profile.

Let’s start with the Northernmost country (often considered part of North America): Mexico.

Mexico

The typical depiction of Mexico in movies and television is of the desert regions and beachfront resorts, but the country also has its fair share of rainforests, hill country, and several large rugged mountain ranges. And the coffee can be just as diverse as the landscapes.

Coffee arrived in the late-1700’s from Cuba and the Dominican Republic and blossomed into a mature industry in the early 1800’s. These days, twelve Mexican states grow coffee, but most production occurs in the Southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, where the cooler weather and higher elevation are more agreeable to arabica plants. Mexico is currently the #1 producer of certified organic coffee in the world.

The common specialty-grade Mexican coffee features a low acidity, heavy body, and deep notes of chocolate, earth, and spice. This lower flavor profile causes Mexican coffees to often be featured in blends with a lighter and brighter option. Some Mexican beans come out with a crisp acidity and rich floral aroma, but those aren’t as common.

Common Flavors:

  • Low Acidity
  • Heavy Body
  • Chocolate, Earth, Spice

Processing Methods:

  • Washed
  • Natural

Guatemala

Just south of Mexico, Guatemala received coffee in the late-1700’s, but commercial production didn’t really begin until European investment kickstarted the industry in the 1860’s. A couple decades later, most of these large plantations were divided up among locals.

Guatemala is one of the most climatically diverse countries in the world, which is pretty impressive, considering that the country is not very large. Most of the coffee is grown in the country’s Western regions, where active volcanoes deliver large amounts of nutrients back to the Earth’s surface with every eruption.

Generally, Guatemalan coffees have a crisp acidity, noticeable sweetness, and lighter body. The flavor profiles can be very complex, but more common flavor notes are red apple, citrus, spice, earth, and rich floral aromas.

Common Flavors:

  • Crisp Acidity
  • Low Body
  • Rich Sweetness
  • Apple, Citrus, Spice, Earth, Floral

Processing Methods:

  • Washed


El Salvador

El Salvador is a pretty small country, so it makes sense that its coffee industry is on the small side as well. This country received coffee in the late-1700’s, but didn’t really take off commercially until indigo production (for dying textiles) slowed its pace in the early-1800’s. By 1970, coffee growing made up 50% of El Salvador’s GDP. Unfortunately, that soon came to a screeching halt.

In the 1980’s a terrible civil war swept over the nation. Many farms were destroyed or abandoned by the time peace arrived in the early-90’s. Coffee growing has since picked up again, though it’s not yet the income-generator it once was.

The civil war was incredibly tragic, but it did lead to an interesting development from the coffee perspective—when all the neighboring countries were planting new coffee plant varieties in the 80’s, El Salvador wasn’t. As a result, the country produces a lot of what we call “old varieties”. Though these old varieties aren’t as disease resistant as the new ones, they’ve allowed farmers to market their crops as rare and exceptional.

Flavor-wise, coffee from El Salvador often has a medium acidity, medium body, and smooth notes of red fruit, earth, chocolate, and citrus.

Common Flavors:

  • Medium Acidity
  • Medium Body
  • Red Fruit Earth, Chocolate, Citrus

Processing Methods:

  • Washed
  • Natural
  • Honey

Nicaragua

Coffee arrived to Nicaragua a little late—the mid-1800’s—nearly a century after some of its neighbors. The industry’s grown significantly, but political upheaval has kept it from progressing into a regional powerhouse.

During the Cold War, the USA set up bans on Nicaraguan coffee to hinder the spread of communism. During the Nicaraguan Revolution Era through the 70’s and 90’s, coffee production was stunted again as the public turned towards political progress. And, when Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1988, many of the country’s coffee farms were destroyed.

Thankfully, Nicaragua’s on the up-and-up. It’s been nearly twenty years since the country’s last economic crisis and the nation’s growing at a powerful pace, including the coffee industry, which now contributes to around 15% of the labor market.

Coffee from Nicaragua often has a medium acidity, medium body, a gentle sweetness, and flavor notes of earth, citrus, flowers, and vanilla.

Common Flavors:

  • Medium Acidity
  • Medium Body
  • Earth, Citrus, Floral, Vanilla

Processing Methods:

  • Washed

Honduras

There are no records that say when coffee first arrived to Honduras, but we do know that the first year of large-scale commercial growing was 1804, so it’s safe to assume the crop arrived in the late-1700’s like with the country’s neighbors.

Since then, Honduras has become the largest coffee producer of Central America. Fifteen out of eighteen departments grow coffee, revealing how widespread production is. For the most part, Honduras is a very wet country, so most farmers have taken to mechanically drying their coffee beans. This has lowered the typical quality, but new drying methods are being experimented with by farms with more financial security and risk tolerance.

Specialty-grade beans from Honduras often have a crisp acidity, a medium body, and sweet notes of sugarcane, orange, caramel, and spice.

Common Flavors:

  • Crisp Acidity
  • Medium Body
  • Sugarcane, Orange, Caramel, Spice

Processing Methods:

  • Washed
  • Mechanical Drying

Panama

At the Southern tip of Central America lies Panama. Great labor laws and a thriving economy make growing coffee here more expensive, which results in higher-cost beans for stateside brewers and cafes. But dishing out a little extra for Panamanian beans is worth it—the average coffee from here is really incredible.

Coffee from Panama frequently features a crisp acidity, a light body, a rich sweetness, often tropical fruit flavors, and vibrant floral aromas.

In the early-2000’s, a farm called Hacienda La Esmeralda discovered a strange coffee plant growing in one of their lots. When they tested it, they realized they had “rediscovered” geisha variety that’s native to Ethiopia and had been brought to Panama decades earlier.

Geneticists realized that this variety, though related to the Ethiopian one, had mutated enough to be genetically distinct. The exotic acidity and wild fruity and floral aromas of geisha coffee have since fascinated the specialty coffee world.

Common Flavors:

  • Crisp Acidity
  • Light Body
  • Sweet, Vibrantly Floral, Tropical Fruit

Processing Methods:

  • Washed
  • Natural

The Caribbean

The story of coffee in the ‘New World’ begins with the Caribbean. Chevalier Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a French naval officer, was on leave in Paris when he petitioned the king to give him a coffee plant to grow in the Americas. The king declined, but de Clieu wasn’t about to give up. He slipped in one night before he sailed home and nicked a few of the king’s coffee plants. But the plant almost didn’t make it to the colonies.

Tunisian pirates, a tropical storm, and even attempted mutiny nearly destroyed the plants, but de Clieu remained triumphant when he landed in Martinique in 1720. He only had one seedling left, but it was alive and well. Fifty years later, coffee farms growing a total of 18,600 coffee trees could be found all over the Caribbean, as well as a few Central American countries.

These days, most coffee in the Caribbean is grown at lower altitudes and, thus, features a lower acidity, heavier body, and complex notes of earth, spice, vanilla, and forestry. Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti are the largest producing countries, though farms can still be found in Puerto Rico (USA), Jamaica, and Martinique.

Exploring the many origins of coffee is fun and fascinating, and learning about the origins themselves adds to the whole experience. It’s one of the things that makes us most excited at Sudden, so check out our current lineup of coffees and try a sample for free.

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