Quick quiz: what’s the world’s most used mind-altering drug—used by more than 90% of all humans—and also served to children?
If you contemplated that question over a cup of coffee and then guessed caffeine, you win; doubly! Now more than 500 years old, coffee is at its historical peak in terms of acceptance and desirability. For most of its history, it’s been looked on with confusion, suspicion and, to a degree, even disgust.
Why? And why now is it such it such a source of national pride for so many nations that grow the beans that are in such high demand?
Coffee likely started in Ethiopia in the 15th century and made its way to Mecca in the 16th century. From there, Europeans encountered it for the first time on trading missions. Within a century, it was so established in the Ottoman empire that it was considered the ‘perfect symbol of Islam’. As it worked its way west into Britain, women in London claimed that it made men lazy and impotent.
All that changed in the US in the early 1900’s when Brazilian coffee growers and American coffee roasters joined efforts to promote coffee. Drawing on the research funded by Coca-Cola and undertaken by an MIT professor, they found that caffeine increased the body’s capacity for cognitive and muscular function within 15 minutes of intake. And with that, an industry was born!
Now that coffee is so popular, with Americans consuming 400 million cups a day, there is a race for national pride and market share among coffee growing nations of the world. Since Classic Journeys operates trips in more than a dozen coffee growing countries, we convened our own focus group of our expert local guides. We asked them to share the story behind their country’s history of coffee and what makes their coffee best.
In Costa Rica, coffee farming techniques have been passed down through generations since the 1700’s. The mountainous terrain, cloud forest climates and volcanic ash in the soil combine to create incredible coffee beans—the Tarrazu region in particular is thought to create some of the finest coffee on earth. In 2012, the “Costa Rica Finca Palmilera” coffee became the most expensive coffee sold in Starbucks at $7 a cup!
Why is Costa Rica’s coffee the best?
“Tico’s have been growing coffee for hundreds of years, it’s in our blood! Plus, it’s actually illegal to have bad coffee in Costa Rica! In 1989, our government passed a law banning bad coffee beans. Everything we grow must be 100% Arabica. Traditionally, Tico’s brew our coffee using a “chorreador”—a “coffee sock”—which filters the grains into a mug, ” says Classic Journeys tico guide, Kenneth.
Guatemala is a world-famous coffee grower, with over 100,000 producers. The oldest estates can be found in Antigua, and the highest in Huehuetenango.
Why is Guatemala’s coffee the best?
Rather than a few small, specific areas, huge expanses of Guatemala are suited to coffee growing, shares guide Marlon. “We have rich soil and a humid climate. Guatemalan Peaberry is the cream of our coffee crop. The peaberry is a round, pea-shaped coffee bean that makes up 5% of the overall harvest. While the other 95% of that harvest will taste great, the peaberry is even better than great. We take the best harvest, then extract the peaberries from that harvest and it results in some wonderful coffee.”
Peru might not be the first nation you think of when it comes to coffee growers, but it’s actually an old-hand in the industry, with farms existing on the Inca highlands since the 1700’s. Dozens of small, family-run farms grow pure Arabica beans, resulting in a light, mild and aromatic roast.
Why is Peru’s coffee the best?
We are the underdogs! We don’t have the reputation of Colombia,” says Classic Journeys guide Marisol, “but coffee growing is still an integral part of the culture and history of Peru. Our coffee has a rich, chocolatey taste and of course everyone loves chocolate!”
Colombia has a mild, rainy climate that allows for two harvests a year. This along with nutritious volcanic soil and age-old farming techniques enables the country to produce coffee of exceedingly high quality (always Arabica) and in large quantities. Colombia is best known for its dark roast, which makes the most delicious espressos.
Why is Colombia’s coffee the best?
“Every Colombian coffee bean is hand-picked, and every coffee harvester knows how to identify the very best beans. It’s in our nature! Any beans that don’t meet our high standards are made into Tinto coffee, which translated means “inky water, “, explains local guide Ana. “This isn’t gourmet coffee but if you come to Colombia you must try it, it is a strong part of our culture!”
Cuban coffee used to be a massive export, before the US Government placed a trade embargo on Cuban goods in 1961. The nation has cultivated Arabica and Robusta beans for around two centuries, mostly in the Sierra Maestra mountains of eastern Cuba and the Escambray Mountains of central Cuba.
Why is Cuba’s coffee the best?
“Cuban coffee is delicious! Here is how we like to drink what we call a Cafecito: take our strong, bitter coffee beans and make an espresso. Whisk together a teaspoon of espresso and teaspoon of sugar, then add the rest of the espresso. The result is strong and sweet and a Cuban favorite,” says guide Audrey who loved the coffee so much that she moved from the US to Havana, Cuba in 2008.
India may be better known as a tea-producing nation, but it’s one of the world’s top producers of coffee too. In fact, it has actually been growing coffee longer than it’s been growing tea. Legend has it that a pilgrim named Baba Budan smuggled seven coffee beans from Yemen in the 17th century, then planted them in Karnataka. Karnataka is the main coffee-growing area to this day.
Why is India’s coffee the best?
Classic Journeys guide and Delhi native Vinay tells us, “India’s coffee is the greatest because of our Monsooned Malabar bean. We take our coffee beans, pile them up and then expose them to monsoon winds that blow in from the Arabian sea. This makes the beans swell up which leads to a mellow, earthy flavor.”
Coffee came to Ecuador in the early nineteenth century and for a while was the country’s top export. Grown on small, family run plants in the shade of avocado and guava trees.
Why is Ecuador’s coffee the best?
“Everyone says higher altitude creates better coffee and yes, a lot of our coffee does grow high on mountains and tastes delicious. However, we also grow our coffee on the lower slopes of the Andes and even near the coast, shares naturalist guide and Quito resident, Sebastian.” I love the coffee beans produced in the Galapagos islands of San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz, where the ocean breeze and volcanic ash in the soil help produce unforgettable flavors.”
The origin of Brazil’s coffee is a tale of stolen hearts and stolen seeds... Coffee was a hot commodity in 1727. So much so that the Portuguese, keen to grow coffee in Brazil, commissioned a sergeant to steal the seeds from French Guiana. His name was Francisco de Melo Palheta and he achieved his goal by wooing the governor’s wife, who smuggled the seeds in a bouquet she handed to him in a banquet. Brazil now has ten thousand square miles of coffee plantations, producing a rich, caramel-flavored bean that has earned worldwide renown.
Why is Brazil’s coffee the best?
"The legend of how we got coffee in the first place certainly gives it extra flavor!" Victoria, our Brazilian guide. "Our climate and land are perfect for coffee growing and we use careful techniques, passed through the ages. Our coffee is so good that Frank Sinatra sang about it!":
“Way down among Brazilians,
Coffee beans grow by the billions,
So they’ve got to find those extra cups to fill.
They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil.”
One of the newer coffee-growing countries, Thailand introduced coffee plantations in 1969 as an attempt to divert the opium trade to a sustainable, legitimate source of income for locals. It was a success and business is booming, with Robusta beans grown in the south and Arabica to the north, where Chang Mai play’s coffee capital. Beans are traditionally hand-picked when ripe, then dried in the sunshine.
Why is Thailand's coffee the best?
"The coffee production trade has transformed Thailand's economy," says Classic Journeys guide in Thailand, Oomi. "We grow all kinds of varieties and the market is steadily growing; craft coffee has become a real craze here. My favorite is the Thai Iced Coffee, a mix of coffee, condensed milk, cream, salt and ice. You can’t beat it on a hot day!"
Panama produces less than 1% of the world coffee market, but that tiny percentage includes the incredibly sought-after Geisha bean, which is notoriously hard to grow and harvest but fabulously delicious. Boquete, Volcán & Renacimiento are the main regions for coffee farming in Panama.
Why is Panama’s coffee the best?
Naturalist guide Beny lets us in on their secret, “The volcanic ash that naturally occurs in Panama soil produces these amazing nutrients that make the plants thrive. Then we have the Bajareque mist that blows over the mountains, keeping the air fresh and humid. For other countries, the Geisha bean is too tricky to produce but we know the secrets!”