By Ed Arvidson

Twenty years ago, much of the wine consumed in the United States was Chablis, Burgundy, and Rosé. These beverages were unmistakably wine, and, if from a good winery, they were often pleasant. These wines were almost always a blend of different grape varietals.

Blending allowed the winemaker to produce a consistent beverage in the bottle, even if the characteristics of certain varietals were not exceptional that year. A good winemaker could change the ratio of wines being combined to manipulate the taste of the finished blend. Unfortunately, the superior characteristics of any one grape type could not be fully appreciated.

In recent years people have moved beyond the red, white, and rosé mentality. They now ask for Merlots, Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, and Rieslings (to name just a few). We have discovered that each varietal possesses individual characteristics, which are, for the most part, far more interesting and distinctive when left unblended. Most of us have also discovered that significant differences can exist between grapes of the same varietal. Variables such as plant genetics, location of the vineyard, and the weather during the growing season can dramatically change the taste of grapes from region to region. Beyond national origins, we have come to understand that some areas (like the Napa Valley in California) and even individual vineyards within a region, can produce wines with significant differences in quality.

The world of coffee is exactly like the world of wine. Many factors affect the quality and character of the beans you buy. A coffee bean is the seed of a cherry that grows on a tree. Like grapes, the genetic strain of the plant and its unique adaptation to the environment profoundly influence the character of the final product.

The World's Coffee Regions
There are three major flavor regions in the world of coffee: the Americas, Africa, and Indonesia.

American coffees are those grown in Central and South American countries, including, but not limited to, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica. These coffees have the flavor characteristics that people in the United States are most familiar with. These coffees are described as "crisp" and "clean," with "good acid" (a bright aftertaste). At some point in your life you probably had a great cup of that "mountain grown" coffee, maybe even at a gas station! It was at that precise moment you were fortunate enough to receive a freshly brewed cup, from fresh-roasted ground coffee, brewed through reasonably clean equipment. The flavors you tasted typify the best characteristics of American coffees.

Africa, the motherland of coffee, produces coffees that possess wild and fruity flavor characteristics. Ethiopia, Kenya, Yemen and Tanzania typically produce high quality coffees with distinct flavors. Good coffees from Kenya can possess intense "wine-like" flavors and the aftertaste can be reminiscent of a sip of fine chardonnay. Coffees from Ethiopia can have "floral," "spice," or "chocolate" overtones. African coffees also have good levels of acidity, and produce a lingering aftertaste.

Indonesian coffees encompass coffees from Sumatra, Java, and Celebes. Coffees from India are also considered Indonesian in character. These coffees tend to have a heavy body and mild acidity and coat the mouth with luscious flavors. Some green beans in India are actually tempered by monsoon winds blowing through the coffee warehouse. This process reduces acidity even further and transforms the raw beans from green to a grayish-blue. Indonesian coffees are a delight at the end of a meal.

Within each country that produces coffee there are numerous growing regions, each with multiple plantations, each producing a different coffee. Sometimes these differences are indistinguishable, but at other times, they can be dramatic. The perfect genetic strain of the arabica plant, the perfect slope, soil composition, fertilizer, sun, shade, rain, picking and cultivation methods all determine the quality of the finished product.

Then comes processing, sorting, grading, roasting, storage, and, finally, brewing... after which, just maybe, you can enjoy the finished product. Unless, of course, you taste coffee roasted two months ago instead of two days ago, and/or the person who prepared the coffee did not understand the correct parameters of brewing, and/or the brewing equipment wasn’t clean! As you can see, many variables affect final cup character!

Get Educated!
Preparing your own coffee at home will give you control over many of the elements in your tasting experiments. Educating yourself about coffees will greatly increase your enjoyment. Check out the Bellissimo Coffee Infogroup Web site and in particular the video The Art of Coffee, packed with 70 minutes of useful information that can greatly improve your coffee drinking experiences.

So next time you enter a gourmet coffee store, take home a quarter or half pound of some exotic sounding coffee and brew it up! Keep tasting notes. Be patient, and realize that finding great coffees is like finding great bottles of wine: sometimes it takes a few trys.

I suggest trying coffees from the three different flavor regions of the world first. Determine which region has the flavor characteristics that are most appealing to you. Then, start trying coffees from the different countries within that global region. If you decide you like Ethiopian the best, try the coffees from its specific growing regions like Harrar or Yirgacheffe. Try coffees from the same region from different roasters. You'll find out that there is a whole world of wonderful waiting for you to discover them.

Ed Arvidson has written for several coffee industry periodicals and has appeared as a frequent seminar speaker at industry trade shows on coffee preparation and business operations. He can be reached at .

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