Coffee is by far one of the most popular beverages on the planet, and it is the most-consumed psychoactive drug in the world. We like our coffee – and be we, I mean all of humanity. An estimated 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed across the planet every single day, with most consumers living in developed countries (particularly the US and Scandinavia), while most coffee countries are developing nations (particularly in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia). The coffee industry is a hulking behemoth, yet at the end of the day, it’s the passion and commitment of local farmers in these coffee countries carrying out traditional work that goes back centuries in order to produce a product that is, by all measures, artisanal and beautiful.
People make the mistake of thinking that coffee is coffee – that coffee has a coffee taste, and that is that. Yet no one kind of bean from any given hill on any of the major coffee countries in the world tastes like. Wild coffee in Kaffa, Ethiopia is vastly different from a cup of Barako in Batangas, Philippines, and neither are anything like the cups produced with coffee from Colombia or Costa Rica. We’re going to go over what I consider to be the top ten best coffee countries in the world (in no particular order), talking about what makes each country’s coffee unique, and why.
To recap on our history of coffee, we know that the plant is African in origin and was likely discovered several centuries ago in East Africa, before becoming commercially available in the Middle East (particularly Yemen). Smugglers and merchants brought some coffee plants over to Europe sometime in the 17th century. After much protesting from the clergy, who named it a “bitter invention of Satan”, coffee finally took root when the Pope himself allegedly baptized the plant to cheat the Devil (because he liked the taste so much).
It was around the time coffee began becoming popular in Europe that the Spanish brought the plant over to Guatemala as an ornamental plant, in the mid-18th century. All that changed when, out of necessity, the local government turned to coffee as a cash crop to save the country from financial ruin after the natural dye industry was overtaken by the growth in demand for synthetic products, in the 1860s.
Since then, Guatemalan coffee has always been popular, and the country continues to produce some of the best coffee in the world, at a pace that holds steady with some of the biggest producers on the planet. Though not quite in the top 5 anymore, Guatemala still boasts over 125,000 producers owing to its diverse climate, massive mountain ranges, and volcanic soil. Local coffee is varied, being almost sweet and fruity in some places, and nutty or chocolatey in others. Because coffee is produced all over the southern half of the country from the southeast all the way to the western border, Guatemala boasts an incredible variety of flavors.
Next to Brazil and Vietnam, Columbia continues to produce most of the world’s coffee, and likely reigns king in terms of supplying the world with stimulants. Its claim to fame is the Andes, the world-famous mountain range that cuts through seven countries in South America, with a series of different biomes and climates ranging from dry and cold to tropical. The portion of the Andes that runs through Colombia is tropical and lends itself perfectly to the growing and processing of high-quality coffee.
Much like Guatemala, coffee arrived in Colombia with the Spanish, and production can be traced back to 1835. Today, Guatemala’s coffee production is led by the National Federation of Coffee Growers, as well as over three dozen independent cooperatives, many of which are certified fair trade.
While Medellin, Armenia, and Manizales in central Colombia and the mountainous regions near Bogota are primary growing locations, coffee is being grown and harvested throughout the country, in a quest to discover new and complex flavors.
Much like the rest of the mountainous coffee countries in South America, Costa Rica is well-known for its coffee exports and high-quality production, especially in the canton of Tarrazu. While production overall has dropped due to urban development in the small nation, Costa Rica still provides up to a full percent of the world’s coffee, which is amazing for a country of just under 5 million people.
Costa Rica’s explosion in growth started in the years preluding the Second World War, when a shipment meant for Chile was re-bagged and sent to the United Kingdom, where interest from the British was followed by investments in the local coffee industry.
Like any big boom, however, this led to the proliferation of crop-based oligarchies and other industry-related issues, which persisted well into the 20th century. However, with the establishment of the Coffee Defense Institute in 1933 (later the Institute of Costa Rican Coffee), regulations were put in place to maintain stability in the local coffee market. Today, Costa Rica is a major exporter of fair trade and organic coffees, with endorsements and certifications from several organizations on the country’s sustainable and responsible agricultural practices.
South America is the world’s premiere coffee-producing powerhouse, but no country matches Brazil in terms of sheer production. This, however, has its own price. While Brazil has been one of the biggest coffee countries in the world for well over a century, it’s also worth noting that this comes with a drop in overall quality control throughout the country as a result. That doesn’t mean Brazil doesn’t continue to produce selectively top-tier country, as it has been for several generations.
Coffee was first planted in Brazil for domestic consumption in the 18th century, and since then, its growth in the market has led to legendary domination. By the 1820s, Brazil was already producing over a fifth of the globe’s coffee, and by the early 1900s, Brazil was producing over 80 percent of it. Today, the high altitudes of Sao Paolo, Espirito Santo, and Minas Gerais are still producing much of the green coffee on the global market, with many local budding enterprises seeking to produce high-quality coffee rather than focus entirely on the profitability of large-scale production.
Among all coffee countries, Ethiopia is the oldest and the original – it is here that coffee was first discovered and brought to the Middle East, and it is here that coffee continues to flourish both in its commonly-known forms of arabica and robusta, as well as a selection of wild coffees from several different species, many of which have not yet been classified. Ethiopia takes coffee very seriously, and the cherry and bean are clearly indelibly rooted into the country’s DNA, with hour-long coffee ceremonies, centuries-old legends, and a long-held traditional way of farming and harvesting coffee trees.
Nearly all (98 percent) of Ethiopia’s coffee is grown not by companies or corporations, but by independent subsistence farmers. To further preserve the integrity of the product, everything – planting, tending, harvesting, and drying – is done by hand. In Ethiopia, every bean is treated with respect, and it is with respect to its culture that Ethiopian coffee is often heralded as the best of the world, not only on-par with the coffee behemoths of South America, but sometimes seen as above and beyond in quality to coffee produced on any other nation in the world.
But like anything, that is an entirely subjective matter. The fact does remain that Ethiopia is the very birthplace of the plant and remains forever entangled with its rich history and importance.
Although Kenya is a direct neighbor of Ethiopia, coffee was not grown as a crop here until the early 19th century, when Western business interests imported Brazilian Bourbon coffee plants to be grown in Kenya’s rich volcanic soil. Since then, the country has exclusively grown arabica coffee, although rarely of its own volition. Early profits were made by white settlers, who either employed or coerced locals to work on their crops.
When local Kenyans were finally allowed to own their own crops in the early 1960s, heavily regulation still meant that the entirety of Kenya’s high-quality coffee was solely produced for export, rather than local consumption. It wasn’t until the late 20th/early 21st century that Kenyan coffee growers received the opportunity to control pricing, and control how and where they sell their coffee. There are an estimated 150,000 coffee farmers in Kenya, producing a mild bean known for notes of cocoa. Kenyan coffee is considered some of the best in the world, despite difficulties in the industry.
Many of the coffee countries I’ve written about on this short little list only came into contact with coffee within the last 100-200 years. While undoubtedly very long for any one person, that is but a blip in the memory of that country’s long and storied history, which in some cases reaches back thousands of years, to the earliest of African and South American civilizations, save for Ethiopia, where the bean has had its longest story yet. Next to Ethiopia’s relationship to coffee, however, is the culture of coffee in Yemen – the first country that grew and commercialized coffee as a product in the Middle East, exporting it throughout the region (and later the world) for over 1,200 years.
Yemen today is undoubtedly one of the most unstable countries in the world. A vicious civil war continues to ravage the country, making it difficult for coffee businesses to thrive as all imports and exports are heavily restricted. While Yemeni coffee is rare, it’s also some of the best in the world. Yemen’s origin as one of the first places in the world to grow and make coffee begins with ancient trade between the Yemeni and the Ethiopians, who were trading as early as 1,000 BCE. Yemen was one of the primary origin points for coffee in the world for well over a thousand years, supplying the Middle East and Europe alike with tons of fresh coffee beans straight from the port of Mokka (hence, mocha coffee). Centuries of trade throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East brought coffee from Yemen and Ethiopia to Indonesia and other points in Asia, while European settlers brought strains they found in Africa and the Middle East over to South America.
While being one of the largest coffee countries on the planet, Indonesia was also one of the oldest, receiving the crop through Dutch trading lines moving from Ethiopia and Yemen to Asia. Cultivation began under Dutch colonial control in the late 1600s and continued well after the country seized independence. Unlike many other coffee producers, Indonesia specializes in robusta coffee.
While arabica is known for its delicate flavor, robusta coffee trees are larger, less susceptible to coffee leaf rust and pests, and much stronger in flavor. Most brands blend robusta beans with arabica beans, or serve solely arabica, because robusta coffee is somewhat unpalatable for some consumers. But because Indonesia’s strong, earthy coffee is often mixed with the much more acidic varieties grown in Africa and South America, the resulting blend ends up being amazing. Furthermore, certain specialty coffees prefer robusta beans, and robusta beans make up most espresso blends (due to their stronger, full-bodied taste). West Java is particularly famous for its coffee, being the site of the country’s earliest coffee plantations. It’s here where Yemeni coffee beans and Indonesian beans were mixed to create Mocha Java.
Vietnam exports more coffee than any of the other coffee countries bar Brazil, producing up to 97 percent robusta beans. While coffee was a rather late addition to Vietnam’s ecosystem, and didn’t flourish or grow very well during its introduction via the French, post-war Vietnam saw a modest surge in production until politically- and economically-motivated emigration from the Vietnamese lowlands saw several million Vietnamese move to the Central Highlands, kickstarting a serious boom in production. In just three decades, Vietnam’s total control of the coffee market jumped from about 0.1 percent to an astonishing 20 percent. That’s a fifth of all the coffee in the world!
Since then, Vietnam has developed a very serious coffee culture, boasting some of the world’s best cafes and baristas, and several high-quality local blends and coffee brewing methods. Vietnam’s coffee is sold mostly to produce instant coffee, where giant corporations like Nestle use Vietnam as a place to grow, roast, and process their product. Vietnam’s success and growth doesn’t come without its downsides. Like many other coffee countries, rampant deforestation and poor quality control has led to environmental issues, ranging from soil erosion to massive unnecessary usage of water and fertilizers. Nevertheless, coffee continues to be a major part of Vietnam’s exports and economic success.
Coffee was first brought to the Philippines by the Spanish, with major productions taking place in Cavite and Batangas. While the rest of the coffee countries began struggling with the coffee rust disease, the Philippines got a big jump and began exporting much of the coffee in the world – until the late 1890s, when the country was hit as well. This destroyed much of the arabica trees in the Philippines, reducing overall production by more than 80 percent.
While the Philippines continues to produce arabica beans to some capacity and mostly grows robusta beans, its unique claim to fame is its own species of coffee, a local variation of the African Coffea liberica, known in the Philippines as kapeng barako (from the local ‘stud’, describing the coffee’s strong, unique taste and masculine qualities). Because of low demand and low production, however, the barako plant is in danger of being completely lost to the world, alongside a unique flavor of coffee. Their large size makes them difficult to grow, but many different organizations have launched various campaigns to try and save the tree. Barako coffee ranges from cacao-like to aniseed.
A Closing Word
It’s hard, if not impossible, to pick a ‘best’ country out of these ten, and there are other coffee countries not included on this list that are still world-renown for the quality of their coffee production, as well as the level and rate at which they produce and export the stuff. Some coffee countries simply didn’t fit but are certainly on par with many of the coffee countries listed above (such as the Ivory Coast and Honduras).
The world is unbelievably large, and there are well over a hundred different kinds of coffee, most of which have not been properly identified, named, studied, or cultivated. And as the taste for coffee throughout the world continues to rise and grow, so does the development and harvesting of sustainable and delicious coffee everywhere. I, for one, welcome a future where we as consumers continue to have access to a wide selection of varied and individual flavors from different corners of the globe, produced locally through passion-fueled, well-compensated workers, in collaboration with coffee companies that pay their farmers what they’re worth, while cutting down on the cheap café-chain businesses and unethical practices that litter the industry.
Sadly, the realities of coffee as they stand today force us to be more diligent in our consumption, leaving no room for trust. While coffee is delicious the world over, it’s always best to know exactly where your beans are coming from. So, buy local, support local coffee plants and coffee farmers, and keep the coffee world thriving in your own backyard for now.