Ultimate Guide to Central American Coffee
Most Central American countries produce and export coffee and there is some truly diverse and special coffees coming out of this region. This guide aims to cover the main countries in Central America that produce coffee, a little about their history and the types of coffee they produce. I hope it proves to be a useful guide when thinking about trying coffee beans from these great coffee-producing nations.
The main countries that produce coffee in Central America are:
- Costa Rica
- El Salvador
Costa Rica, with its rich, well-drained, volcanic soil was the first Central American country to grow coffee on a commercial basis and this, along with bananas, is its main export.
Coffee was introduced to Costa Rica, from Cuba, in 1729 and is now a huge industry with a yield of around 1,700kg per hectare. There are around 400 million coffee trees and they represent about 25% of Costa Rica's earnings. That's around 100 trees per head of population!
The quality of the coffee can be exceptional, with the Tarrazu being one of the world's greatest coffees with its light, clean flavour and wonderful fragrance.
Only Arabica coffee beans are grown in Costa Rica and in fact the growing of Robusta has been made illegal.
The best coffee beans are grown at altitude over 1,500 metres above sea level and are labelled "SHB" meaning Strictly Hard Bean. The term SHB is synonymous with SHG (or Strictly High Grown) and means that the cooler air enables the coffee fruits to mature more slowly, which concentrates the flavour.
El Salvador is one of the smallest countries in Central America and is quite densely populated.
The coffee is typical of Central America - it is light bodied, aromatic, clean and has light acidity. As in Guatemala and Costa Rica, coffee is graded according to altitude, with coffee grown at higher altitudes being graded as better quality.
El Salvador is well known for growing the Pacamara variety, a cross between the Pacas and Maragogype varieties, which gives an exceptionally fine cup of coffee with a full body that is not too heavy.
Coffee trees were introduced to the country in 1750 by Jesuit priests and the industry was developed by German settlers in the late 19th century. Today most of the coffee production is in the south of the country, amongst the volcanoes of the Sierra Madre mountain range.
The high altitude produces wonderfully lively and spicy, complex coffee appreciated by connoisseurs the world over. The SHB coffee is amongst the best in the world with full body and balanced acidity. Guatemala is also famous for its "Elephant" bean, so called because of its large size.
The areas producing the best coffee are around Lake Atitlan and in Huehuetenango especially Antigua, the best known region. Approximately every 30 years the area around Antigua is subject to volcanic eruptions, which provide additional nitrogen to the already rich soil.
Coffee was brought to Honduras from El Salvador and the country now produces good quality coffee with good acidity.
As in other Central American countries, coffee is classified based on the altitude at which it is grown. Coffee grown at 700 - 1,000m is known as Central Standard, if it's grown between 1,000 and 1,500m it is known as High Grown and above 1,500m as Strictly High Grown (SHG).
Coffee rust has been a problem in recent years and much effort has been put in to try and produce more disease-resistant trees.
Mexico is the fourth largest coffee producing country in the world with an annual production of around 5 million bags. Most of the coffee is now produced by smallholders, with single estates being less prominent than they used to be.
The best coffee growing region in Mexico is Chiapas in the south of the country as well as Oaxaca.
The Nicaraguan coffee industry, like so many other countries, has been badly affected by political problems in the past. In 1979, the revolution forced the plantation owners to flee to Miami resulting in a disruption in the coffee supply whilst the government decided what to do with the land.
The best Nicaraguan coffees are grown in the north and centre of the country, with the best of all coming from Matagalpa, Jinotega and Nuevo Segovia.