Central American Coffee: A Regional Profile

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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You may think you already know about Central American coffee. In some ways, all you need to know is that it is grown in Central America. However, coffee in Central America has a rich history and produces diverse flavor profiles.

You may think you already know about Central American coffee. In some ways, all you need to know is that it is grown in Central America. However, coffee in Central America has a rich history and produces diverse flavor profiles.

Ideally, I would introduce this subject to you around a cupping table. Alas, we are together only on the Internet! So, I’ll write about Central American coffee instead, while imagining the fascinated looks on your faces.

First, An Important Note on Coffee and Colonialism

I can’t discuss this subject without first pointing out that the history and culture of coffee production in Central America cannot be isolated from the effects of European colonialism and oppression of Indigenous people and rural laborers. That oppression came from post-independence governments, which were often backed by the United States.

The history of coffee is irrevocably tied to inequality and governmental strife. At the same time, coffee has been – and continues to be – incredibly important fuel for the economies of Central American countries.

Coffee cultivation has a fraught history, and today we would do well to acknowledge that reality. Ignoring it and pretending that all coffee farmers are starting off on a level playing field does nothing but perpetuate the inequalities that built this industry. I could go on and on about this, but that is for another article.

A Brief History of Coffee in Central America

At this point we should all know that coffee is native to East Africa, in particular Ethiopia. So, how did this beloved plant get to Central America?

Map of Ethiopia under a background of coffee beans

In the early 1700s, a young coffee plant belonging to King Louis the XV of France made its way across the Atlantic. It was under the devoted care of the French Naval Officer Gabriel de Clieu.

After the journey, de Clieu planted the seedling on the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean. Coffee plantations soon spread across the island and beyond to other Caribbean islands. Plantation owners forced enslaved African and Indigenous people to tend to the coffee plants.

Over the course of a hundred or so years, coffee plants jumped between Caribbean islands and eventually made their way to the mainland. Otherwise known as Central America.

Meanwhile, Indigenous people and colonial settlers in Central America were rustling up resistance against the Spanish colonial government. Between the early- to mid-1800s, Central American countries achieved independence from Spain.

Consequently, coffee production increased in the region as a means to generate income for these new countries via export crops.

Simultaneously, the indigo trade, which was an early source of income for Central American colonies and independent nations, began to fail across the globe. With the invention of synthetic dyes, farmers in Central America needed a new crop to replace the old indigo industry.

Coffee plants thrived in the tropical climate of Central America, where the combination of rich volcanic soils, high elevations and a temperate climate was ideal for coffee cultivation.

By the late 1800s, coffee was a lucrative commercial export for Central American countries. Unfortunately, in many countries the wealthy coffee plantation owners carried on the precedents set by colonial European governments, forcing Indigenous people to labor on coffee farms.

Central American Coffee Production Today

African American woman cleaning hands from coffee beans during honey process

There was a time, namely in the early 20th century, when coffee production made up huge swaths of the GDPs of Central American countries. However, this changed due to a mix of factors: the Great Depression, coffee market volatility, leaf rust and climate change, to name a few.

While coffee production is no longer the biggest export or income source for many of these nations, it is still quite important. In fact, within particular coffee-growing regions, it’s not uncommon for over 50 percent of the population to rely on the coffee industry for its livelihood.

Most of these communities are made up of smallholders, or individual families with only a few hectares and relatively small harvests. In many cases, smallholders process their own harvest to a certain point, often washing it (or choosing a different processing method) before drying it and then bringing it to mills in parchment.

Smallholders in remote areas tend to lack market access, so they are beholden to people (sometimes called “coyotes”) who buy their coffee to transport it to market. Unfortunately, this often means a lack of transparency and lower prices paid to farmers. Coffee beans, even high quality ones, end up mixed into regional blends and sold for less than the cost of production.

While this is the reality for many coffee producers in Central America, it is not the only reality. Some coffee producers – whether by luck, determination or connections to wealthy families – have the finances and market access to focus on quality.

What Does Central American Coffee Taste Like?

Cuban Coffee Recipe

I’m going to be honest with you: anyone who claims that Central American coffee tastes a certain way is making a sweeping generalization.

While I don’t think these generalizations are malicious, I do think they can be harmful to the reputation and future market potential for Central American coffee. The truth is that the potential flavor profiles of coffee – in any region – are so wide in number and diversity.

Since we’re on the subject, let’s take Central American coffee as an example. You can buy a washed Geisha from Panama that is light and tea-like, with delicate flavors of flowers and stone fruit. Or, you can get a honey-processed Pacamara from El Salvador that is syrupy and sweet with rich cherry, honey and chocolate notes.

Finally, you can find a washed Parainema variety from Honduras that has mild acidity and tastes like cola and nuts. Do you see my point? These are all Central American coffees, but they couldn’t be more different.

In other words, don’t expect a Central American coffee to taste a certain way. The region is remarkably diverse in geography, climate and culture. Naturally, the coffee that is grown there is just as diverse.

Central American Coffee Countries

If I haven’t scared you away with my ranting yet, let’s explore the various Central American countries and their coffee industries.

Costa Rica

Coffee tree branch in Costa Rica

Costa Rica has a long history of coffee cultivation, and was allegedly the first Central American country to grow coffee plants. The country’s rich volcanic soil, mountainous geography and mild climate make it well-suited for coffee production.

This nation is perhaps most famous in the coffee industry for the creation of the honey process, in which coffee beans are depulped (the cherry is removed) and then dried with their sticky mucilage still intact.

Costa Rica is also unique in the coffee world because the cultivation of Coffea canephora, or Robusta coffee, is strictly banned in the country. Truthfully, this seems a little extreme to me, and I wonder how varieties that have both Arabica and Robusta genetics fare in this system.

Anyway, popular Arabica varieties grown in Costa Rica include Bourbon, Caturra, Pacas and Catuai. At their best, these varieties can produce clean and balanced cups with bright acidity.

El Salvador

El Salvador was one of the last Central American countries to start growing coffee. As recently as the 1980s, coffee represented a significant source of income for El Salvador. However, civil unrest and an unstable global coffee market have dramatically reduced coffee’s contribution to the nation’s GDP.

Though El Salvador doesn’t produce a whole lot of coffee, what it does produce tends to be pretty high quality. This is thanks to coffee farmers’ quality-focused agricultural practices. In particular, the Chalatenango region is known for very high quality coffees.

Eighty percent of El Salvador coffee is shade grown, and hand-picking cherries at peak ripeness is a common practice. What’s more, coffee farmers in El Salvador produce mostly washed coffees, often growing Bourbon, Caturra, Pacas and Pacamara varieties. In terms of taste, El Salvador coffee is known to be balanced, sweet and round.

Guatemala

Coffee Plantation in Guatemala

Guatemala is the second largest coffee producer in Central America. Historically, the Guatemalan government encouraged coffee production by distributing coffee seeds to farmers after the fall of the indigo industry in the late 1800s.

The nation’s rich volcanic soils and mountainous terrain allow coffee plants to thrive. Renowned growing regions include Antigua, Acatenango, Fraijanes and Huehuetenango. Unfortunately, like much of Central America, coffee producers in certain regions of Guatemala struggle with the prevalence of leaf rust due to a humid climate.

Coffee varieties commonly grown in Guatemala include Bourbon and Caturra. These varieties, when paired with the perfect growing conditions and exceptional harvesting and processing techniques, can yield clean, bright, fruity and floral cups.

Honduras

Honduras is the largest coffee producer in Central America, with Santa Barbara being the biggest growing region. Much of this coffee ends up as blended commodity-grade coffee, seeing as the specialty market is quite small.

What’s worse, leaf rust can be a big problem in Honduras. As a result, some producers grow the Honduran coffee variety Parainema, which has leaf rust-resistant Robusta genes from a few generations back.

Other commonly grown varieties in Honduras include Bourbon, Caturra, Catuaí and Typica. Due to the growing conditions, coffee from Honduras tends to have more mild acidity and sweetness than other Central American coffees. That said, depending on the variety, coffee from Honduras can have nutty and brown sugar notes.

Nicaragua

Arabica Coffee Beans

Nicaragua isn’t huge in the specialty market, but farmer education and focus on quality is steadily increasing across this coffee producing country. That said, ongoing political strife continues to destabilize the country. And, as a result, the coffee industry is rather volatile, especially for smallholders.

Incidentally, you won’t see many Nicaragua offerings on specialty roaster lineups. But if you do see one, I urge you to try it (as long as it was ethically sourced, that is). After all, we consumers support the coffee industry with our cash.

The flavor profile of coffee from Nicaragua depends on the particular growing region and coffee variety. Common coffee varieties grown in Nicaragua include Typica, Bourbon, Maragogype and Caturra.

Nicaraguan coffees can taste bright and fruity or, on the other side of the spectrum, mild and balanced with milk chocolate notes.

Panama

This Central American country is best known in the coffee world for its star-studded Panama Geisha lots. The elegant, floral, fruity and tea-like Ethiopian landrace variety thrives in the rich soil and high altitude of certain regions in Panama, such as the Boquete district.

However, Geisha was first planted in Panama for its natural resistance to leaf rust disease, not for its quality. Plus, before Panama’s current status as a celebrity in the coffee world, it was a largely overlooked growing region, and even exceptional coffee was unknowingly lumped into commercial blends.

Today, Panama’s coffee industry is small but features many exceptional and well-connected coffee farmers.

How to Buy Central American Coffee

To buy Central American coffee, you should go about it the way you would any other coffee. 

Ask your favorite roasters if they ever offer coffee from the aforementioned countries. If not, maybe they’d have recommendations for roasters that do carry these origins on their lineups.

Otherwise, ask Google! Try entering “[Insert Central American country here] specialty coffee” and see which roasters come up. Try as many different countries, regions, varieties and processing methods as possible in order to figure out what you like.

I don’t love suggesting Amazon as a possible market, but if it’s your only option you can find Central American coffee there, too. Oh, and if you ever get a chance to try Panama Geisha coffee? Don’t pass up on the opportunity.

Best Coffee Beans on Amazon Overview

Final Thoughts

It’s possible that you came to this article searching for general flavor profiles of Central American coffee.

I’m sorry to say that I didn’t deliver on that front. However, that is because – as I mentioned time and again – coffee trees and their growing regions are incredibly diverse, as are the coffee farmers that grow them. I would be misleading you if I said that you could expect any specific flavor profile from such a large region.

Still, I encourage you to see for yourself what Central American coffee tastes like. I hope this brief history lesson will give you some context the next time you’re sipping a Central American brew.

Central American Coffee FAQ

Central American coffee is coffee that is grown in any of the Central American countries.

The answer to this is super subjective! It depends on the producers you are buying from, the varieties that they grow and their chosen processing method.

Mellow, bright, chocolatey, fruity, nutty, delicate, punchy, juicy, citrus, tea-like, floral— does that sound like all the coffees in the world? That’s right, because Central American coffee is incredibly diverse! There is no general flavor profile for the region (or for any region, for that matter).

Your coffee expert
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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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