Despite more than two billion cups of coffee being drunk everyday around the world, few of us know where that coffee comes from. Here we take a look at what the coffee belt is and why it’s so important.
The coffee bean belt is where the world’s coffee is grown. The coffee belt lies between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, 23.5 degrees north and south of the equator. The coffee belt passes through some 70 countries, which have tropical climates that provide rich environments that are perfect for growing coffee.
Not all of the coffee produced within the coffee bean belt is equal. Read on to find out how you can buy the best-tasting coffee on the planet.
The coffee bean belt
The coffee bean belt is an imaginary strip that runs through the middle of the planet. From north to south, the coffee belt is approximately 3,200 miles (5,100km).
The coffee belt crosses through five continents, which are South America, North America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. However, Oceania produces very little coffee in comparison to the other four continents.
Of the 70 or so countries that the coffee belt passes through, only 44 produce coffee in any significant quantities. Here is a list of those coffee-producing countries.
|China||Malaysia||Ivory Coast||Costa Rica|
|Tanzania||Papua New Guinea||Kenya||Thailand|
|Bolivia||Panama||Sierra Leone||United States|
There are common biological necessities universal to all plants. The essentials for plant growth are sun, water, soil and air. These four combine to provide plants with the energy and nutrients that they need.
The coffee plant needs a very specific set of conditions if it’s to survive and thrive, and this is where the coffee belt comes in. The geographical location of the coffee belt is special because:
- There is sufficient rain with distinct dry seasons.
- The climate has moderately sunny days with cool and stable temperatures.
- There are high enough altitudes for the coffee plants to thrive.
- The soil is fertile for coffee plants.
While the growing conditions are similar between the countries within the coffee belt, the variations in soil, temperature, rainfall and altitude all greatly affect the flavour of the beans that the coffee plant produces.
In fact, just as with wine, the taste of one coffee can even have dramatic differences from another produced on a neighbouring farm.
Whilst coffee is able to grow outside of the coffee belt, the coffee that is produced outside of the belt is nowhere near as good because those regions lack the fundamentals essential for the coffee plant.
Why is the coffee belt so important?
The climate within the coffee belt provides optimum conditions for growing coffee. Coffee plants require very specific needs if they’re to produce good-quality coffee. Let’s take a look at them.
Coffee trees need moist, tropical climates that have distinct dry and wet seasons. A lot of coffee farmers rely on rainfall as their only source of water, so the wet season provides the vast quantities of coffee plants with the water that they need to survive.
The dry season provides the opportunity to harvest the coffee cherry fruits that house the coffee beans. A coffee’s harvest season lasts for two to three months during the dry season, and the cherries will be picked several times over those months as they continue to ripen.
Whilst most countries have a single harvest season, some countries such as Colombia have a second, smaller harvest season.
Coffee plants need stable temperatures due to their sensitivities to both extreme cold and heat. Many coffee plants are not able to tolerate huge fluctuations in temperature, needing year-round temperatures between 15 – 30°C (59 – 86°F).
Another issue is that certain coffee species dislike too much exposure to sunlight. In order to protect the coffee plants, some farms use the protection of forest trees to shade the coffee plants.
Coffee grown under shade has other benefits such as discouraging weed growth, providing protection from frost, and increasing the number of pollinators, which results in greater quantities of coffee cherry fruits.
Coffee grown in the shade also takes longer to ripen, creating a more complex coffee as the natural fruit sugars have more time to develop.
As coffee is grown near the equator, the countries that produce coffee are some of the hottest in the world. Because of this, most coffee is grown at high altitudes where the climate is cooler and more stable.
Most of the world’s coffee is grown between 1000 – 2000m (3300 – 6600ft) above sea level. The temperatures at these altitudes do not change a great deal between the maximum highs and lows, which is perfect for the coffee plant.
Altitude is also vitally important when the plant has low levels of caffeine as there is less chance of attack from pests because fewer reside at elevation.
Coffee grown at altitude also gives coffee a desirable acidity like that found in wines. That may come as a surprise to you due to the misnomer that coffee is inherently bitter.
Soil plays a huge role in a coffee planet’s survival as it provides the necessary nutrients that are not found from air and water.
Coffee is able to grow in a variety of soils, but the ideal types are fertile volcanic red earth or deep sandy loam.
A lot of the countries in the coffee belt are part of the Ring of Fire. The volcanic activity found there contributes to the richness of the soil that the coffee plants thrive in.
For coffee trees to grow, it’s important that the soil is well-draining. Soil naturally holds or drains water, depending on its pore space, which means that heavy clay or heavy sandy soils are inadequate.
As well as drainage, the texture of the soil also impacts the ability of coffee plants to withstand dry seasons, because water that is held deep within the soil is used over periods of low rainfall.
One of the most important nutrients for growing coffee is nitrogen. Nitrogen is used for essential functions such as photosynthesis and new tissue production, as well as other key processes.
The pH of the soil is also another important factor in the growth of coffee plants. Many tropical or semi-tropical coffee-growing regions of the world have slightly acidic soil, which is favorable for growing coffee.
Different requirements for arabica and robusta coffee
More than 98 percent of the world’s coffee is made up of only two species of coffee plant. The two species are Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora, which are better known as arabica and robusta, respectively.
The two species couldn’t be more different, having very different botanical and chemical features and qualities.
Arabica is the more delicate of the two, requiring very specific conditions in order to survive. Robusta is a lot more hardy by comparison, being able to withstand greater extremes of temperature, altitude and rainfall.
|Ideal temperature||15 – 25°C||20 – 30°C|
|Altitude||1000 – 2000m||200 – 600m|
|Rainfall||1500 – 2500mm||2000 – 3000mm|
|Sugar content||6 – 9%||10 – 12%|
|Caffeine content||0.8 – 1.6%||1.7 – 4%|
A coffee plant’s caffeine levels is vitally important as it acts as a natural pesticide, which is why arabica has to grow at higher altitudes where fewer pests live. For this reason, the naturally low caffeine coffee called laurina almost became extinct.
Most robusta is grown between 200 – 600m (650 – 2000ft), but the plant species even able to grow at sea level because of how hardy it is. This is definitely not something that the arabica plant is able to do.
Arabica has double the chromosomes of robusta, which is why it has a more complex flavour profile. But there are other factors as to why arabica is so much tastier.
The combination of growing at higher altitudes and having lower caffeine levels combined with a higher sugar content means that arabica is far superior, making the best and most delicious coffee.
Which countries produce the best coffee?
The countries that produce the best coffee is the world are those that grow the arabica variety. Arabica is grown in greater quantities in the Americas and Africa. In no particular order, here is our list of the best coffee on the planet:
Colombian coffee makes up eight percent of the world’s coffee, all of which is the superior arabica variety. Not only is it a coffee-producing behemoth, but the geography means that Colombia produces some of the best coffee on the planet.
Colombian coffee is grown at very high altitudes in nutrient-dense, volcanic soil, which is why it’s so delicious. And with Colombian coffee, there’s something to please everyone.
From the more subtle chocolate and nut flavours that are also common to Brazilian coffees, there are the intensely fruity and floral coffees that display an incredible acidity only found with high altitude coffee.
The fact that the coffee-growing regions of Colombia are made up of smaller farms means that the emphasis is more on quality than quantity.
Every Spanish speaking country in Central America produces delicious coffee, but Guatemalan coffee really is something special.
97 percent of the coffee produced in Guatemala is of the arabica variety, which tells you why it’s so good. Just as with Colombian coffee, the coffee in Guatemala is grown in volcanic soil.
Guatemalan coffee exhibits a wide range of flavours, from the bold and heavy, chocolatey coffees to the lighter, intensely sweet and fruity cups.
Another Central American country producing some of the best coffee in the world is Costa Rica. The coffee produced there is definitely one of my personal favourites.
All of the coffee grown in the country is of the arabica variety, and what I especially like is how diverse the coffees are from region to region.
The coffee is typically very clean with a brown-sugar sweetness and a wide range of fruit flavours.
There are two countries in Africa that are undoubtedly the kings of coffee. Ethiopia is one of those countries and for good reason.
Ethiopian coffee will really challenge your perception of what coffee is. Often made up of varietals of arabica not found outside the country, the coffee is incredibly diverse.
The delicate aroma of Ethiopian coffee is unmistakable, with notes of jasmine, bergamot and lavender. The flavour is intensely fruity, with blueberry being synonymous with Ethiopian coffee.
Almost a century ago, a group of researchers set out to find the right varietal of arabica for quality in Kenya. That varietal is SL28 and is now the poster boy of Kenyan coffee.
Just as with Ethiopian coffee, Kenyan coffee is also unmistakeable. The coffees are intensely fruity, often with flavours of blackcurrant, and they also have a delicious sweetness and acidity.
If you would like to buy coffee from anyone of these countries, check the list of our favourite coffee roasters.
- The World Atlas of Coffee (2nd ed.) by James Hoffmann.
- Coffee Obsession by Anette Moldvaer.