February 18, 2020

The Emerging Specialty Coffee Regions to Pay Attention To


The global coffee market is constantly evolving. While coffee production is currently dominated by a select group of countries, sourcing coffee from emerging regions might be a way to meet future demand, and meet rising expectations from the specialty coffee market.

Emerging regions aren’t just countries that have been producing coffee for years, or countries just starting out in production. It also includes countries that are resuming coffee production after years of inactivity due to war, disease, or natural disaster. It also includes current coffee-producing countries expanding their production region or scope.

Here’s why countries in these regions could add value to today’s coffee industry, what they have to offer from a production and roasting perspective, and some of the ones coffee professionals can watch out for.

Lee este artículo en español Orígenes de Café Especial Emergentes Para Considerar

Coffee-growing region in Honduras

View from a coffee farm in Copán, Honduras. Credit: Gisselle Guerra 

What’s Causing The Shift?

According to a January 2020 Coffee Production Report released by the International Coffee Association, the bulk of the world’s coffee is produced in Brazil, Colombia, and Vietnam, with these three countries accounting for about 74% of the world’s total production. With climate change set to impact bean belt countries, there’s a need to invest in new coffee-producing regions, as production in current countries might not be able to meet future demand.

Dale Harris is a 2017 World Barista Champion and Director of Wholesale at Hasbean Coffee Group in the UK, a business that sources and roasts coffee from around the world. He tells me that “the economic benefit has shrunk and the environmental possibilities have become more challenging. And what we’re seeing is some producers no longer being able to produce coffee”.

These regions could impact the specialty coffee industry as new markets increase their coffee consumption. For example, China has one of the largest populations in the world, and its coffee consumption rises every year. This could dramatically affect the specialty coffee supply and demand balance. 

To keep the supply in line with growing demand and new opportunities, new coffee producing and exporting countries are now tapping into the specialty coffee market. If buyers and roasters follow suit and invest in them, these areas could ensure a future for the specialty coffee industry in the coming years.

See also: Entering China’s Emerging Coffee Market

Honey processed beans at a coffee mill in El Salvador. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

Challenges & Opportunities Facing Producers

Small-scale production, a lack of training in specialty coffee production, variable or substandard processing, infrastructure limitations, inefficient supply chains, and a coffee trading status quo are some of the challenges producers are confronted with. However, producers in emerging regions will experience certain advantages.

Balzac Brothers are green coffee importers based in North America. I spoke to Richard Keane, who is Head of Green Coffee Sales, on purchasing coffee from producers in these areas. He says, “While we’ll always have immense respect for the longstanding relationships that we’ve enjoyed and still rely on from more traditional markets, it’s true that working with newer markets can yield some great results”.

Traditional markets may find this daunting. Dale says, “I think that heritage creates restrictions. Every change is painful because all that money and all that investment is tied up in there”. However, starting from scratch can have benefits, as newer producing regions have a high capacity to adapt to buyer and consumer demand, allowing them to leapfrog to a position that established production areas can take decades to secure. 

“Producers who are bringing coffee to or back to their respective countries are doing so cautiously and meticulously. Coffee producers understand that coffee is fragile as a crop and that extra care must be taken with regards to processing and plant care. Such producers can also be more willing to experiment with different processing techniques and are willing to invest in marketing which can go a long way in the modern consumers’ ever-vigilant eye,” says Richard.

You may also like How Can Long-Term Relationships Increase Sustainability at Origin?

Coffee-growing region in Guatemala

View from El Paraíso coffee farm in Guatemala. Credit: Urisar Ferneldy de León 

Many of the challenges faced by producers in these regions can also be viewed as opportunities. This can include roaster/buyer-producer collaborations, communities drawing together for knowledge-sharing and training, and capacity building and professional development (Q-grading and Q-processing certifications). It can also include building a network of producers, traders, and buyers with common goals for economic development, as well as improved coffee quality and livelihoods. 

Richard illustrates this point with an example from Papua New Guinea. “Papua New Guinea in recent past had struggled to deliver coffee from the farm/mill to the port. Recent investments in roads and infrastructure have provided farmers with stronger connections to markets. The tightly-knit group of producers/growers have created some amazing coffees”.

The key opportunity for such producers is to tap into the demands of specialty coffee buyers in terms of quality, flavours, and processing methods. If these qualities are there, there’s a high chance of a sale. Buyers are actively seeking out the next big thing and will support and collaborate with producers to reach better quality and new flavours.

Coffee-growing region in Honduras

Coffee cherries dry on raised beds at a farm in El Salvador. Credit: Julio Guevara

Challenges & Opportunities For Roasters

Specialty coffee buyers and roasters have to stay on top of trends, and while coffees from certain origins are considered to be classics, an evolving list of newer ones should be made available for curious coffee drinkers and adventurous palates. Roasters and coffee shops should constantly be on the lookout for new tastes. “Novelty can be enough to get someone to your door if… there’s quality there,” says Dale.

Just because a coffee is new, doesn’t mean that it will take off. Sometimes negative perceptions of a country may come into play – especially if it’s one with a history of war, corruption, or disease. Roasters can play a role here in educating the consumer, by telling them the story behind the coffee and changing the narrative. If this takes place and the coffee does well, its value will go up, and the producer and roaster will be supported for taking that risk, Dale points out.

It’s about finding a balance between offering quality coffee and coffee that appeals to “the average coffee consumer who wants something better, that’s not over-roasted, but tastes like coffee,” Dale explains. He mentions Thai coffees as an example. “The different processing [it undergoes] gives it incredible sweetness, real depth, but also really chewy bodies. [It] bridges that gap … to the people who are just falling in love with coffee”.

Travelling to these regions and building a market for their coffees will be part of the attraction to roasters. Another benefit is that they’ll get to work with producers responsive to buyer demand and collaboratively experimenting at every step of the process.

Coffee flowers bloom at a farm in Guatemala. Credit: Urisar Ferneldy de León

Coffee-Producing Regions to Look Out For 

Many regions from all over the world are increasing their specialty coffee production, or are improving their existing production volumes. Here are few that Richard and Dale have found to be noteworthy.

Asia & The Pacific

For Richard, exceptional coffees are coming out of Indonesia, such as Java, Sulawesi, Flores, and Sumatra. While Indonesia is a well-established coffee producer, these regions are starting to export noteworthy specialty coffees in smaller volumes.

Dale is impressed by the coffee recently coming out of Thailand, saying they have “quality coffees that taste spicy, chocolatey… It’s a coffee that’s heavy, rich, sweet, and flexible”. 

In China, most of the coffee comes from the South’s Yunnan Province, which has a climate similar to Colombia and Indonesia. These coffees have been increasing in quality. Dale says, “The first samples… were pretty comparable to a good [Brazilian], but nothing more exciting… we’ve seen dynamic improvements in terms of less negative issues, fewer defects, [as well as] more innovation in processing, more innovation in how those coffees taste, and more transparency over variety and origin”.

He also mentions Yemen. “We launched the coffee from Yemen that we bought three, four years ago. And the response was crazy. It’s very hard to buy coffee from other regions that taste quite like that”. He adds that “Papua New Guinea has recently produced some very clean and complex coffees. The country has been able to do so for some time. However, the change has come in the form of availability”.

See also: Tracing Coffee’s Roots Back to Al-Mokha, Yemen

A coffee labourer pours washed beans into a drying bed at a coffee farm in Ethiopia. Credit: Meklit Mersha

Central & South America 

South and Central American countries have a long history of producing quality coffee. However, certain established regions have been changing their approach to production, bringing in a new generation of producers, and shifting their focus towards specialty coffee.

Richard says that “countries like El Salvador… are producing extremely high-quality coffee and understand the ever-growing need for attention to detail when it comes to processing and the coffee’s story. We’ve seen an amazing younger generation come back into the producing side of the industry. This younger generation brings… some amazing marketing and some very meticulous processing. The coffee [is]… super complex, very sweet, and has more acidity than what we have come to expect from the region. It’s been amazing to see El Salvador start to regrow their coffee-growing sector”.

He also mentions Guatemala, which he says has been impacted by leaf rust and the coffee price crisis. “However, the country has many micro-climates and is therefore very resilient. Guatemala can be considered to be a more traditional coffee-growing country and in many ways is. However, the country is investing more in premium specialty coffee infrastructure”.

Guatemala is well known for its Huehuetenango and Antigua growing regions. However, Richard says, “We’ve seen some rivalling complex coffees come from regions like San Marcos. The country’s shifting climates and investments in a diverse group of coffee varieties has led to some exciting new results. Where Antigua is floral and bright, Huehuetenango is winey and dry, and San Marcos is sweet and candy-like”.

For Dale, countries Bolivia and Ecuador are producing improved coffee. He says, “In the past, [they] have not had the necessary infrastructure or management to set up a successful, quality-focused coffee industry. We’re now seeing more investment in these countries and look forward to seeing some different flavour profiles and processes come to the market”.

Coffee trees at a farm in Copán, Honduras. Credit: Gisselle Guerra 

There’s currently a big demand for coffee coming from emerging regions, but a number of obstacles still challenge their market entry and long-term success. Using hard work and strategic collaboration, they could tip the balance in their favour.

For Dale, these new areas are a strong motivation behind his work. “When a region starts producing coffee that actually you can’t find anywhere else, that’s incredibly exciting…  It’s why I… choose to work in coffee.”

Specialty coffee has high demands in terms of quality and traceability, but can offer the right price in exchange. This is successfully incentivising emerging regions to produce coffee – not as a low-cost commodity, but as a high-quality product with the potential to meet specialty consumer demand and boost economies.

Written by Sarah Charles. Feature photo caption: coffee labourer holding a coffee seedling at a nursery in Ethiopia. Feature photo credit: Meklit Mersha 

Found this interesting? Read: Why Knowledge of Coffee Origin Matters

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