Central American coffee as a whole is lackluster and traditional tasting, with often overbearing acidity and a lack of complexity.However, it is vitally important to seek out the good Central Americans, because the good ones are as good of coffee as you will ever have. Central American farmers experiment with a variety of processing methods, has a wide range of altitude, a wide range of soil composition, and a wide range of structure. The high-altitude carfully processed Central Americans appeal to just about everyone.
Costa Rica: Perhaps the gem of the whole continent. Some of the best coffee in the world comes out of Costa Rica, particularly the Tarrazu region, and more specifically, the sub-region of Dota. A quality Costa Rican coffee should be roasted no darker than the start of the 2nd cracks, and in many cases, a lighter roast than this will provide a better mug of coffee. Very light roasts will bring out unpleasant tones of lemon and sourness, but from the 2nd cracks and beyond, burnt tastes quickly develop, and any special quality in the coffee is immediately lost. In-between, you find a sweet spot that gives you a coffee with just the right amount of acidity, body, and complexity. The undertones are not prominent, but certainly there if you’re looking for them. A quality Costa Rica at its best roast will demonstrate floral aroma, delicate taste, sweet grain undertones, and an aftertaste so smooth and sweet you can’t help but get a refill.
With few exceptions, Costa Rican coffee is a washed process coffee. Honey Processed microlots are sometimes available in late spring, and tend to be slightly more complex and have a softer taste.
In general, the estates produce better coffee than the co-ops, so it is often more successful to seek out responsible farms instead of fair trade certifications.
El Salvador: Washed-process El Salvador is rarely worth getting excited about. It is not bad coffee by any means, but it is not special coffee either. Its lack of complexity and depth makes it quickly forgettable. Roasting it just into the 2nd cracks is typically your best bet. The best estates do have something to brag about in their coffee beans, but those beans are often priced accordingly.
The Natural processed El Salvadors are a fantastic value. Considerably cheaper than a natural processed African, but in many ways comparable – with a fruity tone (often cherry) that can’t be overlooked. As with most Natural processed coffees, you typically want to keep it out of the 2nd cracks.
The Pulped-Natural (honey processed) coffees are my favorite, with a traditional coffee taste, subtle cherry, slight acidity, clean aftertaste, and extraordinary honey-like sweetness.
There are several reputable estates, and many of them offer all three processing methods.
Guatemala: Guatemala has several distinct regions, and some of the newer ones will probably become common in the near future, but right now you most often have a choice of the following:
Antigua: typically the brightest, and if it’s not one of the highest-altitude grown Antiguas, brace yourself for its harsh acidity in lighter roasts.The good Antiguas are best right at the 2nd cracks and can offer you a balanced citrus acidity (often tangerine/orange undertones).Some Antiguas do have cocoa notes in the darker roasts, but some are just flat.
Atitlan: a good Atitlan is your best bet for a chocolate-tasting Guatemala About 15 seconds into the 2nd cracks is where you find the acidity toned down, hints of earthiness to complement the cocoa flavor which complements the start of bitterness in the coffee taste. It sounds odd, but it’s a balance that works well.
Huehuetenango: my personal favorite because even a less-than-spectacular Huehuetenango is going to have some nice character and will be pretty easy to sell. The average Huehuetenango is best just before the 2nd cracks, and will feature traditional taste with fun undertones of citrus and a pleasant acidity. But a really nice Huehuetenango needs 5 to 15 seconds into the 2nd cracks which will burn off the acidity and citrus notes, but produce chocolate notes in the coffee. Try to find beans that are from Acetenango, a mico-region within Huehuetenango.
Guatemala is virtually always a washed-process coffee. As a general rule, Guatemala is not a great shot of espresso, giving it a screeching shrill citrus taste, but blending it in at 10% or less it can add citrus character. Although several estates tend to be safe bets, some of the most spectacular lots of Guatemala I’ve tasted were just generic Fair Trade Organic co-ops.Takes a bit of sampling to find them each spring, but they are out there.
Honduras: I have fun buying Honduran coffee because it consistently entertains me with the colors and designs printed on the burlap bags. But as to the coffee itself, it can be a tough sell. In general, light roasts are unpleasantly lemongrass toned, and French Roasts are a bit too charcoal tasting, so just at the verge of 2nd cracks is your best bet – and what you really hope for here is a solid drip coffee that is one step above a Colombia, sure to please a crowd, but nothing unique. Occasionally you stumble on a microlot of natural-processed Honduras, but the results vary widely. Citrus and stone fruit are likely hidden in the natural-processed lots, but so can be odd flavors of tomato, lavender, or cardamom.
One interesting note is that Honduran green coffee does not store well .It is as good from April through June when it arrives in the USA. Buy enough to last you through the summer, and phase it out. After October, the brokers start slashing prices and trying to move it to anyone who needs a cheap filler coffee. The body and acidity become flat. But yet there is still a lemon note on the lighter roasts that make it difficult to use as a flavored coffee.
The market offers a plethora of Fair Trade Organic co-ops to choose from, without one in particular necessarily standing apart from the rest.
Mexico: It is difficult for me to write about Mexican coffee, because I personally have not ever had a Mexican coffee I enjoyed. I have been told that good Mexican coffee does exist, but is hard to source, and most Mexican coffee on the marketplace is cheap filler coffee and not characteristic of the best Mexican. All I know is that in lighter roasts, I find unbearable bright acidity paired with undesirable nutty flavor and thin body. At medium roasts I find unpleasant acidity and nothing special in the taste. And in French Roasts, it is simply a run-of-the-mill French Roast. My best result with Mexican coffee is a blend of dark Mexican – maybe 40 seconds of 2nd cracks – blended with Colombian taken right to the 2nd cracks.That gives you an interesting mix of roast level and taste profiles without being weird, and is a solid house blend. But with so many other origins to choose from, I have trouble spending much time on Mexico.
Nicaragua: The mountainous country of Nicaragua is well suited for growing specialty coffee, and you find a large variety of offerings with every certification in the book at very little premium in price over the non-certified crops.
Nicaraguan coffee is a washed process bean, and while I’ve had natural and pulped natural Nicaraguan experiments, I don’t see them becoming popular.
The two most common regions are Jinotega and Matagalpa, but they are rarely labeled or sold by region as the two regions have similar harvests in most regards. Most of the coffee is sorted and sold by altitude, with SHG (strictly high grown) beans being at the top of the mountain and (HB) Hard Bean being a little lower and cheaper (although still pretty good in the overall picture). The very best Nicaraguan coffees are not going to blow you away. Because of the very low acidity, very little aftertaste, and minimal complexity, Nicaragua is my favorite bean to use for flavored coffee. Roasted just maybe 20-30 seconds past the end of the 1st cracks lends itself well to adding solid flavoring components. Take it almost to the 2nd cracks to add oil flavorings.As a drip coffee, Nicaragua is a really nice, albeit unordinary, mug of coffee, and one of my favorites from the Central American region. You do have to use your imagination a bit to pick up the undertones, but the lighter roasts will have creamy milk chocolate hints and occasionally mild citrus notes; and at the 2nd cracks you can find the same subtle character but with a generally pleasing richer body. French Roast is good, although nothing special. It is the most common country for finding the Margogype varietal, which is a bean extraordinary large in size ("elephant bean"). Unfortunately, the Margogype varietal is not known for its taste quality, and is more of a novelty coffee than something to seek out.
Panama: A good Panama is comparable to an island coffee, and a Panama Gesha varietal green coffee commands $30 - $100 a pound but who can justify that? On the flip side, there is a LOT of mediocre Panama coffee on the market and very little of it is organic and it has little use other than to turn into flavored coffee. Panama Boquette is the most common region and does not tell you anything about the taste simply by the name, as both some of the best estates and boring coffees all come out of Boquette. Panamas should be roasted half way between the end of the 1st cracks and beginning of 2nds. If that has too much citrus or floral for your taste, you can take it almost into the 2nd cracks, but no further. The nice estates do not come cheap. With Panama, you typically get what you pay for.