Asian Coffee: Sumatra, Java and a whole lot more

We don't normally think of Asian coffee, believing instead that both Asia and the Pacific are tea-drinking nations, steeped in tradition and ceremony. But I was surprised, when out of the top ten coffee producing nations, three of them are actually located in Asia - Indonesia, Vietnam, and India.

There are a number of other countries that also produce Asian Coffee, including Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Togo, Philippines, and even China grows a little coffee. So it seems that coffee beans from Asia are not just coming, but they are making their presence felt in the coffee cups of the entire world.

Today, we will look at the top four producers of Asian Coffee. Many parts of the Asian world are very choosy about their coffee and have, arguably, the best coffee shops in the world. There are also many farms that grow beans famous for their light acidity, full body, delicious aroma and earthy flavor.

Low acid, dark roasts

In general you will find that Asian Coffee is low in acidity with bold, strong body. These coffee beans are popular with people who love coffee and habitually drink it black to get every bit of flavor from it.

The roasts are usually dark to very dark and the flavors are very different from other parts of the world—powerful and robust with a smooth, earthy tone and yet some impart a sweet and flowery essence that is difficult to describe but incredibly delectable.

So let's take a look at some of the Asian coffee producing countries. The Arabica coffee bean trees flourish in most of Southeast Asia because of the perfect combination of heat, humidity, rainfall and rich, fertile soil.

Indonesia

It's hard to miss the importance of Indonesia these days as a coffee producing country. It was placed as the fourth largest producer in the world. And you'll find the Indonesian beans making their way into the hearts of coffee lovers everywhere.

The beans produced in Sumatra and Java are perhaps the best known, but you can add many other regions to the list, including Sulawesi. So what makes these regions the darlings of sensitive coffee drinkers worldwide? Well...

The flavor, acidity, aroma and level of caffeine are influenced by several factors. Soil conditions are important and the rich, volcanic soil of Indonesia is particularly friendly to coffee trees.

Elevation, of course, affects the beans and so does the amount of shade or sunlight that they get. The method of harvesting, processing and how the beans are roasted also contribute to the body, flavor and aroma of the coffee.

Most people are already well familiar with two of the names on the Indonesian list: Sumatra and Java. You can easily find these coffees in your local roasters.  But there are a couple more that may interest, even surprise, you:

Sumatra coffee offers drinkers a notable body and rich coffee. Perhaps you'll be able to detect hints of chocolate-rich flavors in your cup, too. It's those factors that keep Sumatra a popular bean with lots of appeal.

Java coffee also grows perhaps the most exquisite Arabica beans at very high elevations, making picking difficult, to say the least! You can try some of the wet-processed coffee beans that originate from the former Dutch estates. These embody the delicious fragrance and flavors of top quality Indonesian coffee.

The last of the triumvirate of Indonesian coffee is Sulawesi known for a low-acidity coffee with a well-developed body. You'll find these beans in popular specialist stores nationwide, even if you can't find it in the supermarket.

And even Bali coffee grows, picks and sells their own coffee beans. The growing conditions in Bali favor a milder coffee with a lighter body, too.

India

India is a major Asian coffee producing nation, though most of the coffee is used for its internal consumption. Occasionally, you'll see a specialty coffee though in limited quantities.

Unique in its cultivation of coffee, India grows almost all of its coffee under shade. These coffee are mild with reasonable acidity levels, a full-bodied taste and a delicious aroma.

While the majority of its coffee is Robusta, Arabica beans are also cultivated in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Robusta is grown in both of these states, and also in Kerala State. While India is currently (2010) Asia's largest coffee exporter and sells most of its coffee crop abroad, somehow only a small amount goes to the US.

India has some unique coffees because of the way the beans are aged, fermented and processed before roasting. But for international drinkers, there are some rare beans grown and harvesting in the gold mining region in the southwest part of the country called Mysore Gold Nugget beans, smooth light body flavor and taste.

One of the most popular ways to drink Indian coffee is known as the Indian filter coffee method. This is created from mixing Indian coffee beans with chicory just prior to making the coffee.

The device appears similar to a Moka Pot but it is much stronger, and is often drunk in diluted form with hot milk (similar to Latte) with added sugar. The coffee appears frothy by virtue of the unique pouring technique.

Papua New Guinea

Lying right next to Indonesia is Papua New Guinea (PNG) which is a much more recent entrant to the Asian coffee market. Most coffee grown in PNG is tens of thousands of small, village coffee gardens which producing 70% of the nations exported crop.

These farmers tend to grow organically certified beans. But quality can be erratic at times, and perhaps that's why they don't travel well and often arrive in Europe and North America in less than optimal condition. But when the beans are in top condition, they are excellent with deep and vibrant tones.

The remainder of the crop is produced by estate coffee farmers which use modern techniques for processing the crop. The estates do manage to produce more consistent beans and can be rated from 'pleasant' to 'outstanding'. Somehow, they manage to make their way to the North American market where their quality is appreciated and priced accordingly.

Look for beans from Sigri which are from the Western Highlands Province. There are estate coffees also from the Eastern Highlands Province. We'd love to see all coffee beans from PNG reach these standards, and the local Coffee Boards are working hard to improve standards.

Vietnam

Lastly, we'll look at Asian Coffee from Vietnam which is a drip filter type preparation, introduced by the French and adapted by the Vietnamese to their own recipes. The effects of the Vietnam war devastated much of the economy, including the Coffee industry.

But cultivation is restarting, and the flurry of new restaurants in other parts of Asia is helping popularize the Vietnamese way of drinking coffee. The grounds usually quite coarse are placed in a simple metal filter. And hot water is poured over the grounds.

The coffee drips slowly into the bottom of the cup where there is condensed milk (the Vietnamese solution to tropical temperatures!) to sweeten and add milk. This is all done at your table.

Typically, the coffee used is medium roasted, ground coarsely and locally grown. The main bean grown here is the Robusta from the South, which is a suitable choice because it's relatively easier to grow. There is interested in cultivating Arabica beans in the North, too. I'll be looking forward to trying some of the Arabica blends that they grow in the future.

Other Places

There are other Indonesian islands that regularly produce coffee beans, including Timor, New Caledonia, but you will also find coffee from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and even Australia.

Asian coffee is surprisingly diverse, but is unrecognized in the West for both its variety and its quality. Go look in your local coffee emporium, and see if you can't try some of the finer blends available.

I can't promise you'll always like the either Asian flavors of coffee or Asian methods of making coffee, some of them are too sweet for my taste buds! But you will find that they can adapt to popular preparation methods in the US and Europe!

It is well worth seeking out some beans and treating yourself to some unforgettable coffee!

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