The original domesticated coffee plant is said to have been from Harar, Ethiopia, with distinct nearby populations in Sudan and Kenya.
But now, coffee is produced in over 70 countries around the world, even though 60 per cent of the world’s coffee is produced by just four of them – Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia.
It is the world’s second most traded commodity, just behind oil, and most producers are located in the Bean Belt (the belt running between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn). Most speciality coffee, which you will see on the ‘Best In The World’ lists, are typically grown in three continents: South and Central Americas, Asia, and Africa.
This is because coffee trees need the presence of a temperate or tropical climate where there is no frost, ample sunshine, and plenty of water. However, other factors such as the height at which beans are grown also factor into how good a bean is.
1,229 coffees from around the world were harvested between 2010 and 2018 and then graded by professional tasters certified by the Coffee Quality Institute. The CQI is a non-profit organisation who works internationally to improve the quality of coffee and the lives of the people who produce it.
Bean Poet have plotted all of the results from the coffee bean grading on an interactive graph, which displays the grades given to all of the coffees from the top 16 producers. Every coffee reviewed is represented by a single dot, with data on the points they received, the region in which it was grown and by whom.
As you can see, Ethiopia is not just the origin of coffee, but still produces the best coffee beans around the world according to this CQI study. With an average rating of 84.88, it just pips Kenya to pole position (Average rating: 84.31) while Uganda (Average rating: 84.05) rounds off the top 3.
The dots do get a bit crowded in some of the top countries, so Bean Poet has also broken the results down country-by-country on their website if you want to do some further research.
Sudan, which was another original producer of coffee, is a glaring omission from the top 16. Their coffee industry was all but destroyed during the conflict which saw South Sudan become independent from Sudan in 2011. Many of the coffee farmers adapted to produce food for a nation suffering from famine, but there are still farmers in the country growing coffee beans for Nespresso, as you can read in this post.
While this particular data concludes that Ethiopia has the best coffee in the world, it has the highest average score of the coffees submitted for cupping to the CQI. To find the absolute best coffee would involve reviewing every bean produced, not just those which have been submitted to this independent third-party cup score for international review.
However, it is a country which is commonly named number one amongst the best coffee producers in the world, by roasters and other reviewers alike, so while not every single cup of coffee from Ethiopia is guaranteed to blow your socks off, the likelihood of it being good is in its favour.
Speciality coffee is commonly graded, but how is this done? Well, there are no steadfast rules around the world as every country has its own grading process, but in order to be crowned as one of the best in the world, there is another international step to overcome.
The SCA Coffee Beans Classification is a standardised method to compare coffee beans. It judges the relationship between the number of defective coffee beans and the overall cup quality.
Hulled green beans are sorted over screens with different sized holes. The beans remaining in each screen are weighed, and the percentage of the total number of beans left is recorded. The coffee is then roasted and cupped in order to evaluate the characteristics.
This screening method was developed upon the belief that coffee beans grown at higher altitudes are denser and larger, and also have the best flavour. So, it is believed that there is a correlation between bean size, density and quality. Beans of a similar size will likely achieve better roasting results, hence the higher quality cup of coffee too.
Coffee which scores between 90-100 is graded Outstanding; scores of 85-89.99 are graded Excellent, while coffee scoring 80-84.99 is graded Very Good. A minimum requirement for a speciality coffee is the number of defects: to be considered speciality coffee, it must have 0 to 5 defects in every 350g of milled beans.