The tropical forests and volcanoes of Central America make it a fascinating region capable of growing delicious coffee. Central America is the isthmus between North and South America. Sometimes Mexico is included, since its climate, geography and heritage blend together with Guatemala’s. All seven countries grow coffee successfully. Several cultivate astonishing, specialty-grade coffees.
Of all the coffee-growing countries in Central America, Costa Rica and Guatemala are reputed to have a concentration of quality coffee. However, this is an outdated assumption. It lumps the rest of the small Central American countries together despite the variety of coffee they grow. While they may seem homogenous, or very similar, their people and geography have variety within the borders of each country. Many distinguishing patterns have arisen since each country formed its present-day borders. Like the people and land in these countries, the different coffees being grown have a rich history.
Coffee arrived to this area at the turn of the nineteenth century. Catholic missionaries brought it from overseas. It took a few decades for coffee to take off. In the twentieth century, the Nicaraguan government helped subsidize the industry. Today, Jinotega and Matagalpa are the major coffee-growing regions.
This tiny country grows a large amount of coffee, proportionally speaking, though not as much as Honduras’ coffee operations. Coffee made up 90% of the country’s exports by the early 1900s. Today, three cooperatives help foster sustainable agriculture. They also prioritize true shade-grown coffee. El Salvador has notable varieties of coffee, including Bourbon, Maragogipe and Pacamara.
Honduras leads Central America in terms of the total amount of coffee grown. Overall, it’s the eighth-largest coffee producer worldwide. In the past, Honduras was known for growing beans destined for coffee blends. Today, that reputation is being updated. Honduran coffee taste assessments are ranking most of its single-origin coffees higher. Many people importing coffee from Honduras are forming great opinions, helping it join the ranks of coffee from Costa and Guate. The mountains of Honduras have a hospitable climate and topography for coffee growth. Eternal spring reigns there. With year-round rainfall, coffee plants are well nurtured. The elevation lets excess moisture drain from the soil and the beans. With improved infrastructure and support from the government and cooperatives, Honduran coffee farmers enjoy more stability. Both large and small growers can see a lucrative coffee-growing future unfolding, as long as pests and weather stay under control.
The southernmost country of Central America is Panama. Situated south of Costa Rica, it shares many of the same properties in terms of geography and climate. The country weaves horizontally along the same short latitude. Coffee arrived early to Panama. Beans came from the French Caribbean in the mid-eighteenth century. Its coffee claim to fame is having grown Ethiopian Geisha on its tallest volcanic mountain. When auctioned, this coffee brought the highest price worldwide. Although countries on either side of it get more coffee attention, at least the Panamanians attained an international claim to fame for an export.
The coffee bean’s arrival to northern Central America mirrors the time of arrival to the southernmost part of the isthmus. By the mid-nineteenth century, coffee had become very important to the economy of Guate. Nowadays, this country is notable for both its smooth-tasting beans and the volume grown. Second in Central America only to Honduras’ coffee-production volume, it also squeaks into the last spot in the worldwide top ten growers. Some of the top areas have been designated with protected denomination of origin.
This tiny country is not well-known outside of the region but does grow coffee. As a former British colony, it’s English-speaking, which separates it from all its neighbors. In fact, it used to be called “British Honduras.” Imagine having to refer to coffee grown there as “British Honduran Coffee?” It seems like a contradiction. Nestled east of Guatemala along the Caribbean sea and touching Mexico, it managed to produce 90 tons of coffee in 2021, a decent amount for this sparse population. Belizean coffee offers moderate acidity. Chocolate notes seem to pay homage to its similar and related crop that’s more widely grown: cacao (cocoa). Cacao is made into chocolate and other products. It was grown and relished by the natives who inhabited this area. Coffee cultivation and culture are growing in Belize.
Costa Rica (Costa)
With its highlands, volcanos, stable government and peaceful population, this country stands out in Central America. Such features and conditions enabled Costa to make its way onto the coffee world map long ago. The two most notable volcanos still remind visitors why the coffee is so good. Arenal is a volcano that keeps erupting a small bit almost constantly. Visitors to Poas volcano can hike up to the rim and then down into the crater, where a steaming turquoise lagoon sits.
With volcanic soil and a great climate, decades ago the government saw a reason to foster coffee growth. It offered plants and tax incentives. Today, “the Rich Coast” grows world-renowned premium coffee.
Sustainable and Fair Coffee Growth
Speaking of Costa, it’s one country that has pioneered in sustainability in the western hemisphere. With their early adoption of solar power, more sustainable farming and managed ecotourism, neighboring countries near and far can learn from the “Tico” people. Since buying local coffee in the US and Canada is extremely difficult, ensuring sustainable and humane growth and transport can bring peace of mind. It can also support great, fair operations.
One way to favor more sustainable and humane growing conditions is to look at certifications by impartial international assessors. The Rainforest Alliance operates in 70 countries. Different governments, growers, associations and individuals comprise the organization. Ratifying ingredients or products based on three groups of sustainable criteria, the Alliance offers a seal that brings consumers peace of mind.
The three pillars of the Rainforest Alliance include social, economic and environmental sustainability. With fair labor practices, consumers can rest assured that their product wasn’t conceived under exploitative conditions. Economic soundness verifies multiple levels of fair trade. Meanwhile, both economic and environmental soundness help avoid the mistreatment of the land. Environmental sustainability also helps protect other species near those being grown or harvested.
Coffee From Honduras
As the eighth largest producer of coffee by volume worldwide, Honduras is the hidden gem in Central America whose reputation is climbing. Its specialty and gourmet coffee rank among the best. However, because Honduras’ coffee beans were of lower quality in the past, its reputation for quality and high-altitude coffee has had to recover from being associated with blends. Now it produces excellent single-origins. Tourism, popular sister food products and particular historical events bring similar countries notoriety that extends to coffee, while Honduras doesn’t enjoy these advantages.
The mountains of Honduras have a climate ideal for growing coffee. In the west, the Honduran department (state) of Copán produces some of the country’s best coffee. The seat of the Copán department, Santa Rosa de Copán, sits on a plateau of 3,900 feet (1,200 meters). Tobacco has been grown there since 1765. Cobblestone streets make the town delightful. Farming prowess that dated back centuries has evolved and now produces some of the best coffee in Central America. Inside and outside of Honduras, Copán coffee is charting new territory.
Ethical, Rich Coffee from Honduras
Outside of Santa Rosa de Copán, a non-profit grows gourmet coffee for a great cause. The dark roast evokes notes of brown sugar and black cherry when brewed. Meanwhile, the medium roast tastes of savory chocolate and sweet citrus. With 100% of profits moving to help the local Honduran community, Subida Coffee Co. offers a subscription to empowerment and sustainability.