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|The Effect of Altitude on Coffee Flavor|
|December 2, 2009|
The influence of geography on the flavor of a coffee bean is profound. All coffee grows in the tropics, but the altitude at which it is grown contributes significantly to a coffee’s taste profile. Mountainous regions of the Coffee Belt, a tropical band extending approximately 30º north and south of the equator, produce the world’s truly great arabica coffees. Central and South America, southern Asia and some Pacific islands, and mid to southern Africa represent the world’s foremost coffee growing regions.
High elevations above 3,000 feet to 6,000 feet and beyond provide ideal growing conditions for the coffee tree: a frost-free climate averaging 60-70º F year-round, moderate rainfall of about 80 inches, and abundant sunshine. Cooler mountain temperatures provide a slower growth cycle for the coffee tree which prolongs bean development. This longer maturation process imbues the coffee bean with more complex sugars, yielding deeper, more interesting flavors. Better drainage at high elevations also reduces the amount of water in the fruit resulting in a further concentration of flavors. The soil in which the finest arabica coffees are grown is extremely fertile, and often volcanic.
High-grown beans are hard, dense, and possess the potential for exceptional coffee flavor. The truly stunning coffees are grown between 4,000 and 6,000 feet. These coffees are produced from fruit that is picked only when ripe and prepared with care following harvest. Central America grades the quality of its coffee based on the altitude at which it is grown. A strictly hard bean (SHB) designation in Guatemala, for example, signifies coffee grown at or above 4,500 feet. Mexico applies the term altura, meaning “high” in Spanish, to identify its high-altitude coffees while Papua New Guinea attaches a "Mile High" designation to its mountain-grown beans.
Generally, as growing elevation increases, a coffee’s flavor profile becomes more pronounced and distinctive (see graphic below). From the mild and sweet taste qualities of a low-grown Brazilian bean at 3,500 feet to the soaring floral notes of an Ethiopian grown above 6,000 feet, altitude heightens a coffee’s ability to deliver bigger varietal nuance and complexity.
Although the world's finest coffees are found at elevations of at least 4,000 feet, some rare exceptions exist. Hawaiian Kona, for example, is so far north of the equator that coffee cannot be grown higher than 2,000 feet in that region. The microclimate is simply too cold to sustain a coffee tree that cannot tolerate frost.
Very low-elevation coffee regions impose harsher growing conditions on the coffee tree. Higher temperatures and less rainfall cause coffee to ripen more quickly resulting in beans with taste qualities that range from simple and bland to earthy or murky. The bean structure of these coffees grown downslope tends to be softer than the hard-bean coffees grown above 4,000 feet. Consequently, these more delicate coffees do not tolerate darker roasts well and suffer from increased flavor loss when stored.
High-altitude specialty coffees, on the other hand, generally command a far better market price due to their exceptional flavor and vibrancy, lower yield per coffee tree, and the challenge they pose to coffee farmers in remote mountainous areas who must produce and market the crops. Yet, altitude is but one factor that shapes a coffee’s overall flavor profile. To understand the two primary influences on the flavor of roasted coffee—the quality of the green (unroasted) coffee bean and the roast style applied to it—see the first two links below.
|TAGS: COFFEE VARIETALS, EFFECT OF ROAST STYLE ON COFFEE FLAVOR, EFFECT OF PROCESSING ON COFFEE FLAVOR, EVALUATING A COFFEE'S ESSENTIAL FLAVOR TRAITS, ETHIOPIA YIRGACHEFFE, GUATEMALA ANTIGUA, PAPUA NEW GUINEA AA|
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