Numerous factors contribute to the flavor profile of coffee – soil, plant varietal, temperature, rainfall, the plants age, processing method area all factors that play a role in the quality of coffee. However, one of the most influential factors is altitude. Mountainous regions 30 degrees north and south of the equator, also known as the coffee belt, is where the best Arabica coffee is grown.
Impact of High Altitude
Coffee grown at high altitudes are hard, dense, beans whereas coffees grown at low altitudes tend to be softer. Hard dense beans have a higher concentration of sugars that can create a more flavorful coffee.
Altitudes north of 1100 meters provide the optimal growing conditions for the coffee tree. At this elevation the climate tends to be frost-free with temperatures ranging 15-20 degrees Celsius year round, with moderate rainfall and the optimal amount of sunshine. Temperatures in this range cause the coffee tree to have a prolonged growth cycle, which extends the beans development. This causes the beans to develop more complex sugar creating more depth and flavor.
Coffee grown between 1200 to 1800 meters are amongst the most prized coffees. As altitude increases the flavor profile of coffee generally becomes more pronounced and distinct. Coffees grown at lower altitudes tend to be milder with less distinct flavors.
As noted above, flavor is also attributed to the microclimate it is grown, which encompasses altitude, soil quality, temperature, rainfall and sunlight. Plant varietal also has a sizable impact on flavor profile. However, the factor that plays the most significant role in flavor is the roast applied to the bean after being processed by the farm.
High Altitude Terminology
In Central America it’s common to grade the quality of the coffee based on the altitude it is grown. Guatemala denotes coffee grown above 1370 meters as strictly hard beans, commonly abbreviated as SHB. High altitude coffee grown in Mexico is referred to Altura, which means “high” in Spanish. Papua New Guinea, high altitude coffee is commonly referred to as “Mile High”. Such terminology is use to brand coffee grown in cooler climates at high elevations.
Lower Altitude Coffees
At lower elevations the coffee plant is exposed to harsher growing conditions. Heightened temperatures and less rainfall cause the coffee berries to ripen quickly, resulting a softer bean with mild to bland and sometimes even an earthy or murky flavor profile. As a result low altitude coffees are much more delicate to roast and do not perform well when dark roasting, which commonly leads to a significant loss in flavor.
There are exceptions of low altitude grown coffee with superior flavor profiles. Coffee from Hawaii is an example. Hawaiian coffee is grown at around 600 meters, but given that it is fairly far north of the equator and shade grown the beans develop slow enough to produce a flavorful coffee.
Altitude Impact on Flavor
Elevation alone does not affect the quality of coffee but is one of the key factors that will impact quality. Below are generalizations of flavor profiles you can expect from coffee grown at different altitudes.
- Below 762 meters – will be soft, mild, simple, and bland
- Around 914 meters – will be sweet and smooth
- Around 1,200 meters may have citrus, vanilla, chocolate, or nutty notes
- Above 1,500 meters might be spicy, floral, or fruity