When growing (and buying) coffee, altitude matters.
Some people ask why, on our coffee bags, we list the altitude at which the bean was grown. We do, because it matters. The higher-grown the plant, the more complex, flavorful, dense and bright the coffee. Why would altitude make such a difference, you ask?
At higher altitudes cooler temperatures mean slower growth (shade contributes to this as well); and at slower growth rates plants focus more on reproduction. This means that most of the plant’s energy is being put into fruit production (the “bean” is simply the seed inside the coffee cherry), producing more of the sugars that create the beautiful flavors we love. When the fruit gets stressed the flavors get richer.
Altitude means mountains. And the angled surface of the earth in mountainous regions promotes faster runoff (better drainage than lower in the watershed), which means that the coffee plants absorb less water. This all results is a denser, harder coffee cherry, which translates to more intense, concentrated flavors. SHB (Strictly Hard Bean) and SHG (Strictly High Grown)—two marks of the highest quality—are synonymous: the higher the altitude, the harder the bean. The harder the bean, the more concentrated the flavor.
So how high is high and what’s the right high for you?
- Very high (5,000 feet): Here we have the flavors that make connoisseurs swoon: the Ethiopians and Kenyans; the Sulawesi and Papa New Guineas, Colombia. Fruity, spicy, floral, cirtrus-like. These tend to be more “acidic” (that’s in a good way).
- High (4,000 feet): Here we have most of the coffee from the Americas and Indonesia that offer beautiful citrus, vanilla, chocolate and nutty notes.
- Medium Altitude (3,000 feet): Still high, still respectable, still flavorful. Just more mellow, smooth, sweet and chocolate-y.
- Lower (below 3,000 feet): These coffees tend to be more mild and bland.
The bottom line
Elevation is one of many factors (species variety, shade, processing, roasting, harvesting) that can make your morning cup “meh” or marvelous; but it’s definitely one of the most important.