A coffee’s characteristics can be affected by a number of factors, but none is more influential than terroir.
The term terroir refers to the environmental conditions of a specific geographical region. Furthermore, it denotes the unique traits those conditions bring to the end product. One of the most significant variables of terroir is altitude, as it can affect the growth of coffee and, in turn, its flavour profile.
High altitude environments tend to have higher rainfall with intense periods of sunshine, making them ideal areas for growing coffee. These weather conditions allow the cherries to mature at a slower rate, helping to develop higher acidity and achieve a smoother mouthfeel in the cup.
In general, higher altitude coffees tend to taste better and may possess more complex flavours. However, this is not a “golden rule” and coffee grown at lower altitudes can achieve these qualities and can be considered high quality.
That said, higher altitude coffees tend to sell for premium and are often prized among the specialty sector.
So, are higher altitude coffees inherently better than coffee grown at low altitudes?
How does altitude affect coffee characteristics?
Coffee farms at higher altitudes tend to have thinner air, which causes coffee crops to grow at a slower pace.
This extended growing time allows the beans to develop more flavour, giving it a smooth, acidic, and aromatic profile.
Coffee grown at 5,000 feet above sea level (1,524km) is classified as “very high altitude”. At this height, the beans tend to develop floral, fruity, wine, and spiced notes. In turn, the coffee is often notably complex, with high acidity and a layered flavour profile.
Coffee grown at 4,000 feet above sea level (1,2192km) achieves the “high altitude” mark, and notes of chocolate, citrus, nut and vanilla become more prevalent.
Farms at 2,500 feet above sea level (0,762km) or less are considered “low altitude”. At this height, earthy flavours and bland profiles are more common.
Another key difference between high altitude coffees is size and density. Higher altitude coffees are significantly denser and harder than those grown at lower altitude.
Typically, denser beans can be identified by the fissure line, which is the crack down the middle of a bean. If the fissure line is crooked and closed, the bean is probably more dense. Conversely, if it is close to straight and only slightly open, the bean is probably less dense.
High altitude farms also provide a more consistent and stable growing environment. These often have a cooler average temperature, experience a higher rainfall, and receive greater cloud cover.
Plus, higher altitude locations have a greater diurnal temperature: the variation between a high and low air temperature than can occur during the same day.
Due to the impact altitude can have on coffee, it will be a critical factor in a producer’s decision on what varieties to grow. While high altitude coffee makes it easier to unlock sought-after characteristics, not all coffee varieties benefit from these growing conditions.
For instance, the majority of Arabica varieties prefer high altitude climates, while Robusta coffee crops are better suited to lower altitude farms. This is because they are a far more resilient crop, and the plant grows best in hotter temperatures.
How can altitude affect coffee roasting?
It is important to note that altitude affects not only how coffee grows but also how it should be roasted.
A typical roast process can differ considerably depending on the attitude at which it takes place.
Whenever possible, many prefer to roast on site directly where they are harvested, as this is the most effective way to work with green coffee at its freshest.
Depending on the beans purchased, this may mean roasting may have to take place at very high altitudes. The roast process must be altered to compensate for reduced oxygen, density, and moisture levels in the air.
Additionally, higher altitude locations tend to be colder, so the roasting temperature will have to be raised. Research shows roasting at high altitudes can provide a greater degree of control during the roasting process.
As long as a roaster has experience managing higher temperatures, they can create a more precise and target roast profile.
For high altitude coffees, a light or medium roast is commonly recommended, as it is an effective way to highlight the unique characteristics of the specific coffee.
Furthermore, it can help ensure the full palette of aromas and flavours shine through.
Why is higher altitude coffee more expensive?
Almost exclusively, higher altitude coffee comes with a premium price point.
This is down to two factors: logistics and rarity.
First, high altitude farms can be extremely difficult to access. Then there are the logistics of transporting producers and equipment up to the farm, and transporting coffee beans back down.
This can be challenging and costly. Logically, managing the logistics of growing at a farm 5,000 feet above sea level will increase the coffee’s price.
Second, the cost of high altitude coffee could be raised further depending on the rarity of the variety being grown. It is common for high altitude coffee farmers to take advantage of the location and grow rare and highly sought varieties.
Since their farms provide ideal growing conditions, they can cultivate rare coffee varieties such as Panamanian Geisha and Casiope – both of which have exceptional quality potential when grown at high altitudes. These can then be sold at premium prices.
By large, the specialty coffee sector prizes high altitude coffee. This is mainly because of their rare and complex flavour profiles.
However, from a consumer’s perspective, high altitude coffees may not necessarily be “better” than those grown at low altitudes.
When high quality low altitude coffee is compared to high quality high altitude coffee, each possesses their own unique strengths.
Essentially, whether high altitude coffee is better is often subjective, and boils down to personal preference. Some may prefer the sweetness and low acidity of a medium altitude coffee.
While the cost of high altitude coffee is higher because of the difficulty of production, the rarity of the varieties, and the unusual characteristics that it produces, “rarity” may not automatically mean “better”. That is up to the individual to decide.
Furthermore, growing at high altitudes alone will not produce great coffee. Roasters have a responsibility to unlock the full potential of the beans during a roast, while also preserving the freshness.
At MTPak Coffee, we can provide roasters and coffee shops with sustainable high-barrier coffee packaging. We can help you create a bag that will keep out external factors and ensure your coffee stands out on the shelf.
We are able to custom design and digitally print coffee packaging with just a 40-hour turnaround and 24-hour shipping time.
We have a range of sustainable packaging materials, including kraft paper, rice paper, low-density polyethylene (LDPE), and polylactic acid (PLA), all of which can be fitted with fully recyclable degassing valves and resealable zippers.
We also offer a perfect solution for micro-roasters by providing low minimum order quantities (MOQ) on both recyclable and traditional options.