Geography has a major impact on the way coffee tastes, which is why roasters note a coffee’s originating country and region. Another aspect of geography that affects a coffee’s quality and taste (and which roasters often include on their bags of coffee) is elevation. Here’s a look at elevation and how it affects the taste of coffee.
Higher Elevations Produce Harder Beans
Higher elevations produce hard, dense beans that are more sought-after than beans grown at lower elevations. Hard beans, as they are sometimes called, are of a higher quality than soft beans, because they have a higher concentration of sugars, which produce more desired and nuanced flavors. Several factors contribute to the increased concentration of sugars in coffee grown at high elevations:
- harsh growing conditions slow the bean’s maturation process and provide time for complex sugars to develop
- fast drainage down the mountain reduces the amount of water the coffee plants can soak up and, in turn, how fat their cherries can become
- fewer plants survive at higher elevations, reducing the likelihood that disease will spread to coffee plants
4,000 Feet and Higher is Considered High
Higher is, of course, a relative term. The highest-grown coffees in Costa Rica might come from farms that are 4,500 feet above sea level, while Ethiopia has farms that sit at 6,000 feet. Generally speaking, though, an altitude above 4,000 feet is considered high enough to produce the growing conditions that create dense, desirable beans.
Some regions and countries have technical terms that identify high-elevation lots. For instance, in Central America coffee grown above 3,000 feet is called “hard bean,” and selections grown above 4,500 feet are referred to as “strictly hard bean.” Similarly, Mexico uses “altura” for high-grown coffee, and Papua New Guinea, on the other side of the world, designates coffee from its highest farms as “Mile High.”
The terms used to describe high-grown coffee vary from region to region, though. The easiest way to see if a coffee is grown at a high elevation is to ask the roaster. Any coffee grown above 4,000 feet (~1,200 meters) will be dense.
Different Heights Produce Different Flavors
Elevation doesn’t just have a generic positive effect on a coffee’s quality. Allowing for variances from region to region and lot to lot, certain general flavors are associated with different elevations. Coffee grown:
- below 2,500 feet (762 meters) will be soft, mild, simple, and bland
- around 3,000 feet (914 meters) will be sweet and smooth
- around 4,000 feet (~1,200 meters) may have citrus, vanilla, chocolate, or nutty notes
- above 5,000 feet (~1,500 meters) might be spicy, floral, or fruity
Exceptions at Lower Elevations
There are exceptions to what’s been said thus far on high elevations and coffee. Coffee grown at lower elevations can still develop slowly, if it faces some other type of adverse growing conditions. The two most notable exceptions are Hawaiian Kona coffee (which is grown below 2,000 feet) and shade-grown coffee. Hawaii is so far north of the equator that its coffee is still excellent, even though the elevations it’s grown at aren’t high, and shade slows the maturation process by blocking out the sun.
To see the difference elevation makes for yourself, try two coffees from different elevations. They’ll have different tastes, because they aren’t from the same farm, but see if you notice any difference in the general quality as well. Chances are, you will.