The quality of coffee is influenced by a variety of factors from seed to cup. Dynamics go way beyond the roast, country and processing method, and thankfully more brands are making a point to share the details behind each unique coffee they sell.
Altitude is one of the many factors that influence a coffee’s harvest and ultimately, taste -- but it’s long been disputed how and how much influence it bears.
Elevation and shade levels have been advertised for years, with the message that higher elevations and shade-grown coffee reigns the superior environment.
I’m here to dispel the gospel myth that the higher the elevation, the higher the coffee's quality...
The Jury is Out
Earlier sources believe “the top quality coffees are produced in higher altitudes where, amongst other factors contributing to quality, the ultraviolet light is stronger and growth is generally slower” (Wrigley, 1988). Newer sources cited “no change in cup quality due to elevation” when studying Catuai and Bourbon varieties (Guyot, et al., 1996). These sources seem conflicting, but they are relative to where and how they were measured.
Kona coffee in Hawaii is most commonly referenced in arguments against the conclusion that higher altitude = higher quality. Kona, HI is far from the equator and the highest elevation coffee is grown at is 2,000 feet (considered very low). Most Kona coffee is grown even lower than 2,000 feet!
The Case For High Altitude
Here’s the case supporting high altitude = high-quality coffee: Climate, pests, disease and flavor notes.
The natural flavors of coffee are mainly due to water and temperature. Higher altitudes have a cooler climate, slowing the coffee’s growth and cultivating complex flavors. To caveat, the temperature differs depending where you are in the world, not just by altitude, so even the altitude is relative to the country/region of origin.
Higher elevation also means better rain drainage. Part of the reason “shade-grown” is positively advertised is because shade serves to cool the coffee’s environment and protect against harsh weather. Robusta coffees are grown at lower elevations because they can withstand harsh environments, but this impacts the coffee’s flavor profile.
Higher elevations protect against some, but not all, pests and diseases. Coffee berry borers (tiny black beetles that burrow inside coffee cherries) and coffee leaf rust are two of the most common live sources of damage to the crop. Coffee rust spores thrive around 70°F/21°C, keeping it prevalent in lower altitude arabica and robusta varieties.
The Conclusion: It’s All Relative
In the end, temperature matters more than elevation; but elevation is an aid to and factor in temperature. Remember altitude is relative, too! Two thousand feet in Kona (far from the equator) is going to produce a vastly different cup of coffee than 2,000 feet in Colombia (touching the equator). Essentially, when you see the altitude listed on a bag of coffee, take it with a grain of salt.
So many elements come together to produce a great cup of coffee, that any single factor can’t outweigh all the others. With a keen eye and a curious mind (and a bit of luck), that delicious cup of coffee will be easier and easier to find.
Stay curious and stay caffeinated,
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