How do high altitudes affect the taste of coffee?

Creating the perfect cup of coffee is as much an art as it is a science. Creating that smooth, rich flavour begins long before the beans arrive in your home or office. Everything from the soil to the amount of sun exposure and rainfall can impact the quality of a coffee harvest. However, one of the most important-yet-underappreciated factors in coffee flavour is altitude. All coffee grows in the tropics, but the altitude at which it is grown contributes significantly to a coffee’s flavour profile. In today’s blog, we explore exactly how and why high altitudes affect the taste of your coffee.

Taking flavour to new heights

The majority of the world’s Arabica coffee is grown in mountainous regions known as the ‘coffee belt’- a tropical band encompassing Central and South America, Southern Asia and some Pacific Islands, and mid to Southern Africa represents the world’s foremost coffee-growing regions.

What’s so special about this region? The ‘coffee belt’ offers fertile soil at high altitudes above 900m to 1500m. Vegetation grows slowly at high altitudes, so the beans mature slowly and become imbued with complex sugars which produce a smooth, full flavour. Better drainage at high elevations also reduces the amount of water absorbed by the coffee plants, resulting in a further concentration of flavour.

High altitude also means frost-free climate averaging 15 to 21 degrees Celsius year-round and abundant sunshine – all perfect conditions for the best Arabica coffee beans.

The rich taste comes from the rich soil

Any good farmer will tell you the secret to delicious vegetables, fruits and coffee beans is in the soil. The soil found at high altitudes is extremely fertile, so coffee crops have a full supply of essential nutrients like nitrogen (but not too much), phosphorus, and potassium. What’s more, the high-altitude soul is volcanic and has a high water-holding capacity which allows the roots to ‘swell’. Plants hold all of their nutrients in the roots, so bigger, more developed means the beans get the maximum amount of food which results in the best flavour! In short, rich, high-altitude soil is the secret to your favourite brew.

Altitude creates character

Did you know that coffee has a varietal character, just like wine? You’ve seen words like Ethiopean, heirloom or Colombian on a bag of beans, but what does that really mean? A coffee’s varietal character is a primary factor in its taste profile. For example, Ethiopian varietals are a medium-bodied coffee with floral and citrus flavours. Growing coffee at high altitudes is essential for developing varietal characters. As we mentioned before, high-altitude climates allow the coffee beans to grow slowly which allows the unique flavour profile of each varietal to develop.

High altitude equals high market value

Due to their exceptional flavour and quality, coffee grown at high altitudes commands a higher market price. The coffee industry also grades the quality of beans according to the altitude at which they’re produced. For example, a strictly hard bean (SHB) classification in Guatemala signifies coffee grown at or above 1370m. The market price for high altitude coffee also reflects the challenge to coffee farmers in remote mountainous areas who must produce and market their crops. In other words, getting your hands on high-quality coffee comes at a high price.

The bean varietal, soil and water levels all play a role in developing a flavourful cup of coffee, but the real secret behind a quality coffee is altitude. Understanding the complex process behind farming coffee can help us appreciate the delicious beverage that’s an essential part of your workplace.

Want to know more about the world of Australian coffee? Follow the Corporate Coffee blog for more articles and insights into brewing, beans and more!

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