Much like wine, beer, and tea, the way in which coffee beans are grown can drastically affect the flavor of the cup that you eventually drink. There are many factors that affect the quality of a coffee bean, but none more important than the altitude it’s grown at.
To understand why altitude has such a large impact on the flavor of a coffee bean, we have to dig into a little bit of plant biology. As a general rule, the higher the altitude, the harder it is for a plant to thrive. While this seems like a bad thing on its face, it’s actually beneficial for the plants that survive. They produce coffee beans that are more dense and hard, packed with the sugars and flavors sought after by coffee buyers (and drinkers) around the world.
Higher Altitude Has Effects on Coffee Plants
Bean mature slower in the harsher climate, giving the sugars more time to develop
The angled growing surface of mountainous regions promotes runoff, meaning plants get less water and the coffee cherries are denser
Because most plants that we eat are grown at sea level, you might be wondering exactly what high altitude is when it comes to coffee. Generally, coffee grown over 4,000 feet above sea level (1200m) is considered “high altitude” coffee. However, coffee is grown at a range of altitudes around the world, each of which affect the flavor of the bean in different ways.
Coffee Grown at < 2,500ft
Coffee grown below 2,500 feet is less complex in flavor, mild, and often a bit bland. The coffee plant isn’t subjected to much stress at these altitudes and has an abundance of water, meaning the coffee cherries get nice and fat, which dilutes their flavor. The only exception at this altitude is the famed Hawaiian Kona coffee, which thrives at 2,000 feet.
Coffee Grown at 3,000ft (900m)
At 3,000 feet, coffee begins to take on both sweeter and smoother flavors. The climate is slightly harsher at this altitude and that begins to bear itself out in the flavor of the harvested beans.
Coffee Grown at 4,000ft (1200m)
At 4,000 feet, we are getting into the realm of some of the finest coffees in the world. This is the altitude at which the best arabica beans in the world are grown at. Another factor in the quality of beans at this altitude, especially arabica beans, is that they’re often grown in exceptionally nutrient-dense soil.
The flavor profiles of beans grown at this altitude are varied. You can pick up notes of citrus, nuts, vanilla, and chocolate.
High Altitude Coffee Grown at 5,000ft (1500m)
Coffee grown at around 5,000 feet (1500m) is known as very high altitude coffee. The flavors imparted in these beans are fruity, spicy, floral, and even reminiscent of wine.
Now that you’re aware of the drastic differences that altitude can have on the flavor of a coffee bean, you’ll know which beans to purchase when you head over to your local roaster. Understanding the fundamentals of what makes a bean taste a certain way is the first step in becoming a more discerning coffee drinker.