Not all coffees are created equal, and you must know that by now through your personal experiences.
Perhaps you can recall the time when you were forced to drink a very awful coffee at the office or throwing away the bag of coffee your spouse bought in the supermarket.
Altitude has a deep influence in coffee, as well as weather conditions. In Costa Rica, we have different regions with very sharp differences in altitude and climate. Even though all can be arabica coffees, the difference is dictated by altitude and weather patterns in each micro-climate.
In this blog I am going to outline the reasons why coffees grown at high elevations – above 1000 meters above sea level (3280 feet ) are better .
Farms in high mountain ranges provide the following ideal growing conditions for the coffee beans:
A cool climate averaging 15 to 25 Celsius ( 59 to 77 Fahrenheit ) year-round .
Low mountain temperatures allows the coffee bean to grow slowly in the coffee tree. This in turns allows the bean to be more compact ( SHB strictly hard bean ) and develop more complex sugars, yielding more interesting cup profiles.
High-grown beans are hard, dense, and possess the potential for exceptional coffee flavor. A strictly hard bean (SHB) designation in Costa Rica, for instance, equals to coffee grown at or above 1000 meters above sea level (3280 feet ). The term altura, meaning “high” in Spanish, also identify high mountain grown coffees.
Lowland coffee trees, on the other hand, are faced with higher temperatures, and more rainfall which translates into coffee cherries to ripen more quickly . The bean structure of these coffees grown in lower elevations tends to be softer and bigger than the hard-bean coffees because of the excess rainfall and hotter weather present in the coffee farm environment.
As a result, these softer, more delicate coffees cannot adapt to darker roasts well and suffer from increased flavor loss when roasted and stored. While roasting lowland coffees, you will notice the coffee beans to expand and open like popcorn and the weight loss per coffee bean is higher because of the moisture loss.
Contrary to low laying areas, dry weather conditions in the mountains during harvest time allows the beans to ripe in a more consistent way.
A defined dry season during harvest time also allows a perfect processing environment post-harvest. Low grown coffees are harvested in very hostile conditions, coffee cherries have to be picked by visiting the coffee tree many times, usually in the middle of rain storms which causes the bean to absorb water and fall from the coffee tree. Because of that, coffee pickers are not careful enough to pick only the ripe cherries. Unripe coffee cherries increases the chance to spoil the coffee cup profile and thus ruining the quality of the coffee harvest.
Thus, a marked dry season during harvest time is essential. Dry, cool weather allows the coffee cherries to mature all at once and this in turn provide easier conditions for the coffee pickers to be extra careful and deliver only ripe coffee cherries.
Better drainage in mountain coffee areas also reduces the amount of water in the fruit resulting in further concentration of flavors.
Excess of water is the worst enemy for a coffee tree, before and during harvest time. Rain has to arrived timely for the coffee trees to blossom in early April. After flowering, rain should be consistent during the green season, allowing the coffee cherries to develop. Rain drain down the steep slopes very easily avoiding fungus and water related plagues and pests. Coffees from Tarrazu, for instance are produced from fruit that is picked only when ripe and prepared with care following harvest during the dry season. The dry season and the absence of rain allows the coffees to be harvested in perfect conditions. Also, it allows the farmers to dry the coffee beans under the sun which adds more flavors to the bean.
Abundant sunshine in the morning and cloud cover in the afternoons are also key ingredients for the perfect mountain coffee. Sunshine in the morning allows the coffee cherries to develop the sugars and the consistency in the bean. The clouds in the afternoon offer the coffee tree protection from the hot tropical sun and allow the coffee beans to grow. During harvest time, the strong tropical sun allows to dry the coffee beans post harvest. Sun dried coffees are sough after because of the distinct flavors this process gives to the bean.
The finest arabica coffees are grown in extremely fertile, and often volcanic soil. The tiny nation of Costa Rica, for instance, was formed by volcanoes and the some coffee farms are located in high, remote volcanic mountain ranges.
Generally, as growing elevation increases and volcanic soil is present, a coffee’s flavor profile becomes more pronounced and distinctive. Altitude and soil, or “terroir” enhances a coffee’s ability to deliver complex flavor and aroma profiles.
Even in tiny Costa Rica, not all coffees taste the same due to the sharp elevations differences. Coffees from Turrialba or San Isidro de Perez Zeledon in the lowlands are distinctly different from the coffees harvested in Concepcion de Tarrazu in the Central Highlands.
Generally, mountain coffee prices are higher due to their exceptional flavor and vibrancy, lower yield per coffee tree, and the challenge coffee farmers face in remote mountainous areas to harvest and transport their crops. But above all, for mountain coffees, it is the altitude factor that shapes the coffee’s overall flavor profile and thus prices.
So, next time you buy coffee, don’t get fooled, look for truly mountain coffee. Most likely, you won’t find it in your local big box supermarket or multinational coffee chain. Go to the internet, and buy direct from the real farmers, real people behind the highland coffees.