You may have noticed that coffee roasters love to emphasise the country and region of the bean. This is because when it comes to coffee, geography has a major impact on the way it tastes and elevation is another key aspect of geography that affects the quality and taste profile.
All coffee is grown in the tropics – along the coffee belt in mainly mountainous regions. This provides optimum conditions for the coffee tree to flourish; it's a frost free climate with moderate rainfall and abundant sunshine.
Higher Elevation = Harder Beans = More Desirable Beans
Beans grown higher up the mountain (Higher Altitude) produce hard, dense beans that are more sought-after than beans grown at lower elevations. These types of beans are known as Hard Beans and have a higher concentration of sugars – known to produce more nuanced flavors.
3 Geographical Factors Contribute to the Higher Concentration of Sugars in Hard Beans
Harsh growing conditions.
These slow the bean’s maturation process and provide time for complex sugars to develop.
Drainage down the mountain.
This reduces the amount of water the coffee plants can absorb leading to more concentrated coffee cherries.
As less plants survive at high altitude, space between plants increases, disease is much less likely to spread between plants.
High-altitude speciality coffees generally commands a higher market price due to their exceptional vibrancy and flavour, lower yield per coffee plant and the challenges posed to coffee farmers in remote mountainous areas.
What is considered High Altitude?
The highest-grown coffees in Costa Rica come from farms that are 4,500 feet above sea level, yet Ethiopia has farms that sit at 6,000 feet. The general consensus is that an altitude above 4,000 feet is considered high enough to produce the growing conditions that create beautifully dense, desirable beans.
Getting to know the elevations and altitudes of coffee is a great way to discover new flavours and taste profiles. Here is a simple guide to where coffee is grown and the profile you could expect to experience from each:
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
Of course, there are some exceptions to the rule and some coffees grown at lower altitudes can be excellent – if the coffee plant faces some other type of adverse growing conditions. Take the 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 altitudes it’s grown at aren’t high, and shade slows the maturation process by blocking out the sun offering more complex and developed flavours.
More from our Coffee Education Series
What is CRU's Highest Altitude Bean?
Look for: toasted caramel, tart gooseberries
250g / £8.95
This bean grows between 1200 to 1800 metres above sea level. Just one of the factors that makes our Peruvian Cajamrca, a truly superior bean.