Why talk about altitude in the first place?
When it comes to beans, coffee companies love to talk country, region and altitude. This is because each of these factors make a huge difference when it comes to establishing the flavours and taste profile of the coffee itself.
All (or, at least nearly all) coffee is grown in the coffee belt - an area around the equator that provides optimum conditions for the coffee tree to flourish; it’s frost free, with moderate rainfall and abundant sunshine. Within this belt, however, you’ve got a huge range of different flavours, profiles and aromas to choose from - and this is where altitude really comes in.
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.
But why does higher elevation give us better beans?
There are several reasons for this, but really it all comes down to slowing the beans growth. This may sound a bit counterintuitive, but there is method in the madness.
Cooler temperatures mean sweeter beans
The higher up you go, the colder it gets - which means the coffee tress have to work a lot harder to grow. Because of this, the coffee cherries take a lot longer to form, taking their time to develop much more complex and concentrated sugars in the beans themselves, which is what gives us such great, vibrant flavours.
Drainage is key
Water has a tendency to flow down (thanks gravity!), and as higher elevations tend to have better drainage, the coffee trees take on much less water, meaning the sugars aren’t watered down, but instead concentrated and saturated.
Disease is less likely to spread
Just as plants find it harder to grow in cooler temperatures, so do pests and diseases that would otherwise affect the quality and yield of the bean. This may not have a huge impact on the flavour, but it does mean that the quality of the crop is improved as famers can devote more time and more space to make sure each individual tree flourishes.
Do beans from the same altitude always taste the same?
No. There is so much else to affect the way the tree develops that it’s almost impossible to predict exactly what flavours you’re going to get; but you can be sure that these beans will inherit or display similar traits. Below is a simple guide that shows you altitude, and the profile you could expect to experience from the different altitudes. We’ve also added our own single origins so you can see where our beans sit!
Does low altitude mean low quality then?
Of course, there are some exceptions to the rule and some coffees grown at lower altitudes can be excellent. Take our Limited Edition Galapagos for an example. The lack of altitude and almost constant sun coverage would normally prove disastrous for coffee growing, but thanks to a bit of evolutionary luck, the coffee produced here is some of the best in existence. The main reason for this is the Humboldt Current, a cold, low-salinity stream that brings cooling marine breezes to the Islands, allowing for the kind of subtropical temperatures that coffee thrives in.
Add to this the young, fertile, volcanic soils found throughout San Cristobal and mineral-rich fresh water from the nearby ‘El Junco’ lake (one of the only sources of freshwater on the entire Archipelago), and you’ve got the perfect environment in which to grow one of the most unique coffees you’ll ever taste.