Why Altitude Matters

Author: Bliss Coffee Roasters  Date Posted:15 September 2020 

Why do coffee roasters talk about altitude? What does it matter the altitude the coffee was grown at?

 

Why does altitude matter?

If you have bought specialty coffee, particularly single origins, from Bliss Coffee Roasters, or almost any other roaster, you have likely seen them write about altitude or MASL. Maybe you have wondered why? Why does it altitude matter?

Around the world, coffee is grown at a variety of different altitudes, which can impact on the flavour, quality and complexity of the end cup of coffee. As a general guide, the higher the altitude, the more complex and flavourful the coffee will be than compared to coffee grown at lower altitudes.

Just like growing any crop, oxygen, water, and temperature are some primary factors that can cause differences in flavour and growth of the crop. As you reach higher altitudes temperatures tend to be lower and oxygen content in the air is also lower causing a slowing of the growth for the coffee plants. At this slower growth rate, the plants devote more of their energy to bean production. The lengthier growing time means a longer time for the beans to mature, and a longer time for the flavours to develop. Along with this, higher altitudes generally have better drainage. This leads to less water in the bean (moisture content) resulting in stronger flavours.

A slower growth rate can also cause some problems for farmers. More labour is required to look after the plant, and the crop yield is likely to be decreased. This makes quality, high altitude coffee both sought after and more expensive.

What altitude is best?

There is no right answer. It’s completely up to your own personal flavour preferences. Higher altitudes (1300 metres and above) commonly have fruity flavours with higher acidity. A lower altitude produced a mellower, coffee that can sometimes be described as dull. More specifically, there are four main flavour profiles in relation to altitude:

  • below 750 metres (2500 feet): soft coffees, often dull and generally avoided 
  • around 900 metres (3000 feet): earthy, but sometimes dull
  • around 1200 metres (4000 feet): citrus, chocolate and/or nut notes (like our beans from Indonesia (Kokowagayo), Brazilian, Honduras (Marcala) and Colombia)
  • above 1500 metres (5000 feet): spicy, flora, or fruity flavours (such as our PNG Sigri Estate coffee beans, Burundi, or Ethiopian beans)

 

While high altitude can usually act as a good indicator for a higher quality coffee, it certainly isn’t always guaranteed. For example, Hawaiian Kona coffee is grown below 600 metres but has a cupping score upwards of 85/100 and can retail for as much as $200 p/kg!

Many factors relating to climate, farming processes, roasting and brewing can also have a pretty substantial impact on the flavours in your cup.

We love coffee, we love experiencing with different coffees and experimenting with different ways to get the best flavour out of them. Whilst there are all sorts of 'guides' and 'suggestions' we just enjoy having fun with it and exploring the world of coffee!


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