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Elevating Coffee to New Heights

By Alexis Rubinstein

The secrets to high quality coffee are numerous and varied, ranging from the climate of the growing region to the shade cover of the fields. An interesting addition to this checklist is the altitude at which the beans are grown, demonstrating that, generally, the higher up the mountain, the higher the standard.

Being new to the industry, one of the first things I learned about coffee was how easily its environment affects it. The infamous drought of 1975 was evidence that rainfall (or the lack thereof) can destroy a crop and threatens the market. I was shown a map of the world, where the “coffee belt” was highlighted, and explained that most coffee is grown in the area between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. I have even read numerous articles and research conducted about soil content and how its composition can alter the taste of green coffee. It wasn’t until my first press trip to the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle however, that elevation and altitude were two elements I would ever consider relevant in the quest for the finest coffee. Their “up the mountain” approach to coffee cupping allowed me to literally taste brews made from beans at different elevations on a mountain. In a true sensory overload experience, it was as if I could taste the air getting thinner, see the clouds closer and smell the scents of pure nature.

To Judge a Bag by it’s Label
For coffee connoisseurs, the word “Robusta” on a bag of coffee implies a lesser quality — an earthy, woody, almost dirty flavor. While great strides have been made to improve the overall taste and appearance of the big spongy beans, it is still lonely in the shadow of its highly demanded sister, Arabica. Indeed there are many differences between the two, the most significant being the elevation at which they are grown. Arabica grows best in higher elevations, whereas Robusta can start to grow at sea level due to its tolerance to warmer conditions. For growing Arabica beans, there are two optimal climates: the first are subtropical regions where altitudes must be between 1,800 and 3,600 feet. These conditions result in one coffee growing season and one maturation season, usually in the coldest part of Fall. The second are the equatorial regions, with altitudes of 3,600 to 6,300 feet. Frequent rainfall causes almost continuous flowering and two harvesting seasons.

Because there is less oxygen, coffee grown at higher altitudes takes longer to mature than lower grown plants. This allows the flavors to develop more fully and produces beans that are delicate and delectable. Higher grown coffee beans usually have a higher density than lower grown beans, which enhances the complexity of the flavor profile. The relative density is denoted by a system of names, which also defines the altitude at which the beans are grown: Fantasy, Strictly Hard Bean, Hard Bean, Semi-Hard Bean, etc. Starbucks, which buys the bulk of Costa Rica’s coffee, for example, refuses to buy beans grown below the 1,000-meter mark (approximately 3,280 feet) and prefers coffee grown above 1,200 meters (or around 3,900 feet), which can be designated as “strictly hard bean” (SHB).

Are You a Believer?
George Howell, president of Terrior Coffee in Acton, Massachusetts, has had many years experience in the industry, co-founding the Cup of Excellence and winning numerous awards, such as the SCAA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. In other words, George Howell “knows his coffee.” While he does agree that elevation can play a large role in the taste of the coffee, he states, “All factors should be included when examining and comparing coffee, not just a single aspect.” “You might not be able to taste the difference between a Kenyan coffee that was grown at 5,000 feet and one grown at 6,000 feet,” he continues, “but once you drop below a certain elevation, you will definitely begin tasting the distinct differences.”

In a newsletter sent out by Knusten Coffees, Ltd., located in San Francisco, California the main topic covered was “The Importance of Being High.” Different from the opinion of Howell, Knutsen Coffees believes that a few hundred feet difference in elevation does affect the quality of the coffee. They describe a coffee cupping in which all the coffee was of one variety (Caturra), all grown and processed identically on the same farm, but selected from 3,186 feet, 3,713 feet and 4,229 feet. “The consensus was clear and unanimous,” the newsletter reveals, “The higher the crop, the brighter and more flavorful the cup. The intensity of the flavor, the crispness of the acidity and the clarity of the coffee improved at each increment of altitude, and obviously enough so that several cuppers were able to determine the order of the samples with certainty.”

Boot Coffee Consulting has actually conducted blind taste testings with beans from different elevations. “If you present a panel with four different elevations from the same variety, grown in the same area, you will definitely taste clear differences in the cup,” explains Boot Coffee Consulting president and founder, Willem Boot. “The key difference would be higher levels of acidity, a higher level of complexity and a deeper nuance.” Boot brings up an important point. When trying to compare lower and higher grown coffees, it is essential that all the coffee be of the same variety. Otherwise, it is truly like comparing apples to oranges. It would be difficult for even the most skilled and experienced coffee cupper to tell if the difference in taste is accredited to the altitude or the type of coffee.

The Logic Behind the Theory
The majority opinion within the coffee industry is that elevation does in fact affect the taste of green beans. The discrepancies, however, involve how apparent these differences are and how easily they can be identified. While most coffee professionals were eager to present their opinions on the matter and provide stories of their personal findings, few were as enthusiastic about explaining why elevation has this affect.

It has been said that high elevations improve coffee bean quality by offering a more moist surrounding, coming from the cloudy attributes that the atmosphere provides at these elevated levels. This also minimizes the need for excessive sunlight rays that could potentially harm the bean. Because the air is thinner, things tend to grow more slowly, which can be a major element in the coffee’s fine quality and superior taste.

“Slower maturing, or more time to develop is a major reason that elevation alters the flavor of coffee,” says Howell. “But most importantly is the diurnal contrast. The temperature differences between night and day are much greater at higher elevations.” Randy Layton of Boyd Coffee in Portland, Oregon, echoes Howells sentiment and adds, “it is an optimal environment in higher altitudes. The bean can grow and mature more slowly, there is less oxygen, more sun and the opportunity to absorb more nutrition.” Layton also points out that at these higher locales, the beans are receiving “the cleanest water, because it is coming directly from the original source.”

The countries of origin with the highest elevations, Ethiopia, Colombia and Kenya, to name a few, are said to produce some of the finest coffee in the world. However, high elevations do not automatically translate to superior specialty coffee. “Colombia, for example, excels in producing the highest grown coffees,” explains Boot, “but also produces coffee that is helplessly defective. I have personally tasted coffee grown above 2,000 meters that was flawed.” There can be numerous reasons why high grown coffee would not be up to par — in producing coffee, much like solving a mathematical equation, all the elements must be precise in order for the end result to be correct.

While it was not contested that higher grown coffee generally generates a better bean, this does not imply that coffee grown below 800 meters (approximately 2,600 feet) is sub-par. The main exception of the “elevation standard” is Hawaiian Kona Coffee, known to make some of the most complex cups. “It is because the latitude is so northerly,” explains Howell, “Latitude is also very significant in the flavor profiles of green beans.” Similarly emphasizing the importance of other geographical features, Boot also tries to separate the topics of elevation and latitude. “Kona coffee grown at 800 meters is not the same as Guatemalan coffee grown at 800 meters,” explains Boot, “this is because of the latitude. Look at places like Hawaii, Puerto Rico or Jamaica, where really good coffee can come from lower areas.”

So what about the price? When I first learned of high elevation coffee, beans growing on the side of volcanoes, fields that are more difficult to get to then to actually cultivate, my first thought was, “these must be some pricy beans.” I thought of truffles, sniffed out by pigs and priced higher than most individuals would find appropriate spending on fungus. On the contrary, the price of coffee has less to do with the painstaking process of gathering the beans and more to do with the variety and reputation of the field. “Although a high price for these beans would be massively worth it,” admits Howell, “this is seldom the case. With the exception of competition coffee, such as the Cup of Excellence, unfortunately coffee prices have nothing to do with careful picking but the pure rarity and remoteness.”

Let Your Senses Be Your Guide
While we would all love an excuse to visit an origin country and hike up a scenic mountain, examining the difference in the beans as we ascend, there is a much more affordable (and less physically draining) way to accomplish such identifications. First, you can visibly recognize the differences between low grown and higher grown green beans. As Boot explains, “The key difference is in the exterior of the green beans. The highest grown beans have a corrugated exterior that is generally evenly shaped. High grown beans also have a shriveled structure; the center cut of the bean is generally not straight, but crooked with a rough texture. The center cut itself seems to be floating in the structure of the bean, whereas the lower grown bean is more open with a center cut more towards the center of the bean.”

Once you have discovered the aesthetic dissimilarities, the taste profiles will further separate coffees from varying elevations. Howell describes the tastes and aromas as if he has cupped high grown coffee all his life. “You will immediately taste the higher acidity, which emphasize the floral and fruit notes. There will also be a greater liveliness and aromatic character.” Layton also adds, “the coffee tastes sweeter in the cup, and presents a more complex taste profile than lower grown coffees. That is why higher grown coffees are a critical part of the overall process of choosing coffees.”

Lowland coffees were once a staple of Central America’s coffee exports, but as markets have moved more towards the quality conscious trends, farms below certain elevations have began to suffer. Inevitably, it will not be the elevation, latitude or any other element that will determine the success of the beans and the profits for the farmer; it will always be the taste. “Cupping is the key to choosing. This is why I am constantly cupping,” says Howell. “We are continuously trying to raise the standards of quality production and appreciation. Both sides of this equation have to be developed.”

Boot also insists that you must consider the final product of the coffee drink and the consumer as well, and not always will higher grown beans be the favorable choice. “You must take into account the client or roaster. Additionally, it all comes down to the application of the coffee. A single origin coffee will work best for an espresso, for example, while the highest grown will be better suited for special blends.”

While there are many variables that determine the accuracy of the “higher grown coffee equals high quality coffee” theory, the proof is in the pudding. In appearance and taste, high grown coffees are undoubtedly different than lower beans: how much different? Well, that seems to be a matter of personal opinion. Regardless, the trend seems to be overwhelming the coffee market, industry professionals are becoming more aware of growing elevations and quality-conscious decisions are on the rise. In Starbucks’ terms, everyone seems to be heading “up the mountain” — high altitude roasting has even become a more popular practice, a topic that will be addressed in the next part of this series.

Tea & Coffee - November, 2007
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