Coffee grown at high elevations has earned a reputation as being superior. Why is coffee that hails from high up in the mountains better? Since “better” is a vague opinion, we’ll go through how coffee plants behave differently at different altitudes. Elevation does affect the quality of the resulting coffee beans. Of course, we’ll explain what this means in terms of flavor for the end-user of the plant’s delights. That is, the taste for coffee lovers like you when you make your bean-based brew!
Factors Affecting Coffee Cultivation
Coffee growth is concentrated within about 30 degrees of the equator for practical reasons: coffee trees aren’t the sturdiest plants. They die quickly after a frost. Extreme heat isn’t their thing either. Higher elevations in the tropics suit them. Most decent coffees grow at over 800 meters.
In nature, coffee trees like to grow underneath taller trees so they receive some shade. They need about 80 inches of rainfall. The quality of the soil also affects the bean quality and the taste of the resulting coffee.
Rounding up all of these coffee-growing factors into a list, we get: temperature, rainfall, amount of shade, cloud cover and soil quality. Another factor is important too: moisture drainage.
Altitude simply moderates factors like temperature and sun exposure. Cooler temperatures are found at higher elevations. Also, rainfall is relatively constant, but the moisture doesn’t stick around in mountainous regions, so the plant can only absorb so much.
Elevation’s Impact on Flavor
Coffee plants at higher elevations (900+ meters) produce coffee with slow-growing fruit that has stronger flavors. Remember that coffee “beans” are actually the seed inside the fruit. The coffee fruit is known as a cherry. Coffee cherries may have one or two seeds, though two is more common.
Plants need energy and they store it in the sugar of the fruit. It’s not unlike how an animal’s body uses up its fat stores when it doesn’t have plentiful food. Coffee cherries can mature more slowly in cool temperatures, whereas the plant works harder in higher temperatures. It will consume its own sugar instead of letting it stay stored in the coffee cherry. Higher altitude fruit and beans are more unique, so drinkers experience more specific tastes. Beans grown lower tend to have a simpler taste.
Basically, the heat at low elevations stresses the plant because it prefers cooler temperatures. Coffee trees can still survive and produce viable but blander coffee as low as 600 meters. However, they use up more of the extra sugar they had stored to deal with the disconcerting conditions at hotter, lower elevations. To put it succinctly, coffee plants develop a faster metabolism.
At cooler temperatures, coffee plants are more at home, less stressed and don’t consume their sugar stores. They develop a slower metabolism. They keep more sugar deposited into their coffee seeds (beans).
Also, higher elevations and mountainous regions tend to have better drainage. When water can escape, the plant doesn’t store as much water in the fruit. The result is harder, drier coffee beans. When grown at the highest altitudes, beans are dry, hard and dense. Dense beans produce stronger, more complex flavors that coffee aficionados love!
Altitude Taste Takeaways
Overall, coffee grown at low altitudes tastes simpler and uniform, with soft flavors. It’s hard to distinguish a specific flavor; at best it is “soft” and “sweet.” As altitude increases, citrus, vanilla or chocolate can be detected. At the highest altitudes, those with refined coffee palettes will distinguish spice, floral and even wine-like notes. Denser beans have more concentrated flavors, while lowland beans absorb extra water but less sugar. It’s interesting that sugar (as an organic compound) is such a factor in coffee quality, even before it’s brewed.
Central American & Honduran Coffee
Most coffee packaging in North America sports the name of a Latin American. Coffee is grown in what is known as the “Coffee Belt.” Mexico, Central America and northern South America have many places with conditions that produce great-tasting coffee. They grow the preferred Arabica bean.
Located just north of the equator, the strip of countries between South and North America has plenty of arable land for coffee growth. Volcanoes have further enriched the soil in some places in Central America. Honduras’ coffee farm map dots are making it a strong connector in the coffee belt region. Arabica grows well. Although coffee in Honduras used to have a reputation of only being used in blends, it’s now reached single-origin status and some is gourmet.
Six main areas in Honduras cultivate coffee. They are Opalaca, El Paraíso, Agalta, Comayagua, Montecillos and Copán. The Copán region has altitudes over 1,000 meters. The people are largely of Mayan heritage. It’s home to fascinating Mayan ruins in the west, known as Copán Ruinas. The coffee produced in Copán is known for being well balanced. A sweet aroma precedes the chocolate taste.
Coffee from Santa Rosa de Copán
The seat of the Copán department(state) is the city of Santa Rosa de Copán. Lying 1146 meters above sea level and fourteen degrees north of the equator, the area has a promising future for coffee. That is not to say it doesn’t have an exciting present.
The coffee plants are at home in Santa Rosa. The cooler, mild climate is considered the perfect climate for coffee: eternal spring or siempre primavera. The rainy period in Santa Rosa lasts over nine months of the year. It has a sliding 31-day rainfall of at least .5 inches. June can average over five inches. The cloud cover during the rainy season is considerable. Since coffee trees don’t need much direct, bright sunlight, this is favorable. From January to March, only an average of .4 inches falls. Overall, it’s a strong recipe for growing and harvesting great-tasting coffee!
Elevated Coffee for an Elevated Cause
Just outside of Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras, Subida Coffee Co. is taking advantage of the area’s prime conditions. The coffee beans are selected by hand. Subida Coffee Co. cultivates and harvests gourmet coffee. The bags ship from Memphis, Tennessee. Subida is produced at the Moses Project, a 120-acre farm directed by agricultural engineers.
The Moses project does not only care for and harvest great coffee. It’s a non-profit that houses and educates teenage boys who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend school. They receive a regular education, as well as Christian guidance and additional education in agriculture and aquaculture (fish raising).
Overall, high elevations are where great-tasting coffee grows well. The extra sugar and dearth of moisture in the tree’s coffee cherries make for strong, interesting flavors in the beans they contain. Subida Coffee Co. is growing gourmet coffee for a great cause in Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras.