June 29, 2015

How Does Altitude Affect Coffee and Its Taste in the Cup?


Have you ever asked your barista about the coffee they served you? If you have, they probably responded with a complicated answer including a side note about the elevation at which the coffee was grown. That raises the question, what does elevation have to do with the coffee you are about to drink? And why does it even matter?

SEE ALSO: Three Factors Which Impact A Farmer’s Decision on Which Coffee Variety to Plant

Why Is Elevation Important?

Elevation has a direct impact on the size, shape and taste of the coffee you are about to consume. Now, you don’t need to demand a coffee from a certain elevation the next time you walk into a coffee shop, but understanding a little about it can help you find a coffee that you love.

FIlter coffee

How high is your coffee? Credit: @stinemonsen

In my last article about how farmers choose their coffee plant variety, we talked about how the elevation and climate of the farm can impact what type of coffee a farmer may choose to plant. To quickly summarize, arabica generally likes higher altitudes of 1,800 to 6,300’ with cooler climates, while robusta varieties prefer a lower elevation of 600 to 2,400’ with warmer climates. Within those ranges, the elevation profoundly impacts the coffee.

How Do You Know the Elevation?

Elevation impacts the physical aspect of the coffee bean. The next time you get your hands on a bag of green coffee (coffee that isn’t roasted), take a very close look at the beans. Are they small and densely formed? Is the fissure line closed, opened, straight or zig-zagged? What color are they—jade, light green or blue? All of these characteristics are affected by the elevation at which the coffee is grown.

handpicking coffee beans

The elevation a coffee is grown at directly affects the physical characteristics of the beans.
Credit: @handpickers

The most sought after coffee beans are strictly hard beans (4,500’ altitude and up). These are very dense, caused partly by the slow growth that occurs in a high-altitude environment. They should have a closed fissure line that might be zig-zagged or slightly skewed. On the other hand, lower elevation coffee beans will generally be less dense, with a semi-open fissure. There will be some variation in color as the variety of coffee and beneficiary process used impacts the color. The same coffee from the same farm can have a different color in its green form if processed differently: a honey process versus a full wash. With that said, the bean density will probably be the best signal for determining the altitude of the coffee.

Why Is Higher Elevation Better?

green coffee beans

With a little practice, a coffee’s elevation can be identified by the physical characteristics of the bean.                  Credit: @greenbeanroasters

The main reason that higher elevation coffee is more sought after is the taste. When well-cared for, high elevation coffee will produce the more acidic, aromatic and flavorful cup of coffee that we love, while lower elevation coffee tends to have a lower acidity with little character in the cup. This is the real reason why your barista is telling you about the elevation of the coffee you are about to drink. Generally, a higher elevation coffee will be a better tasting coffee and by saying that the coffee was grown at 5,200’, it means the coffee should have a good flavor.

flavor by altitude table

The elevation of a coffee directly impacts the flavors you can expect to find in your morning cup.
Credit: DT Coffee Club

Elevation is just one of dozens of factors that affect the taste of the coffee you are about to drink, but it is one of the most important ones. Feel free to ask your barista for more information about the coffee you’re about to drink and experiment with coffees from different elevations and regions of the world!

A special thanks to Rodolfo Ruffatti who contributed valuable information for this article.

Perfect Daily Grind.