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How Does Elevation Affect The Taste of Coffee?

Here at Skybury we are often asked what impact elevation (or altitude) has on the taste of coffee. People will often assume because our coffee is grown at a relatively low altitude (approximately 500m or 1600ft), it will produce an inferior taste….Skybury's Paul Fagg explores the facts.

In general terms, elevation does have a major impact on the way coffee tastes, which is why roasters note a coffee’s originating country and region. Higher elevations tend to produce hard, dense beans that are more sought-after than beans grown at lower elevations. Hard beans are of a higher quality than soft beans, because they have a higher concentration of sugars, which in turn produces more complex and nuanced flavours. Several factors contribute to the increased concentration of sugars in coffee grown at high elevations, including:

  • Cooler annual temperature range
  • Generally more cloud cover and rainfall

Higher is, of course, a relative term. The highest-grown coffees in Costa Rica might come from farms that are 4500 feet above sea level, while Ethiopia has farms that sit at 6000 feet. Generally speaking, though, an altitude above 4000 feet is considered high enough to produce the growing conditions that create dense, desirable beans. The important thing to note is that elevation creates the right growing conditions for better quality coffee, but latitude also plays an equally important role.

So why is latitude so important?

Skybury can precisely control the amount of water each tree receives through a sophisticated irrigation system, allowing us to control flowering. There are exceptions to the general rule of thumb regarding high altitude coffee. Coffee grown at lower elevations can still develop slowly, if it experiences the same type of growing conditions as high altitude coffee, such as cool overnight temperatures, adequate rainfall and relatively low humidity. Notable exceptions are Hawaiian Kona coffee (which is grown below 2000 feet) and shade-grown coffee. Hawaii is so far north of the equator that its coffee is still excellent, even though the elevations it’s grown at aren’t high. Shade also slows the maturation process by reducing the daytime temperatures. Altitude and latitude are interchangeable when looking for suitable conditions for growing good coffee.

Lets have a look at Skybury Coffee and our particular growing conditions. In common with Hawaiian grown coffee, we too are located relatively far from the equator – this time on the southern side. This creates a cool climate over the growing period, giving our coffee time to mature and develop its flavours. The Skybury plantation is just outside of the frost line for our farming area, which would indicate that any additional altitude would be too cold to grow coffee without the risk of frost.

Furthermore, the Mareeba area experiences adequate rainfall over our growing season, which is further supported by an extensive local irrigation network. We can therefore precisely control the amount of water each tree receives through a sophisticated irrigation system.  Importantly we can also control flowering, which many coffee farmers are unable to manage. We also have very well drained soils, which prevent water logging. Australia doesn’t suffer from many of the diseases and pests, which can affect coffee trees in other parts of the world.  This means we are able to grow great coffee in an environmentally sound and sustainable way.

...so there you have it – while altitude is important, latitude is equally as important.

Enjoy one of the world’s great coffees!

 

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