How does altitude affect coffee (and its caffeine levels)?
Coffee growing altitude is a top-of-da-list factor when it comes to the flavour of your cup. Let’s check it out!
Ever heard baristas chat about high altitude coffee and liked the sound of it? It’s ‘high’, after all, and high up is the place of stars and spaceships and unicorns (they’re real). So it must be good, right?
But why? How can something like the distance from the ground alter the flavour of your coffee?
Grab your wellies and rucksack, because we’re trekking out to discover how altitude affects coffee!
How does elevation affect coffee?
Elevation is the vertical distance between sea level and the happy place where the coffee plant grows. We measure this in metres above sea level, or MASL.
If we’re being really pernickety, we should mention that there’s a slight difference between elevation and altitude (elevation refers specifically to the position of something in relation to sea level), but we can use them more or less interchangeably when chatting coffee.
So, coffee growing altitude is key when it comes to your cup. It’s a major player in determining the beans’ quality, shape, size, and flavour.
Elevation station: what is high elevation coffee?
What is this high elevation of which we speak? Let’s get to the numbers.
We can find coffee plants growing at very high altitudes, which is usually considered to be above 1525 metres (5000 feet). Then, (you guessed it), we find coffee growing at high altitudes of at least 1200 metres (4000 feet).
Both are a recipe for coffee success. But why?
How does altitude affect coffee?
Coffee grown at high elevations is likely to be full-flavoured and delicious. This is down to the cooler air flowing up there at 1200 metres.
And what kind of coffee growing temperatures are we talking about? A pleasant 16-23°C.
This fresh climate slows down the plants’ growing rate, giving the coffee cherry more time to mature. The natural sugars can take their time developing, too, which produces a mature bean that’s aromatic, complex and FULL of flavour.
Coffee growing altitude affects the density of the bean, too. High altitude beans are denser because the cell structure has more time to develop. Density is one of the best ways to spot high-elevation coffee: the beans will be hard, and their centre cut (the little fissure running down the middle) will be quite close together.
And the taste? Coffees grown high up above sea level often taste fabulously floral with some acidity and spice. Go a little lower, and we’ll start saying ‘hello’ to lovely notes of nut, chocolate and vanilla.
Where does coffee grown at high altitudes?
If you’re fond of your joe, you’ll know that coffee growing origin affects flavour. One reason for this is that countries offer different altitudes:
- We find very high altitude coffees growing in countries such as Columbia, Ethiopia and Kenya
- And high altitude beans? Find them in coffees from countries like Costa Rica and Nicaragua
Awesome high altitude coffees are almost always arabica. Arabica beans are premium, A-star quality; the crème de la crème of the coffee world. They can be a little more costly than robusta (their low-quality cousin) because the high altitudes which bring their standout flavour also make them harder to pick.
But a few extra pennies for fantastically flavoured and most-definitely-not-bitter beans? Totally worth it.
Does coffee grow in low altitudes?
Coffee does grow at low altitudes, but it usually lacks flavour and vibrancy. Low elevation beans will often be the robusta variety and grow at around 760 metres (2500 feet).
What are the effects of low altitude? Let’s get bullet pointing:
- Higher temperatures and less rain speed up the coffee’s maturation time
- The coffee plants grow more quickly, but don’t have enough time to develop. This makes them a bit sad (i.e. they taste dull and muddy and lack acidity).
- The yield is greater, which drives prices down. This makes robusta coffee cheaper.
- Low altitude coffees are weaker because their cell structures haven’t had enough time to grow properly. Their fissure line will gape more widely, and they’ll be softer, too. Lack of development makes them far too feeble for longer roasting. This rich, chocolatey dark roasts near impossible.
Low altitude coffee can be tasty, of course. But high attitude is what your taste buds really want!
Does altitude affect caffeine?
As a general rule, caffeine levels decrease as the altitude increases.
Conditions at low altitudes are tough. Pests, fungi and higher temperatures demand tough beans. Robusta (‘robust’) beans have adapted to these conditions by having a higher caffeine content.
Take one robusta bean. It has about 2.9 milligrams of caffeine, while an arabica one has around 1.9 milligrams. Caffeine is a natural pest repellent, so it helps the robusta plants survive the rough low altitude conditions.
The problem? That this much caffeine makes the robusta beans bitter.
There are fewer pests high up, so arabica beans don’t need that hard-hitting caffeine content. This is why arabica coffee taste so beautifully balanced with yin-and-yang sweetness!
Lots of other growing variables affect the quality of a coffee, and we can’t ignore things like soil condition and rainfall. Then there’s the roasting and brewing methods we choose: they also play a part.
But altitude will always be a big player. Grab some high altitude coffee and treat it well, because we’re pretty sure it’ll taste fantastic!
Want to learn more about the speciality coffee at Two Chimps? Find everything you need right here!
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