For this entry I’m leaning heavily on the notes I took during Tecnicafe’s diploma course since most of blogs on this topic have been recycled so much that everything regarding how high altitude affects coffee has pretty much been said. Instead, I’ve chosen to share a different perspective.
High altitude coffees have been prized historically and revered as the best in the world. Coffee beans from Ethiopia, the mecca of coffee, are traditionally all grown at altitudes from 1500 to 2000 meters above sea level. Other high altitude growing countries such as Colombia and Kenya reinforce that coffees grown at exceptionally high altitudes tend to be spectacular and that's partially due to the cycle below.
However, high altitude is but a puzzle-piece in the larger picture of geographical location which contributes roughly 30% of the key factors to high quality coffee. Just like altitude, the diurnal range, specific climatic conditions such as rain and humidity, soil fertility, and even the latitude are unique to each place and all affect quality in different ways.
Terroir as it’s known in wine, underscores the importance of the mineral characteristics in the soil, and it just so happens that many high altitude coffee regions have fertile volcanic soils abundant in minerals. Altitude and latitude have an opposite relationship, the lower the latitude, meaning the closer to the equator, the higher altitude coffee can be planted in.
Low altitude coffees get a bad rep but some countries in Central and South America as well as South East Asia have chosen to compensate for the lack of altitude by focusing on sustainable growing systems, natural disease control, extra-careful picking done by hand and planting the right varietals for the desired result.
Another group of key factors of high quality coffee are the post harvest processing methods which encompass an ever-growing list of techniques. Fermentation with or without water, with or without oxygen, really has the capacity to augment those varietal expressions we love. Of course, this goes hand in hand with a capable roaster and proper brewing or extraction.
High altitude isn’t everything when it comes to coffee, it adds an extra layer of complexity to a cup but it is not the end-all be-all. Since less than 5% of the world’s coffee is grown over 1700 masl, I think we’d do good for the planet drinking more coffees from around 1200 meters above sea level, already a high altitude in it’s own and high enough to produce those nice dense coffee beans we all love.