High altitude coffee cultivation is more amenable to the growing higher quality Arabic beans
Coffee beans grow mainly on two species of coffee plant – Arabica and the Robusta. The preferred coffee bean in the world comes from the Arabica coffee variety, which is a delicate and choosy vine. It grows best at elevations over 3,500 ft (1,200 m), where it is more comfortable in cooler temperatures. Unlike the Robusta variety which resists fungi, pests and is generally a hardier plant, Arabic coffee plants are highly susceptible to fungi and diseases, as well as the greater number of pests prevalent at lower elevations in the tropics. This is the primary reason that high altitude coffee plantations are more conducive to growing higher quality coffee – because they provide a climate and ecology that is more conducive to the Arabica variety!
Coffee that grows at higher elevation grows differently than lowland varieties. The cool air and limited water supply causes the coffee fruit to grow smaller. The coffee berry also matures slower because the colder climate, lower oxygen and increased drainage on mountainsides limits growth of the coffee berries. All of this results in a berry that is also smaller, harder and with different flavor characteristics than lowland beans. Beans grown at altitude that develop this way are granted a designation “HB” for hard bean or “SHB” for strict hard bean, which is the designation that Cafe Jose’s Tarrazu coffee has. The influence of higher elevations on coffee is comparable to the way that hillsides in wine regions cause the grapes to grow smaller, with less juice but more concentrated flavors. Something about the hardship imposed by high elevations yields a better tasting bean!
Higher elevation coffee yields superior flavor
So what is the difference in flavor between a lowland grown bean and one that develops at high altitude? The answer depends on many other factors such as the distance from the equator, local climate and soil conditions, but generally speaking higher elevation coffees will have less intensity and bitterness. Instead, their flavor profile is broader and more complex. The higher elevation one grows beans, the more exquisite and pleasant the flavor. Cafe Jose’s beans are sourced from plantations located between 4,000 and 5,000 feet above sea level – well above the minimum for good results growing Arabica coffee and at a high elevation even by Costa Rican standards.
Are you interested in trying coffee beans from a high elevation, but not sure how to find some? This is a legitimate problem since most coffees are blends of high and low elevation which roasters do guarantee supply and reduce costs. The first step is to identify coffee growing regions that are located above 3,900 feet (1,200 m) such as Blue Mountain, Kona or Tarrazu. Then, look for single origin coffees that are grown exclusively in those regions. Look for “single origin” as a label.
High elevation coffee beans vary in hardness and texture
Even that may not be a guarantee since many larger regions host farms at different elevations. So be sure to also research the source of the exact origin of the beans by visiting the roaster’s website or contacting them directly to ask if they know the exact origin (they may not if the work through a broker), or if the beans have an “HB” or “SHB” designation.
When you try a single origin, mountain grown coffee remember to adjust your grinder and brew settings (or your assumptions if you do manual pour overs). Enjoy your trip to the mountains – your taste buds will definitely thank you!
Cafe Jose’s High Altitude Coffee from Tarrazu, Costa Rica