There are over 120 types of flowering coffea plants, and they produce four different types of coffee beans. Like the different plants in your backyard, they all need specific conditions to grow and thrive. The best coffee beans need the ideal growing conditions to meet their specific needs.
Altitude, which is sometimes referred to as elevation, is the distance above sea level. With the height above sea level comes varying levels of sun exposure, waterfall, and ecosystems that all directly affect the plants’ growing abilities.
Does Altitude Affect Coffee Beans?
The short answer is yes, absolutely. All plants and trees have specific requirements for their growth. Altitude plays a significant role in creating an environment that allows coffee bean trees to thrive.
Altitude can make or break a living organism. Even in humans, altitude can have a negative impact.
Not only is the air quality different in higher altitudes, but exposure to sunlight, rainfall, and animals is also all different than is found in lower elevations. Each one of these factors plays an important role in the circle of life for the coffea plant.
How Does Altitude Affect Coffee Growing?
Coffee-growing regions at higher altitudes have thinner, colder air. As a result, the optimal temperature range for high-altitude coffee beans is between 64-73 degrees and can reach temps as low as 59 degrees.
High altitude is considered anything between 1,800 and 6,300 feet above sea level for coffee trees. Arabica coffee beans, which provide more than two-thirds of the world's coffee, grow at these higher elevations.
In contrast, robusta coffee beans grow in low elevations between 600 and 2,400 feet, with temps around 80 degrees. So, you can tell from temperature alone the vast difference in growing conditions.
Robusta coffee beans, grown at lower elevations, are smaller and rounder than their higher-elevation counterparts. Robusta coffee beans are also significantly higher in caffeine than arabica coffee beans.
Robusta coffee beans have an average caffeine content between 2.2 to 2.7%. This is nearly double the 1.2 to 1.5% caffeine content of arabica coffee beans. The high caffeine content plays a vital role in fending off bugs, pests, and diseases.
Do The Best Coffee Beans Grow Better at Higher Altitudes?
Depending on how you measure the word better, you can decide if the best coffee is grown at higher or lower altitudes. If you base the best coffee off worldwide sales, the answer is a resounding yes; higher altitude is better. However, judging based on which altitude produces more coffee beans per acre, the answer is lower altitudes.
Top 5 High-Altitude Coffee Bean Growing Locations:
Top 5 Low-Altitude Coffee Bean Growing Locations:
- Cote D’Ivoire
Several countries grow both high-altitude and low-altitude coffee beans. And even in countries with multiple high-altitude growing locations, the differences in growing regions can still create a wide range of different coffee flavors.
3 Ways Altitude Impacts Coffee Beans:
Coffee Bean Flavor and Altitude
Higher-altitude coffee is often described as more acidic or bright. And no, acidity in coffee is not a negative. Some of the best coffee beans are described as acidic. For example, arabica coffee beans have flavor notes that range from chocolatey to fruity.
Lower-altitude robusta coffee beans have a smoother flavor. The robusta flavor profiles lean toward more earthy and grainy notes, with hints of peanut.
For some, the additional caffeine in these lower-altitude coffee beans is all they need to be happy. For others, the more complex taste notes in arabica coffee beans make them the best coffee beans.
Coffee Bean Production Output and Altitude
Depending on the year, high-altitude arabica coffee beans make up anywhere from 60 - 75% of the global consumption of coffee, with Brazil being the top producer. However, low-altitude coffea canephora plants produce more robusta coffee beans annually per acre.
3 Factors That Affect Coffee Bean Production Numbers:
- Pollination style
Robusta coffee beans rely on cross-pollination with help from insects and the wind. Arabica, on the other hand, is self-pollinating. Not having to rely on outside influences is one of the ways higher-elevation coffee beans thrive, especially if conditions are not ideal.
Robusta coffee beans grow in warmer climates and appreciate more sunlight. On the other hand, higher-elevation coffea arabica plants struggle to survive in direct sunlight and need plenty of shade.
Arabica coffee beans are frequently referred to as "Mountain Coffee" due to growing on heavily forested mountainsides. They require the shade afforded to them by the high-elevation elements to produce high-quality coffee beans.
Lower-elevation coffee beans are more resilient. The strength in robusta coffee beans paired with a higher caffeine content is a natural deterrent to insects, disease, and harsh weather conditions.
Rainfall and High-Altitude Coffee Beans
Water plays an essential role in the life cycle of all living organisms. Therefore, higher elevations that grow arabica coffee beans tend to have distinct rainy and dry seasons, with annual rainfalls of 5 feet.
The mountain terrain plus higher elevations tend to produce the best coffee for arabica coffee beans. This is partially thanks to the length of time the coffee trees are exposed to rainfall. Since high elevation plus mountain slopes create a natural downward path, there is significantly more water drainage than lower-elevation coffee beans experience.
Since the altitude and terrain create drainage opportunities, the coffee bean trees are not sitting in water. Less water means the sugars inside the coffee cherry have time to form more complex and bold flavors.
Rainfall and Low-Altitude Coffee Beans
Lower-elevation coffee beans have less environmental help in regard to water drainage. This allows for the coffee bean trees to be saturated in water at times.
Coffee plants exposed to water for extended periods can produce coffee beans that are less bold in flavor. In the same way melted ice will dilute your drink and strip the distinct flavors, sitting in rainwater for long periods reduces the flavor of coffee beans.
The Best Altitude Produces the Best Coffee Beans
It doesn't matter whether you choose high-altitude or low-altitude coffee beans. The biggest factor in creating an amazing cup of coffee is choosing coffee beans that were grown in their specific ideal conditions.
The best coffee comes from the best coffee beans, which require the best coffee growing conditions.