Why does a coffee’s growing elevation matter?

Most of us know what elevation is but today we are going to explain how growing elevation impacts coffee (and why we are obsessed with talking about it!). So, why does growing elevation matter?

Imagine there are two groups of beans vying for your attention. Both groups are all female. One group is coddled, well fed, well sunned, and essentially bred to be super-breeders. This group lacks for nothing and can easily produce numerous crops of cherries per year. The other group experiences a very different existence. This group lives a harsh life struggling to survive on precipitous mountain slopes. For this group, water and vital resources are scarce. The steep mountain slopes allow water to drain away very quickly and the dense forest canopy of trees and shrubbery force the plants to reach for sunlight. This group’s main task is survival — but only the healthiest plants will survive. For those that power through, they devote all their effort and resources into feeding and nurturing their seeds. Given the resource constraints and longer maturation period, this group can only produce one — at max — two crops per year. This, dear readers, is our high elevation growing coffee plant, also known as arabica.

Okay, that was a bit extreme but this slow maturation of the bean, low water content, and intense resource concentration in each bean is what makes high grown coffee spectacular. As mentioned in our little survival story, higher elevation affords coffee plants a temperate climate, natural shade cover, mineral-rich soil, and exceptional drainage. This ideal topography, coupled with limited water and sunlight, leads to a very long maturation period (or better described as flavor and texture development period). The less water available to a bean, the less water exists within the bean, allowing the seed’s sugars (a.k.a., flavors) to concentrate during maturation. The longer the seed takes to mature, the more likely it is to develop the wonderfully crisp, clean, nuanced upper notes we love.

As just mentioned, high grown beans also tend to be physically harder and denser than low-grown beans and are regularly referred to as Hard Beans or Strictly Hard Beans based on their growing altitude. Beans grown:

3,000 – 4,500 feet above sea level are considered Hard Beans (also referred to HB and synonymous with High Grown (HG)). HBs are dense with a closed fissure line down their center and tend to exhibit smooth, sweet, muted chocolate and nut flavors.

4,500+ feet above sea level are considered Strictly Hard Beans (also referred to SHB and synonymous with Strictly High Grown (SHG)). SHBs are extremely dense with a tightly closed fissure line down their center, smooth, and tend to exhibit an array of developed and nuanced flavor tones, ranging from gentle chocolate and vanilla notes to crisp, bright berry and fruit tones. Spanish speaking growing countries commonly refer to SHG beans as Altura, which means height in Spanish. In addition to producing a wonderfully nuanced coffee, HG and especially SGH beans have the added benefit of generally being naturally shade grown, meaning the beans are grown under a natural shade canopy of native mountain fauna.

To sum this up, the higher the elevation, the harder and more flavorful the bean due to a low water content and slow maturation. These beans are also very likely to be sustainably grown. We hope this helps clarify why coffee people love to talk about elevation! If you enjoyed this entry, you may also like:

Bean basics: Arabica vs. Robusta

Beans, beans, beans! Arabica coffee varietals and cultivars

Coffee processing: dry, wet, washed, and honey

Can coffee survive in a warmer world?

Hand picking ripe SHG coffee cherries — it is dangerous work!

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