Terroir, that magical, elusive word is most often associated with wine but applies just as much to coffee. So what is terroir? The technical translation from french means agricultural land or a rural region with a unified, distinct language and culture. In practice, terroir encompasses both of these meanings. Terroir is the everything of a particular piece of growing land or region — the soil composition, rainfall, altitude, temperature, humidity, and sunlight. In English, we more frequently refer to terroir as a microclimate. Now on to the real question, what does terroir do for your coffee?
Terroir gives your coffee unique tones and textures. Coffee plants grown from the same parent tree and planted in different countries, regions, or even different micro-regions within a region possess distinctive characteristics based on their terroir. The reason for this is the change in soil composition, elevation, water availability, and sunlight availability. Each of these elements develops different bean characteristics and each is unique to a plant’s terroir. Elevation, for example, tends to impact a bean’s sweetness and acidity with higher elevation plants generally producing sweeter, more acidic beans. Soil controls water availability and nutrient content. A plant grown in a water-scarce area, in rich volcanic soil will produce full, more potent beans than one grown in a water-rich region — even if the two plants are of the same varietal, grown at the same elevation, and descended from the same parent plant.
This now begs the question of how important terroir is in the taste of your cup — and that is where things get tricky. Terroir is directly responsible for the character of the cherry seed and unprocessed bean. This bean character can either be preserved or altered during processing and / or roasting. A processor, for example, may choose to use a honey processing method on the bean or a dry the bean on a surface with unique flavors — both of these processes will alter the bean’s natural characters and thus, override the terroir. Similarly, a roaster could roast the bean to a darker shade, ultimately a roast shade (such as french roast), and also mute the bean’s natural tones. While processors and roasters can alter a bean’s natural character generally they try to honor a bean’s unique molecular composition by finding a processing method and roast that allows the bean’s natural notes and aromas to shine thus celebrating the terroir.
To circle back to our original question, how does terroir impact your coffee? Terroir gives your coffee its character; it is the processors and roasters who are responsible for then preserving that character. If you enjoyed this blog, please visit our Knowledge Center.