Why is coffee grown at higher altitudes better?

Scientific knowledge (Written: Tamika)

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15:03 13/09/2022

CFRR – Altitude and air temperature have a close relationship with the sensory attributes of aroma, taste, body, acidity, aftertaste, and deliciousness in a cup of coffee. Coffee trees grown at higher altitudes tastes better.

According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO) years 2020-2021, the world consumed about 166.5 million bags of 60kg coffee to meet the current demand, and achieve beverage standards. It is necessary to understand the climatic factors involved in the production and influence on the quality of the final brewed coffee product (Sobreira and coworkers, 2016; Ferreira and coworkers, 2021), a prominent factor that is the influence of altitude and climate is primarily responsible for coffee quality one prominent factor is the effects of altitude and climate are mainly responsible for coffee quality (Zaidan and coworkers, 2017; Pereira and coworkers, 2018).

What does coffee growing altitude mean?

In some countries, coffee has been identified as a plant for the needs and preferences of coffee consumers in the world, and for economic development to improve the lives of farmers. To maintain the market share, it is recognized that the common price of specialty coffee will be higher than the price of commercial coffee even in the same country. Therefore, the unique flavor characteristics of coffee are the determining factors of coffee quality (Carmen and coworkers, 2018).

In higher altitude regions, the sensory attributes are more pronounced in terms of taste, aroma, and mouthfeel when compared to coffees in lower altitude ones. (Pereira and coworkers, 2018; Ferreira and coworkers, 2018) Higher altitude equals lower temperature, coffee beans will need more time to mature, facilitating the transfer of sugars and chemical compounds from tree to fruit, creating sensory properties, are specific to coffee. However, there is a drawback that coffee plants may give lower yields (De Bruyn and coworkers, 2016).

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Coffee plants are grown in Ethiopia. Photo: ictcoffee.com

According to Gaitán and coworkers (2015), the optimum temperature analysis for rust on coffee leaves is in the range of 16-28°C, and it is almost impossible to have a temperature lower than 15°C. Similar to leaf rust is a fruit borer disease that causes great damage every year and thrives in the range of 20-30°C. Besides, the ideal temperature for growing coffee is about 18-21°C, so growing coffee plants at higher altitudes, lower temperatures will reduce the potential for damage to leaves rust, and also fruit borers. This has great implications for a high-quality coffee with fewer defects and because of less negative taste in the final brewed product.

Coffee growing altitude affects the internal qualities of the beans

There are 4 factors in coffee beans that affect coffee quality, the water content in beans, bean physical quality, taste quality, and health quality expressed by biochemical content affecting plant health.

 Which, water content is affected by post-harvest processing, while physical quality, taste, and biochemical content are three factors affected by genetic characteristics, growing process, environment, and the interaction of genotype with the environment (Wintgens, 2004a).

Physical quality

The world coffee market has a strong tendency to consume specialty coffee, so influences from environmental conditions, altitude, and temperature affect coffee quality. Studies indicate that at different high levels there will be an effect on the physical quality of the beans and the sensibility of arabica coffee (Soares and coworkers, 2022). The main criterion of grain physical quality is the bean size and the unusual proportion of beans such as huge seeds (elephant seeds). (Eskes and coworkers, 2004) can affect the price of coffee and correlates with the quality of the beans because there are some points of view that larger beans produce better flavor, but in reality, larger bean sizes are not always better. Besides, the size specification, the defect counting standard based on the “percentage of defects by weight” has also been specified for each type of coffee. (Wintgens, 2004a).

Quality of taste

Arabica coffee can grow well at altitudes above 1000m above sea level, cultivation at an average altitude of about 700-900m is considered the minimum height for arabica coffee cultivation, at this average altitude, coffee plants face pest diseases attack and deterioration in flavor quality in coffee beans (Hulupi, 2006). 

The study was carried out in the Matas de Minas of Brazil when harvesting arabica catuai coffee beans in three areas with altitudes of 950, 1050, and 1150m above sea level respectively, rainfall from 1200-1300mm, average annual temperature about 19.8-20.3°C, with two methods of dry processing and wet processing. The arabica catuai variety stands out for its medium bean size, high yield, susceptibility to coffee leaves rust, and good sensory quality beans (Sakiyama and coworkers, 2015).

thu-nem-ca-phe
The aroma evaluation process in coffee tasting. Photo: SCA

Sensory analysis based on tasting standards from the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) was performed by seven assessors who are accredited by SCA.

In the sensory analysis of 10 attributes including aroma, taste, acidity, consistency, homogeneity, cleanliness, balance, sweetness, and aftertaste. In conclusion, coffee grown at higher altitudes has a higher quality score than coffee grown at low altitudes (Barbosa and coworkers, 2019; Barbosa and coworkers, 2020).

One more important is arabica genotype tends to produce better bean quality at higher altitudes than at low altitudes. At low altitudes, these genotypes have low environmental interactions and are unable to fulfill their inherited quality potential (Sobreira and coworkers, 2016; Ferreira and coworkers, 2021)

Another study by Jacques and coworkers (2005), with coffee samples at Orisi grown at an altitude of about 1020-1250m and samples with an altitude of Santa Maria de Dota about 1550-1780m. Coffee samples were evaluated on five criteria including aroma, taste, acidity, bitterness, and specific flavor (floral or chocolate flavor…depending on the origin of coffee beans).

The results obtained from the sensory perspective of these two types of coffee give distinct characteristics. The coffee from Orosi has a floral aroma, lower acidity, aroma, and consistency scores than the coffee from Santa Maria de Dota, which has a characteristic chocolate flavor, high acidity, noted points for aroma, and higher body in coffee.

Higher altitude resulted in differences in acidity and preference found with tasting participants with coffee from Santa Maria de Dota is higher than (Avelino and coworkers, 2002; Decazy and coworkers, 2003).

Biochemical content

The biochemicals in coffee beans include caffeine, trigonelline, fat, sucrose, chlorogenic acid, xetone, aldehyde, phenolic compounds, norisoprenoid, pyrazine, and terpene. Genotypes can create different amounts of the same chemical in different locations or different years due to the interaction of genes and the environment (Villarreal and coworkers, 2009). The higher altitude, the higher the sacaroza content in the beans (Worku and coworkers, 2018), and this substance is directly proportional to the sweetness in coffee beans. Based on that, arabica coffee beans can have different amounts of biochemical.

Since the biochemicals of the seed must be converted to energy, amino acids, fats, and substances during germination (Shimizu and coworkers, 2000) then differences in the number of biochemicals in the beans can cause different germination.

The relationship between altitude and particle density

The density of coffee beans is the ratio of its weight and volume, the density of the beans that contribute to the perception of the density of a bean can be visually expressed as a harder, denser (tight groove). Experts around the world have recognized the density of beans as an important measure to classify green coffee beans by quality. Coffee plants grown at higher altitudes and lower air temperatures lead to a slower ripening of the coffee berries, a longer bean maturation process that allows for a stronger flavor, and denser beans compared with planting at lower altitudes (DaMatta and coworkers, 2007; Vaast and coworkers, 2006).

Arabica coffee trees grow optimally at a temperature of about 18-21°C, to meet this temperature, coffee trees must be planted at an altitude of about 1000-1800m or maybe higher. Lower altitudes and higher temperatures will ripen faster. 

The longer ripening process leads to a higher quality in the cup because a more complete biochemical mechanism can be created that is necessary for the development of coffee bean quality which is the conversion of the derived acetate from carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in the fruit to carbon dioxide called Krebs cycle which occurs more slowly at high altitudes than results is slower fruit ripening (Silva and coworkers, 2005).

cay-ca-phe-trong-tren-doi-1600
Coffee plants are grown on the hill at an altitude of 1600m in Dalat. 
Photo: CFRR

However, altitude is not the only factor affecting particle density, but also temperature, rainfall, and soil. Positive sensory quality attributes such as acidity, fruity aroma, and characteristic flavor are all correlated with altitude and air temperature. After roasting, two volatile compounds, ethanol, and acetone were identified as biochemical markers in arabica plants grown at cool temperatures. (Bertrand and coworkers, 2012).

The altitude affects seed growth

Plant development depends on genotype, environment, and interaction of genotype with the environment. And the coffee growing environment including altitude, temperature, rainfall, season, and location in the development process of coffee beans affect the chemical content of the beans, the weight of the beans, the size of the beans, and flavor quality (Avelino and coworkers, 2005; Woldemeskel, 2017).

Higher altitudes significantly improve bean quality, weight, and individual bean size. Ignoring genotype and environment conditions, beans grown at high altitude (average temperature of about 17.1°C) recorded scores on sensory evaluation of aroma, mouthfeel, acidity, balance, taste, and sensory preferences are significantly higher than those grown at low altitude (temperature about 21.2°C). 

 Among bean varieties, the researchers noted that the weight and size of beans also increased with altitude, the weight of beans grown at an altitude of 2100m was about 24% heavier, and the average size of beans was about 3-7% larger than ones grown at low altitudes of 1200m (Adugna and coworkers, 2017).

Conclusion

Studies have shown that the quality of coffee depends on many factors such as genetics, climate, temperature, altitude, rainfall, season, and maturing time, which determine the physical quality, taste quality, and biochemical content of coffee beans. However, altitude and air temperature are closely related to the sensory attributes of aroma, flavor, body, acidity, and aftertaste in the final brewed coffee product, most coffee beans grow at higher altitudes and will have a richer flavor and quality than at low altitudes. 

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