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Exploring Factors Influencing Coffee Flavor Part 2: Environmental Condition, Soil Composition, and Elevation

Posted on December 15 2023, By: Tim Wacker

Exploring Factors Influencing Coffee Flavor Part 2: Environmental Condition, Soil Composition, and Elevation

In the first installment of Exploring Factors Influencing Coffee Flavor, we delved into the impact of a coffee shrub's species and variety on the taste of your coffee. Now, in Part 2, we will explore the influence of terroir (environmental conditions, soil quality, and elevation) on the flavor profile of coffee.

Environmental Condition

Like other crops, coffee beans are heavily influenced by the environment in which they are grown. We know this. However, it isn't easy to pinpoint how environmental conditions influence the flavor of coffee because there are various intersecting factors. To approximate the impact of one environmental variable, all the other variables would have to be controlled, e.g., fertilizer, processing method, ripeness of when the coffee cherry is plucked, climate, etc. It isn’t realistic to scientifically test this out.

I will touch on shade-grown coffee here. I have heard people say that they only buy shade-grown coffee. There may be some environmental reason (monoculture vs sustainable) for why someone may want to buy only shade-grown coffee; growing coffee in the shade doesn't appear to impart a distinct flavor difference compared to coffee grown in unshaded conditions. The necessity of shielding a coffee shrub from direct sunlight depends upon the specific coffee variety and the prevailing environmental and climate conditions. A coffee plant situated farther from the equator might not require shade, and, in fact, shade could be detrimental to its well-being. Conversely, shade might be preferred in other locations and necessary for the shrub's health.

Soil Composition

The rate at which a coffee cherry matures affects its flavor and sugar development. Keep this idea in your mind because it will return when we discuss elevation. The longer it takes for a coffee cherry to mature, the more the flavor and sugar are developed because it allows for a slower absorption of nutrients. Quick growth depletes nutrients, so maintaining nutrient-rich soil is crucial. Producers use diverse plants, compost, fertilizer, and organic materials to nourish the soil.

Coffee thrives in volcanic soil with essential minerals like phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, calcium, zinc, and boron, contributing to flavor development. Potassium affects coffee's overall sugar content and citric acid, while nitrogen significantly influences caffeine levels. A deficiency in these minerals or nutrients often leads to coffees with less complexity, low acidity, and primary flavor profiles.

Elevation

Elevation is the one variable that clearly influences the flavor of coffee. The elevation at which coffee is cultivated, measured in meters above sea level (MASL), plays a crucial role in shaping the sugars, acids, and complex flavors that contribute to the ultimate taste experience of a cup of coffee.

Higher elevations often lead to ideal climatic conditions for specialty coffee, with broader temperature variations from hot days to cool nights, promoting a slower maturation (there it is) of coffee cherries and enhancing flavor and sugar development. This dynamic thermal environment is believed to aid coffee cherries in producing more intricate acids and sugars during the day, with the nighttime period allowing for storing these compounds. The more significant development of sugars during the ripening process at higher elevations results in a coffee with a sweeter, cleaner, and more intense dynamic flavor profile.

Unlike truth, “higher” is relative. Quality is not solely determined by elevation; instead, it revolves around the slower maturation of coffee induced by cooler climates, which can be found at lower elevations as one travels farther from the equator. For instance, coffee grown at lower elevations in South America can experience daily temperature fluctuations similar to higher-elevation coffee in Central America, including cooler nights.

Conclusion

Factors such as the soil the coffee is grown in or the elevation in relation to the distance from the equator the coffee is grown at influence the flavor profile of your coffee. The conditions that lead to a slower maturation of the coffee cherry contribute to a sweeter, cleaner, and more intense and complex flavor profile in the coffee.

We just scratched the surface of terroir's influence on coffee's flavor profile. I hope it was enough to stoke your curiosity, and maybe next time you purchase coffee, you will be looking at things like elevation.

In part 3 of Joy of Coffee, we will dig into how processing methods play a role in shaping the flavors in your cup. Until then, drink good coffee with good company over great conversation.

Cheers!

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