Altitude or height above sea level is one of the most influential factors to coffee production and attributes. Higher altitudes typically yield high-quality coffee with complex flavors, and countries such as El Salvador and Honduras grade their coffee based on their elevation.
Among the most prized attributes are floral, fruitiness, high acidity, stone fruits, and spiciness associated with coffees grown at elevations from 1500 meters (5000 ft); think coffees from Kenya, Ethiopia, and Colombia!
Although the origin of coffee by altitude significantly contributes to the type of coffee a country brags of, other factors such as climate, soil, coffee species, variety, and processing methods are also important.
How high altitude affects coffee
Quality and flavor of beans
Water and temperature largely determine the flavor and quality, and the colder climatic conditions typical at high altitudes produce great-tasting coffees. For instance, some most flavorful Arabica coffee varieties are grown between 16-23 degrees Celsius on average.
The cooler temperatures at high altitudes allow for slower maturation of the plant and beans, gradually ripening the fruit cherry. The resulting beans are dense (hard) and contain increased sugars. The extra time allows for complex flavors and acidity to develop.
Soils in higher elevations also are primarily well-drained, yielding beans with less water and intense flavors from the sugars. Therefore, well-cared-for coffee produced in high elevation will deliver a more acidic, aromatic, and flavorful cup that we all love!
Coffee crops are also less susceptible to pests and diseases at high altitudes. For example, the Coffee Berry Borer (CBB) pest, currently widespread in almost all coffee-producing countries, causes severe losses in yield and quality, especially at low altitudes. However, recent studies have established that damage by the pest is rarely severe at altitudes above 1370 meters ( ̴ 4500 ft) and is absent above 1680 meters ( ̴ 5500 ft) above sea level.
Altitudes considered high
It is considered a high elevation country when the altitude is 4000 feet ( ̴1200 meters), and any coffee produced in these conditions is dense and desirable. However, some countries such as Ethiopia produce coffee at elevations as high as 6000 feet ( ̴1800 meters ), while 3000 feet ( ̴ 900 meters) is considered high in Central America.
Any coffee grown above 4000 feet will be dense, and some regions and countries identify these high-grown lots in technical terms. For example, the coffee produced above 3000 feet in Central America is known as 'hard' and selections growing above 4500 feet as 'strictly hard' beans. Papua New Guinea designates coffee from its highest farms as 'Mile High,' while Mexico, on the other side of the world, terms it 'altura'.
What altitude should you look for when picking coffee?
Different heights yield coffee of varying flavors; therefore, personal preferences will determine the kind of coffee you choose. For instance, beans tend to be more acidic and translate to fruity and floral flavors in the cup when grown at high altitudes above 1300 meters (4500 ft). The following is an indication of the level of elevation and the taste of the coffee it produces:
- 5000 ft /1500 m and above - the coffee in these conditions has Complex, Floral, Fruity, Acidic, and Spicy flavors. Coffee from Colombia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Guatemala, Papua New Guinea, and Sulawesi are famous for these flavor profiles.
- 4000 ft /1200 m - the coffee has Nutty, Vanilla, Cocoa, Citrus, and Earthy tasting notes. Countries like Costa Rica, Java, Sumatra, Nicaragua, and Mexico Altura produce coffee with these notes.
- 3000 ft /900 m - coffees from this altitude are usually Sweet and Smooth common to coffees from Brazil, Bouma, Santos.
- 2500 ft /700 m - the coffee is Mild, Soft, and Simple. A classic example of this is the Hawaiian Kona coffee.
- 2000 ft /600 m and below: coffees from very low elevations are typically plain and bland
High altitude coffee countries in the world
(Coffee elevation range: 3600 – 7200 ft ( ̴ 1100 - 2200 m). Highest mountain elevation: 14,872 ft ( ̴ 4500 m)
Ethiopia is an African country located above the equator. It has an altitude that ranges between 4232 and 14,842 feet. On the plateaus, the highest elevation is 9843, which is exceptionally high. Therefore, Ethiopia's quality of Arabica coffee is high, and the altitude, especially at the great rift, ensures that the coffee quality stands out.
Ethiopia is the top producer of coffee in Africa and the fifth worldwide. It produces 441,000 tons which is around 4 percent of the total coffee consumed worldwide. The producing areas are the western sides of Ethiopia and the central region of Addis Ababa, which is the capital city.
(Coffee elevation range: 2600 – 6200 ft. Highest mountain elevation: 18,946 ft)
Colombia has an elevation of 8284 feet and allows for the growth of various crops. Among them is coffee which maintains high quality and is very reliable in the economy of the country. Moreover, the altitude is good as it ensures that the quality of coffee from Colombia is outstanding in terms of flavor.
It is the third-highest coffee producer and accounts for 8% of the coffee in the world markets. Many people have a good understanding of Colombian coffee because of its outstanding flavor and quality. You need to know that Colombia is the second-largest producer of Arabica coffee in the world.
(Coffee elevation range: 3,600 – 5,249 ft. Highest mountain elevation: 9, 416 ft)
Honduras holds the 6th position after Ethiopia in the production of high-quality coffee. It ranks 5th globally in addition to being the largest producer in Central America. Honduras supplies about 3.6 % of the world market with Arabica coffee due to its favorable climates. Areas around the west of the country are the greatest producers of coffee.
The highest altitude in Honduras is 9416 feet above sea level that makes it ideal for coffee growing. Areas that grow coffee in Honduras boast of producing the best coffee quality because the slow maturation process of the crops allows the development of desirable bean flavor and density.
(Coffee elevation range: 2,625 – 7,218 ft. Highest mountain elevation: 16,762 ft)
The highest point in Uganda is 16,762 ft which is too high to produce coffee. However, the country grows both Arabica and Robusta coffee which is indigenous to Uganda. The two main Robusta varieties – Nerecta and Nganda – are grown at 2,625 – 4,593 ft. It accounts for 82% of Uganda's total coffee production, especially for its suitability for the growing instant coffee industry. It mainly grows in the Lake Victoria basin to the southern region bordering Kenya, Congo, and Rwanda have the Arabica coffee. On the other hand, Arabica is produced at 4265 -7200 ft and accounts for the remaining 18 %. Uganda accounts for 2.4% of the total world supply.
(Coffee elevation range: 3900 – 6200 ft. Highest mountain elevation: 13,845 ft)
Guatemala scoops the 10th position in supplying coffee to the world market with 216 000 metric tons per year. It produces Arabica coffee which covers up to 97% leaving the 3% for Robusta coffee. The country, also known for its high-quality coffee, delivers 2% to the whole world market.
Coffee is grown in the southern parts of Guatemala, which has a high altitude. Its highest point has an elevation of 13,845 feet, and the lowest point is at the ocean. Most of the areas lie about 5000 ft which only favors high-quality coffee!
(Coffee elevation range: 2600 – 6500 ft. Highest mountain elevation: 12,532 ft)
Costa Rica is another famous country that supplies 0.88% of the global market with Arabica coffee. The coffee from Costa Rica has the best quality and flavor because of the high altitude. However, it does not produce Robusta coffee as the quality of Arabica is perfectly maintained.
The highest peaks are around 12 542 ft which is too high for coffee production. Even so, the higher elevations -particularly between 3900 and 5,600 ft (1200 and 1,700 m)- have climates that are nicely suited to the needs of coffee plants. As a result, the coffee from Costa Rica receives high ranks in the markets.
(Coffee elevation range: 4,593 – 6,562 ft. Highest mountain elevation: 17,051 ft)
Kenya produces the coffee that many drinkers deliberately love. It is valued for the complexity of its flavors, unlike any other in the world. Most of the coffee is grown at altitudes ranging from 4,593 to 6,562 ft on the high plateaus surrounding the snow-capped Mt. Kenya and the foothills of the Aberdare Ranges.
The central coffee-growing region spans towards the capital, Nairobi, from the 17000-foot Mt Kenya, while a smaller area lies on the hills of Mount Elgon near the border with Uganda. These areas are mountainous, and the high-altitude yield beans with desirable and prized attributes. But, unfortunately, Kenya's coffee production has significantly declined to about 39000 metric tons annually, accounting for just 0.04% of the world's coffee.
(Highest mountain elevation: 13,435 ft)
Malaysia is a mountainous country with the highest mountain standing at 13,435 feet and the lowest 3576 feet above sea level. It, therefore, makes it one of the countries that produce high-quality coffee. Commercially sound Arabica coffee is typically cultivated at an altitude of 3281- 5906 ft above sea level.
Malaysia's coffee production is small, at 3,369 metric tons annually, and makes up less than 1.0% market share in the country. The common growing regions are the Peninsula and East Malaysia, located at the northernmost tip. Nevertheless, Malaysia produces high-quality coffee famous among coffee lovers.
(Highest mountain elevation: 18,941 ft)
Mexico is in North America and is the only country that produces coffee in the region. In terms of supplying to the worldwide market, it has a share of 2.5%. Arabica coffee takes more than 96%, with the remaining 4% occupied by the Robusta coffee, which is of inferior quality.
Even so, Mexico is ranked the 9th best producer in the world. Its coffee is grown on the pacific coast and Gulf of Mexico. The country's altitude is 18,941 feet to the highest, which is quite extreme for the growing of coffee.
The lowest point has an elevation of 33 feet. Under the conditions, the quality that gets produced is the best.
Exceptions at Lower Elevations
Nature provides exceptions to every rule, and coffee grown at lower elevations can still develop slowly due to other types of adversities, thereby yielding great-tasting coffee.
The two most notable exceptions are the Hawaiian Kona coffee produced below 2000 feet and shade-grown coffee.
Downsides of high altitude
Most regions with high altitudes have mountains and valleys, presenting some of the most challenging terrains for farming and transport.
Moreover, the slower growth rate of the coffee requires more labor, longer time until harvest, and often lower yields subject to other factors. As a result, coffees produced at the highest altitudes cannot meet the current level of world coffee consumption.
Coffee has different tastes and flavors depending on its origin. Understandably, some people appreciate coffee from certain regions more because of the altitude, which considerably affects the quality and flavor of the coffee in your cup.
Even so, while high altitude is a good indication of great-tasting coffee and is certainly worth considering, it isn't a guarantee. Many other climatic factors influence production and the handling process through the supply and value chain also determine your final cup's quality.
Nevertheless, high-altitude areas produce the best coffee quality due to the long maturation time of the crop and beans. These conditions allow the beans to develop desirable attributes, incredibly complex flavors, and bean hardness. Such environments mostly favor Arabica coffee variety, although temperature and other climatic conditions make some areas best for Robusta coffee.