Elevation and its affect on coffee taste

May 25, 2016

In the coffee industry, we often talk about elevation. We list it on all of our single origin coffees labels at A&E. This information can tell you a lot about the coffee you’re buying if you know what it means.

How does elevation affect taste?

Erwin shosws of coffee cherries on coffe mountain.

Coffee Cherries

Elevation  affects the final taste of coffee beans.  In general, coffees grown at higher regions contain more floral, spicy, fruity notes, while lower elevations produce milder notes.  In the coffee world, anything over 5000 feet is considered pretty high.  Mid-range elevations (around 4000ft) produce nutty cocoa notes.  Lower elevations (in the 3000ft range) generally produce mild, simpler coffees.  There is a place for all these beans in the market.  I find it helpful to taste coffees from a variety of elevations in order to discern what qualities I like.  Most specialty roasters will provide you with information about growing region when they sell you single origin beans.  Right now we are featuring some African coffees from high elevations including an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, and fruity coffees from Burundi and Congo. We also have some deep, rich, coffees from slightly lower elevations, including our coffees from Sumatra and Brazil.

Why does elevation affect taste?

Believe it or not, coffee tastes sweeter and more complex when it is grown in slightly rough conditions.  This is for a couple of

Shade affects tree growth similarly to elevation.

Coffee trees in partial shade.

reasons.  For one thing, it grows more slowly.  The longer a coffee cherry takes to ripen, the more sugars it can build up along the way.  This is also why “shade grown” coffees are sought after.  In addition to the fact that they provide an important habitat for birds and help reduce soil erosion, coffee trees grown under a canopy of shade produce cherries more slowly than trees in direct sun.

There is also some survival of the fittest happening here.  Quality plants have a better chance of surviving at high elevations.  This hopefully leads to quality beans.

What about Kona?

Kona is grown at a very low elevation for coffee.  Our Kona coffee has a delicate, smooth sweetness.  How are all those sugars building up in such a cushy climate?  Hawaii has a lot of foliage and tree cover.  In many cases the trees still have to compete with neighboring plants for sunlight.  This helps them retain sweetness over time. Other factors, such as volcanic soil lend to the sought-after qualities of Kona beans as well.

What is your preference?

Please feel free to sample the coffees we have brewed at A&E.  We switch the coffees we brew daily, and we always feature a unique pourover from a high elevation.  Next time you’re in, let us help you determine which height is best for you!


Look for elevations on our coffee labels.

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