Welcome to the coffee alphabet, the quickest way to easily learn everything you need to know about specialty coffee, and the art of enjoying it! This week we look at the letter ‘H’ which is for High Grown.
This edition of our Coffee Alphabet is brought to you by the letter H, which stands for ‘High Grown’. That can be both a pretty self-explanatory and also confusing term at the same time. What has ‘high-grown’ got to do with coffee? Are the plants especially tall? As a matter of fact, they do grow up to 12 feet tall, but that’s not what high-grown means.
Let’s learn about why height and coffee are so intrinsically linked…
There are two species of coffee plants, Coffea Arabica and Coffea Robusta. Both coffee plants are like any other crop or natural vegetation, they require soil, sunlight and water. Like a lot of other plants too, both species of coffee plants are also uniquely tailored to suit specific conditions and environments.
Coffee plants love average temperatures of 20-30℃, lots of sunlight and plenty of rain too. This is why it is so easy to grow one in your own home (they’re very pretty once they flower) but you’d be lucky to yield enough beans for a cup of coffee, and even then you’d have to wait for five years for them!
Height and Coffee Cultivation
The ‘Coffee Belt’ is the area in the world where almost all coffee growth and cultivation occurs. It is the strip that lies between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, right along the equator. The origins in this belt are some seriously hot countries like Ethiopia, Costa Rica and Brazil. They can, of course, provide hours of sunlight all year round, not to mention tropical weather patterns that also guarantee lots of rain too in Central American countries.
But with temperatures averaging 32℃+ throughout the year and most African origins being susceptible to drought, the plants would surely be baked. So how is it that this belt of countries came to be the world’s home for coffee cultivation? The answer is height.
In almost every origin in the coffee world, the plants were previously imported by humans. This is with the exception of Ethiopia, which has the most widely accepted origin story for coffee when it was discovered by a shepherd in Ethiopian highlands. He noticed his goats acting strange after feasting on the cherries of a coffee plant. After trying the cherries himself in the form of a rudimentary brew, he felt the effects of the caffeine that was within them.
During early attempts of coffee cultivation, explorers from England, France, Spain and the Netherlands all tried and failed to import and grow coffee in their own countries. The climate was too cold, too wet and the land was too flat to allow for decent drainage. Plus, the boggy fields of the northern hemisphere didn’t offer the sort of nutrients that coffee plants needed. As exploration continued to expand, it was attempted in other countries in Central and South America.
The places where the coffee plants really flourished were high up in the hills at least 800 masl, where the plants and their cherries were protected from the tropical heat of the lowlands. They also offered consistent wet and dry seasons.
Caffeine and height
The other thing, aside from too much heat, that coffee plants need protection from is pests and diseases. The cherries on a coffee plant are brightly coloured, full of moisture and packed with sweet flesh. They’re a bug’s delight! Coffee plants have their own natural defence mechanism against them, which is caffeine.
That’s right, the thing that many of us love most about coffee, the thing that perks us up in the morning, is the coffee plant’s natural way of protecting its cherries and the beans within them.
Bugs and other pests certainly thrive in hot tropical weather. Think about a wonderful summer’s day or evening you’ve enjoyed only to wake up the next day with mosquito bites all over your arms and legs. The further you get away from the heat of the lowlands, the less bugs and pests you’ll find and the better the chance there is of the coffee plants surviving.
There is more to it than that though because bugs and pests can still be found even at 800 masl. Coffee plants need to produce a higher concentration of caffeine to protect their fruit the closer they are to that base level, which is something only Robusta plants can do.
Robusta coffee, that’s grown between 800-1000 masl has a naturally high caffeine content, which gives it a much more bitter taste. Its sweetness and acidity are also less developed as the fruit yields and ripens much quicker - it even has a thicker skin. The reason it’s called Robusta is because it has to be robust to survive.
Robusta is usually only used in blends for this reason and you would rarely come across a single origin robusta coffee beverage. The classic Italian style espresso blend usually consisted of 60% Arabica beans and 40% Robusta and would be roasted dark.
Arabica plants can only thrive above 1,000 masl because they’re simply not as robust as their coffee counterparts. They also produce less caffeine naturally and take longer to yield ripe fruit. This makes them sweeter and more acidic, giving them a better balance of flavour. This is why Arabica coffee is considered to be of much higher quality and is more desirable for espresso based beverages and filter brews.
Arabica plants especially love height due to being more delicate, and the less bugs there are to protect themselves from, the less caffeine they’ll produce. The weather tends to be more stable with regular wet and dry seasons higher up too, so the climate slows down the ripening process. This gives the natural sweetness and acidity within the beans more time to develop.
Arabica plants can grow as high up as 2,000+ masl and produce beautifully unique coffees that are a far cry from the old school espresso or American diner style coffee we may have been used to. Almost all speciality coffee is Arabica coffee that has been high grown.
So, what does the term ‘high grown’ have to do with coffee? It’s a key contributor to quality, which is why speciality coffee roasters tell you how the altitude at which your coffee was grown.