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Terroir in Coffee

Posted by Nathaniel Fleming on

Colombian Mountain Farms

Similar to wine, terroir is a factor in coffee. You’ve probably heard the word terroir thrown around in wine bars, at wine tastings, or even written on bottle labels. Just because this is the predominant context of the word’s use doesn’t mean it’s exclusive to wine. Terroir is the natural environment surrounding a crop. It includes the soil, topography, and climate, and can relate to any crop.

Barty Single Origin Coffee

Terroir is so important to us, it’s part of our name. Single Origin Coffee means each coffee we source and sell you is from a specific geographic region, imparting its unique terroir to the coffee’s flavour profile. Some coffee regions we source from are famous for their unique terroirs, such as Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee, and Panama, a volcanic and biodiverse region.

Factors Affecting Terroir

Interaction with Water: this can be how a plot of land retains or drains water.

Interaction with the Sun: the plot’s orientation determines the exposure to sunlight affecting heat and photosynthesis of the crop. The colour of the topsoil determines how much light is reflected/absorbed.

Soil composition: the type of soil coffee is grown in has a direct impact on what minerals are consumed by the coffee plant. Volcanic soils rich in minerals prove best for growing not just coffee, but most plant life.

Elevation: usually the higher the elevation, the cooler the climate.

Proximity to forest/body of water: forests and bodies of water mediate the temperatures of adjacent land. Forests increase biodiversity, and bodies of ocean water increase salinity.

Biodiversity and Terroir

Biodiversity is a huge and misunderstood part of ecological agriculture that was mostly erased from current agricultural practices and only recently reincorporated into modern agriculture. A fine example of its success in coffee farming is shade-grown coffee. Shade-grown coffee, a term used in coffee farming, is coffee growing in partial or fully-shaded areas, conditions much like its natural habitat.

Coffea arabica (the arabica coffee plant) is technically a shrub, which grows best in the partially-shaded and undergrowth areas. This means that it naturally grows in the vicinity of trees and/or topographical features that provide some shade.

What is finally being re-explored globally, from the original and historic cultivation of coffee in East Africa, is how a surrounding forest benefits and protects coffee plants from not only weather, but also disease, as well as directly influencing how the coffee tastes.

How do other trees affect Terroir?

Root systems (rhizospheres) of adjacent trees provide diversity in mycorrhizae (symbiosis between root-living fungi and a plant), meaning more essential minerals like phosphorus are readily available as the mycorrhizae grows systems around the tips of the plant’s roots. This means depending on the neighbouring tree species and soil composition, the mycorrhizae will differ, so the minerals that feed the coffee shrub vary too. The healthiest soils are often found near trees, as they are rich in minerals and are biodiverse with fungi and bacteria.

Terroir and Flavour

While the complexities of the mycorrhizae may be difficult to translate into exact flavours produced in coffee, some abiotic flavours produce direct results. Factors such as how the sun matures coffee cherries faster, changing the time of harvest, and the ripeness of a cherry’s flavour. The speed in which a sun-grown cherry ripens may also mean that there are less nutrients inside the fruit, meaning less flavour than a shade-grown cherry. This is why high-yield sun-grown coffee is more popular in the “mono-cashcrop” (a portmanteau of monocrop and cash crop) farming: quick reward of a lower-costing crop that has little to no biodiversity.

Another important abiotic factor in coffee terroir is altitude. The higher the plot’s altitude, the harder the coffee plant must work to produce its cherries. A high altitude crop puts more nutrients into fewer cherries, meaning an individual high-altitude grown coffee cherry often has more flavour than lower-altitude grown coffee cherry. The “goldilocks zone” for specialty coffee altitude is usually around 1200-1800 masl.

What to Look For In Your Cup

Some terroir-related questions to ask yourself when researching your coffee are:

Is it shade-grown?

Was it grown on the side of a hill?

What altitude was it grown at?

What is the region’s local climate like?

Does its region have volcanic soil?

Is the plot near a forest?

Each of these clues may give you a more advanced understanding of how your next coffee will taste, using your knowledge on coffee terroir.

Terroir offers a never ending journey in flavour profiling. Its complexities are limitless because of the endless possibilities of environments and ecologies a coffee plant may have with its surroundings. Although coffee terroir is the furthest stage away from your cup in the coffee supply chain, it makes an impressionable impact. More so it reminds us of the ecological origins of what our beloved drink truly is through the unique flavours it magically imprints in your cup.

Feel free to drop by, just say, Hey Barty in strict confidence and you can be anonymous if you wish. Or, do not hesitate to leave a question in the comments below any time


About Nathaniel Fleming

Write ✍️ Design 📐 Brew ☕ Barty Single Origin's resident Coffee Expert & Coffee Quality Assurance Officer. Nathaniel's understanding of coffee and culture comes from his international background of the United States, Australia, Europe, and Asia. His approach to sustainable design in the specialty coffee industry is driven by a biocentric perspective and a passion for excellent coffee. He is currently based in Sydney, Australia.


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