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Challenges of Growing Coffee at High Altitudes

By Carson Parodi on

High Altitude Growing. As mentioned last week, growing coffee in the cooler air of tropical mountain ranges creates valuable stress in coffee plants. The cooler air causes each plant to focus on the reproductive value of each individual cherry, sending more energy and thus more sugar towards each fruit. This slower, stressed maturation period allows the beans to develop more complex internal sugars and thus deeper and more unique flavors. Often grown in highly fertile volcanic soil, these coffees are prone to exhibit desired characteristics of florals, fruits, nuts, and chocolate, with more vibrant acidity.

Strictly Hard Bean. Strictly Hard Bean, or SHB (also synonymous with Strictly High Grown, SHG) denotes a coffee grown at 1,200m or higher. Because of the high altitude and slower maturation, these beans become extremely dense and packed with flavor. These high density, SHB beans also hold on to their flavor longer than less dense beans grown at lower altitudes which is especially useful during global trade and storage.

Pitfalls and Challenges of High Altitude Growing. While coffees grown at high altitudes are often delicious, there are many other factors that make the process difficult.

Low Yield. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that the purpose of a coffee plant is to survive and reproduce and not to pander to us snobs who slurp and spit in our fancy labs. No.

The stressed environment of high altitudes means that coffee plants will send their limited energy (and tasty sugars) into reproducing (making fruit) rather than growing themselves. Naturally, a tasty, sugary, fruit will attract animals who will eventually help facilitate the growth of the next tree. For us, this all means great coffee, but it’s coffee that is generally grown on trees that are smaller and produce less fruit — and therefore, less profitable for a farmer.

Terrain. By far the most difficult aspect of growing coffees at high altitudes is the terrain itself. Steep, rocky mountain regions make accessing these remote farms difficult, and intense rainstorms and other weather events are known to wash out access roads and even flood entire farms. Additionally, recruiting workers to these remote areas also pose commercial challenges to farmers.

Climate Change and Pests. As temperatures increase globally, high altitude coffee farms are at an increased risk. Because these coffees rely on cooler temperatures to facilitate slow bean maturation, even a 1-2°C increase can threaten the cultivation of coffee at high altitudes. Emerging research suggests that a warming climate, however minimal, also increases the threat of coffee’s insect nemesis: the devastating coffee borer beetle.

These beetles burrow into coffee cherries to lay their eggs and eat the cherries from the inside, sometimes wiping out 100% of a coffee farm if not controlled. Currently, the CBB has been found in nearly every single coffee producing region in the world and some farmers we’ve talked to are unsure how they will respond as global temperatures rise. Research conducted by climatologists at the National Coffee Research Center in Manizales, Colombia suggests that for every 1°C rise, coffee farmers will need to move up 550 feet. Eventually, they will run out of room.

It’s good to understand a little bit about why high-altitude grown coffee generally delivers superior quality. It’s also good to understand the challenges farmers face in producing those coffees for us and a reminder to recognize them and compensate them fairly.

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