Coffee Farming: How Land Affects Flavor & Body of Coffee

Jul 10, 2023 • Donna Lu

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Whether you enjoy Pour Over or French press coffee, the flavor, and body are affected by the same three main factors.  The origin, processing method, and roasting significantly impact your coffee. When it comes to the origin, different components of the land affect the flavor and body of the coffee.

According to experts, agricultural and environmental elements impact coffee terroir, which, in turn, determines the flavors and body extracted from the cherry and bean. Nonetheless, when looking at how the origin or land interacts with the coffee plant requires a more complex overview as various components play a more holistic role. 

In short, just like how wine from Chile differs from wine from South Africa or France, the same is true for different origin coffee. If you are curious about how various coffee origins impact the flavor and body of the bean, you can find your answers here. 

White coffee plant flower

The Main Coffee Bean Types 

Two coffee bean types exist on the market, mainly Arabica and robusta. These coffee bean types boast distinctive properties and even grow in different conditions, particularly the climates. About 60% of the world’s coffee supply comes from the Coffea Arabica plant, which is grown across all coffee-growing regions. This coffee variety tends to have a more flavorful profile, ranging from sweet to sharp. Moreover, caffeine has a milder and more aromatic profile.  It also has a lower caffeine level, of about 1.2% to 1.5% for each bean.  

Robusta beans, harvested from the Coffea Canephora plant, are less commonly consumed, accounting for just 30% of the global supply. While it is cheaper than Arabica, robusta has a higher caffeine content of up to 2.2% per bean. Further, robusta coffee tends to boast an earthy flavor with a dark and nutty aftertaste. It's safe to say robusta coffee has an acquired taste. 

But, it’s not only the bean types, growing in different climates that achieve varying flavors and bodies. Yes, Tanzanian robusta will most certainly taste differently from Vietnamese Arabica. But, similarly, Tanzanian robusta and Vietnamese robusta will also have distinctive tastes and bodies due to their different growing conditions. 

Coffee fruits inside a tropical leaf

What is Coffee Terroir?

Coffee terroir simply refers to the unique sensory experience you get from single-origin coffee. The coffee terroir typically embodies its origin, reflecting the coffee cultivar, soil composition, temperature, altitude, and rainfall, among others.   

A French term, terroir loosely translates to earth, explaining why it is used to describe the coffee’s flavors, aroma, and body, in relation to its origin. The coffee terroir is what explains why Hawaiian coffee vastly differs from Ethiopian coffee – when it comes to evaluating the origin variances.

But, when it comes to how the origin affects the overall coffee-drinking experience, many people fail to include the farming process. The cultural cultivating, farming, harvesting, and processing practices play a role in determining the flavors and body of the coffee. How a coffee plantation in Brazil handles its coffee will significantly differ from how a peasant farmer in Indonesia handles their coffee.

Note: Coffee terroir is not the only factor to consider when examining coffee flavor and body differences. As mentioned earlier, the origin plays a part in the determining flavors and body. However, different processing and roasting methods also impact the flavor and body. 

So, coffee from the same coffee crop from the same region can produce vastly different flavors simply because the processing or roasting methods are different among the batches. So, yes! You have to consider the origin. But, the processing and roasting are equally important.

Coffee plants on a coffee farm

What Land Components Affect the Flavor and Body of Coffee?

The mainland components affecting the flavor and body of coffee are altitude, climate, soil, growing environment, and post-harvest processing. The environmental and agricultural practices of a particular region play a crucial role in the coffee cherry and bean's properties. 

For instance, the soil and water content of the area determines nutrient availability for the coffee plant, which is crucial for its cherry development. Furthermore, unlike other crops, such as grapes used for wines, the coffee cherry is slightly complex – with its flavors developing way beyond its harvest. 

This means that the post-harvest process also plays a role in the coffee terroir – and is very much part of the land components affecting the flavor and body of the coffee. 

Photo of a coffee farm

Altitude

The altitude simply refers to the actual location where the coffee plant grows – in relation to the distance from ground or sea level. Different coffee varieties and coffee from different regions grow at varying altitudes. 

These various altitudes offer a distinctive balance of precipitation and sunlight to harness particular properties for your plant. In particular, the best coffee grows in sloped areas or forest gardens at higher elevations. 

High Altitude AKA Highland Coffee

A higher altitude, from 3300 feet above sea level, typically boasts lower temperatures and is where highland or high altitude coffee grows. These coffee growing conditions are prevalent in mountainous regions where the climate is hot at ground level. So, growing coffee at higher altitudes provides a more consistently cool temperature. 

These high altitude conditions also promote a slower growth rate, allowing coffee cherries to develop their flavors better. High-altitude coffee develops more intense flavors and aromas. With a slower growth rate, the beans also develop a higher concentration of sugars, making them sweeter.

Common examples of such coffee are Arabica coffee grown on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mt. Kenya in Kenya, or Yirgacheffe coffee from  Ethiopia, growing at elevations of 5500 to 6000 feet above sea level. 

But, this doesn't mean that high-altitude coffee will have the same flavors, per se. You still have to consider the regional variations. For instance, Kenya and Tanzania are neighbors, with only a 200-mile distance from Mt. Kilimanjaro to Mt. Kenya. 

But, Coffee grown at 4600 feet above sea level on the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro will not have the same taste as that grown at 4,900 feet above sea level at the foothills of Mt. Kenya. The low temperatures enjoyed at higher elevations on the foothills of Mt. Kenya provides a more sweeter and acidic flavor profile.

Lower Elevation Coffee

Lower Elevation Coffee is usually grown below 3000 feet above sea level. The elevation is usually between 650 and 2600 feet above level. Generally, robusta coffee plants grow at these lower elevations. At lower elevations, the temperature and rainfall are higher.

 This, in turn, accelerates the growth rate, while the high precipitation means there’s more water to saturate the coffee cherry. This, in turn, leads to weaker flavors and aroma – with robusta beans typically developing earthier undertones.

Note: You will notice that most, if not all, coffee-growing regions are in the tropics and closer to the equator (also known as the coffee belt). Equatorial regions typically enjoy a fairer and steady amount of rainfall. 

This is the perfect growing environment for coffee plants as they enjoy a steady and slower growth rate with consistent lowering and maturing. As a result, the consistency affords the plants a richer and more complex flavor development. The closer to the equator the region is, the better the results.

White flower of a coffee plant

Climate

Coffee prefers lower temperatures. Growing at higher altitudes, Arabica coffee beans prefer even lower temperatures than robusta coffee, explaining its nickname, i.e. mountain coffee.  When growing, the Arabica coffee plant also prefers shade as extreme sunlight can dry out the plant. The best growing conditions for coffee plants is a moderate (Robusta) to higher (Arabica) altitude with moderate (Arabica) to high (Robusta) rainfall and shade.

As mentioned earlier, the global coffee supply comes from the coffee belt, or coffee growing regions, typically located in the tropics, near the equator. Coffee belt regions usually feature micro and macroclimate – and coffee requires both to survive. 

For instance, coffee requires adequate rainfall to grow and extract nutrients from the ground. But, too much rainfall can impact harvest as it can damage the crops, and slow down the drying process, among others. On the other hand, the drying season promotes plant blooming, an essential process for cultivating the next crop. So, the perfect growing climate should include a balance of dry and wet seasons. 

Again, like the altitude, the different climatic variances produce varying coffee flavors and bodies, depending on the region. Sure, all coffee-growing regions enjoy spells of wet and dry seasons for successful coffee harvest. Yet, their actual climatic trends significantly vary. 

A good example is the Brazilian humid tropical and subtropical climate compared to Colombia's tropical and isothermal climate. While both coffee grows in Latin American regions in the tropics, near the equator, their slight climatic trend differences harness different flavors. 

Coffee from Brazil develops more chocolatey undertones with a creamy mouth feel. Colombian coffee produces a sweeter flavor profile with a nutty, herby, and somewhat fruity and citrus finish. On the other hand, the subtropical and temperate climate of Kenya produces a sweeter and fruity flavor profile with citrusy-like acidity. 

Note: Low temperatures are essential for healthy coffee plant growth as it slows photosynthesis for better flavor and aroma development. But, lower temperatures, below 50 degrees Fahrenheit don’t only slow photosynthesis. 

They can also stunt the growth of the coffee plant. So, conditions, like the climate, shouldn’t be extreme, either. Arabica coffee plant does well at 64.4 to 69.8 degrees Fahrenheit while robusta does better in slightly more humid climates at 71.6 to 78.8 degrees Fahrenheit.

Coffee cherry and its bean inside a hand

Soil

In addition to the geographical location and climate, the soil is also a vital component of the land when it comes to the coffee terroir. The soil provides essential resources for the plant to grow, including nutrients, water, and air for the root system. Proper resources don’t just promote healthier growth. They also improve the flavor, body, and aroma of the coffee.

Generally, coffee prefers volcanic soil as it packs the best minerals and acidic conditions that coffee thrives in. At higher altitudes, the soil becomes more acidic, and growing on foothills of volcanic mountains produces even better tasting and aromatic coffee.

Coffee typically thrives in soil that is rich in potassium, calcium, zinc, iron, boron, magnesium, and phosphorus. You also want the soil to be well drained while maintaining reasonable water retention from dry days. Again, these are conditions you will find in volcanic soil.

Bali volcano - Indonesian Volcano - Mount Batur
Indonesian Volcano - Mount Batur

Growing Environment

The growing environment potentially impacts the flavor, aroma, and body as it directly affects the plant’s health and growing trend. For instance, growing coffee the natural way (without focusing too much on commercial purposes . i.e. having a large single plant type plantain) can improve the coffee terroir. 

This growing style usually involves a mix of plants, trees, and bushes, creating a mixed forest environment. The variety of plants, bushes, and trees usually benefit the coffee plant, providing shade, ground cover (water and nutrient retention), mulch and natural fertilizer, and pest control. 

This doesn’t just protect the coffee and provide superior growing conditions; ultimately, it impacts the overall flavors, aroma, and body at maturity. 

Hand showing a coffee bean surrounded by coffee plants

Post-Harvest Processing 

As mentioned before, coffee terroir is affected well beyond harvest. Yet, this factor still counts as the origin component. This is because different regions, farmers, and plantains employ their own processing methods. When it comes to post-harvest processing, the terroir is impacted by the picking, washing, drying, and fermentation methods. 

Wet or Washed Processing

Using specialized machinery, wet coffee bean processing yields coffee with a cleaner, brighter, and fruitier taste. This wet processing works best for coffee grown for flavor and acidity. The process involves removing the skin and pulp from the bean before immersing it in the water. 

During this water immersion stage, unripe seeds move to the top of the water while ripe ones sink to the bottom. The remaining pulp is then removed from the ripened seeds before sun drying them.

Dry, Natural, or Unwashed Processing

Dry coffee bean processing produces a richer, sweeter, and more complex taste profile. This process leaves the cherry bean intact, resulting in simply washing and sun drying the beans. This process is more effective in regions that enjoy longer periods of drought and sunlight. 

It’s impractical to use this process in areas with heavy rainfall or high humidity. Regions such as Ethiopia, Paraguay, and Haiti, most of Brazil and Ecuador, and part of India use this method. Similarly, most robusta beans undergo the unwashed process. 

Hands holding coffee beans

Coffee Growing Regions Today

Today, nearly 50 countries form the coffee bean belt or coffee growing region, which accounts for nearly 100% of global coffee production. The coffee bean belt typically lies along the equator, between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. Coffee-growing regions of the world include North America, Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, and SouthEast Asia.

Here are some of the top coffee-producing countries in each region;

  • North America: Hawaii (particularly Kona Coffee), Mexico, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Antigua, Dominican Republic, and California, USA.
  • Central America: Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.
  • South America: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.
  • Africa: Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, DRC, Angola, and Liberia. DRC, Angola, and Liberia exclusively produce robusta.
  • Middle East: Yemen 
  • India
  • Southeast Asia: Indonesia (including Java, Bali, and Sumatra), Vietnam, Laos, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines.
Young girl picking coffee fruits from a coffe plant
Bali Bean Coffee Plantation

Final Verdict: Coffee from Which Region is the Best?

Undoubtedly, the origin and geographical location of the coffee play a significant role in its flavor, aroma, and body. But, the origin also consists of multiple components, including altitude, climate, soil, growing environment, and even post-harvest processing. 

So, as a coffee lover, it’s certainly worth exploring coffee from various regions to truly discover what works for you. When it comes to what region produces the best coffee in terms of flavor, aroma, and body, there’s really no standard answer. 

The answer is subjective and dependent on one's preferences. The best way to get your answer is to explore the different coffee profiles from across the coffee bean belt to discover what works best for you. 

Green coffee beans on coffee plant

Author

Donna is a coffee lover and freelance writer from Tanzania. Coffee runs deep in her family, tracing its roots to her grandmother’s running of their first coffee farm in the mid-70s. During the summer seasons, she enjoys writing and co-running her grandmother's small robusta coffee farm with her sister in northwest Tanzania.

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