How does terroir affect the characteristics of coffee?

Josephine Walbank
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February 14, 2022
coffee terroir

A coffee’s characteristics can be affected by a number of factors, from processing and roasting to grinding and brewing. However, without a doubt one of the most influential is terroir.

The concept of terroir is borrowed from the wine industry where it is used to describe how factors such as soil, climate, and rainfall affects the quality of grapes.

Over time it spilled into the coffee sector, as the emergence of the “third wave” saw people show an increasing interest in everything that went into producing the distinct characteristics of their coffee.

As the concept has become more widespread, it has put a spotlight on the impact of different growing regions on coffee not only from country to country but within the same farms.

But why is it so important? And to what extent can roasters influence the coffee’s final cup profile?

To find out more, I spoke with WBC-certified judge and WCE representative Danilo Lodi.

coffee terroir

What is terroir?

The term “terroir” encompasses all environmental factors that can impact a crop’s flavour. This includes soil composition, climate, topography, altitude, and rainfall.

Essentially, terroir is everything that happens to the crop before it is taken from the plant. 

In French, terroir means “land.” Across the food and drink industries, however, it indicates the environmental conditions of a specific geographical region. Furthermore, it denotes the unique traits those conditions bring to the end product. 

The idea is if the same coffee tree had grown in another region, where the terroir had different qualities, the coffee’s taste would change. 

Since the emergence of a third wave in coffee culture, the concept of coffee terroir is gaining popularity among producers. As part of this, the focus has shifted towards the regions where coffee is grown, and how it may affect the taste. 

After all, terroir is a farm’s unique stamp: an irreplicable quality distinctive to that particular microclimate.

Ultimately, in coffee, terroir includes every natural element at play while the tree was growing. 

The aim is to pinpoint how these affected the final characteristics in the cup. Then, desirable characteristics can be isolated and harnessed to the advantage of producers.

green coffee beans

How does terroir affect a coffee’s characteristics?

Interestingly, terroir can affect a coffee’s characteristics in a number of key ways. 

It may influence a coffee’s quality, sweetness, acidity, and body, as well as mouthfeel, density, and moisture content. 

For example, the soil quality and nutrient levels can have a profound effect on the quality of the coffee itself. The ideal composition for coffee is a rich source of nutrients that includes calcium, zinc, magnesium, and potassium.

Plus, soil with strong water retention will keep the plant healthy throughout the year, despite inconsistent rainfall.

Another common observation among coffee scientists is how elevation can affect coffee’s sweetness. In many cases, the higher the coffee is grown, the sweeter it may be.

This is because farms located at a higher altitude tend to have particularly acidic soil. As a result, the coffee fruit matures at a slower rate, giving the coffee more time to develop.

Consequently, this can create a higher sugar concentration, as well as an abundance of complex flavours and dense coffee fruit. 

The influence of terroir means different coffee-growing areas will have their own stereotypical flavour profiles – just like wine. For example, in Ethiopia, the unique climate has helped some farmers produce coffee beans with blueberry flavour notes. 

On the other hand, some farms located at a lower altitude along the equator may produce coffees that are more subtle and soft in flavour.

coffee farm

The effects of macro and microclimates

Each region and farm across the world has its own unique coffee terroir.

On a larger scale, macroclimates signify a large area with few variations in growing conditions in that region.

However, two different macroclimates typically have profoundly different terroirs. 

On the other hand, microclimates have different atmospheric conditions. These are enough to create a terroir that is different from its neighbour.

“Two beans grown within walking distance of each other can have hugely different flavour profiles,” says Danilo, who is a green coffee buyer and farm consultant.

“There is a producer in the Caparaó region of Brazil, in Espirito Santo. He grows the same variety of coffee on two different sides of a mountain,” Danilo says.

“Even when processed the same way, the coffee from one part has different flavours than the coffee from the other side of the mountain.”

specialty coffee

What other factors affect a coffee’s characteristics?

While growing conditions undoubtedly give each type of coffee bean its own qualities, processing and roasting techniques can create a difference in beans from the same plant.

“Some unique flavour profiles in coffee are inherited from the producers,” says Danilo, who is also a roaster and barista instructor. “This is a mix between terroir, variety, and producing practises.”

Furthermore, the coffee’s final profile can vary depending on how long it is roasted. “You can roast a coffee for a long time,” Danilo says. “But if the bean does not have body, you will only make the coffee more soluble.” 

He adds you can’t transform a bad bean into a great coffee through roasting or brewing. “However, the opposite is true. If you don’t roast a great coffee well, you can make it undrinkable. Again, if you brew a perfectly roasted coffee badly, the result will be terrible.” 

“It’s the same thing when people underdevelop coffee to bring out the acidity. You just make the acids more evident. However,” Danilo adds, “it all depends on the raw material.”

The impact of terroir on a coffee’s characteristics further shows how important it is to support and share knowledge with producers.

By providing guidance on process-enhancing technology, and education on cupping, producers can showcase the full potential of a coffee.

In turn, this helps maximise the coffee’s value and desirability. Meanwhile, roasters and coffee shop owners can discover the full extent of the coffee’s intriguing tasting notes.

sustainable coffee bag

Another key point is preserving coffee’s freshness from the point of harvest through to the consumers’ cup. To do this, more roasters and coffee shop owners are turning to sustainable coffee bags.

At MTPak Coffee, our mission is to help your business make the changes it needs to thrive. We offer a range of sustainable coffee packaging options, including LDPE, PLA, kraft paper, and rice paper bags. 

For information on our sustainable coffee bags, contact the team today

How does terroir affect the characteristics of coffee?

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