Gulf Coast, MexicoAll coffee grows in the tropics, within the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Moderate rainfall is ideal, distributed in just the right way: there should be a dry season immediately during and after the harvest, followed by “blossom showers” which soak the earth just enough to initiate simultaneous flowering of all the coffee plants; during this time the showers politely stay away so as not to mess with the setting of the fruits. Once set, the rains conveniently arrive in the afternoon, after a glorious morning, and depart in time for a spectacular sunset every day for the next seven to eight months! Some years certain places, like the Pacific-facing mountains of Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala, can be like that!

Many coffee growing areas do not meet this “perfection”. Colombia and Kenya are directly on the equator, where rainfall is more evenly distributed over the entire year. This leads to multiple flowerings and two major harvests each year.

The great Kenya coffees grow in arid conditions while other famous growing areas such as Coban, Guatemala and Boquete, Panama have rains even during the harvest. Soil erosion. Nariño, Colombia, April 2008Indeed, apparent handicaps may often also be responsible for special overall environments conducive to creating unique flavor profiles, or terroirs, once obstacles are understood and accommodated.

Cloud cover, position of the sun, temperature range, rainfall and its pattern of distribution, soil composition and structure, accessibility – all play a critical role in the production and cost of quality. Higher altitudes can produce more ideal temperatures, below 90 F (32 C) and above 45 F (7 C) year round, with high diurnal contrast, ideal for growing complex, floral, bright yet balanced coffees – but often very expensive to develop or maintain due to such things as the steep slopes’ poor accessibility and proneness to erosion and powerful winds.

Places like the Cerrado of Brazil provide still a different environment: here the land is at 3,000 to 3,500 feet, can be very flat, and is ideal for mass production, including mechanical harvesting. Lack of rainfall is not necessarily a problem, where water can be brought from rivers near the Amazon to the north.Extreme dryness allows farmers to provoke an even flowering, and therefore an even-ripening harvest, with controlled water applications.Excess heat and poor drainage, on the other hand, can lead to severe quality problems and lack of complexity in the cup.Such coffees, when grown with great care requiring full labor, do best as espresso, a brewing method which applies very high pressure to the coffee grounds and squeezes out every drop of acidity, thus establishing good balance between liveliness and the heavy body produced by such environments. While these areas can produce high quality within a certain flavor spectrum by far the majority of production is dedicated to extreme productivity at minimal cost, particularly labor. This mass production is slowly improving in quality, as technology becomes more efficient and precise, and now challenges the vast majority of coffee growers living on mountain slopes who compete on price in a coffee world that still has very little price-quality segmentation, compared to wine and tea.

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