The labels found on coffee bags give us access to a wealth of information. We learn which variety the coffee comes from, who produced it and where it comes from. Another piece of information we often find, which at first glance may seem superfluous, is the altitude. Far from being a mere detail reserved for connoisseurs, we'll see that, combined with other factors, altitude has a major influence on the quality of the coffee we're about to drink.
As you may know, two major families of coffee trees are grown around the world: coffea arabica and coffea canephora, commonly known as arabica and robusta. This article focuses on arabica, firstly because it accounts for the vast majority of the world's total coffee production, but above all because it makes up almost all specialty coffee production, the niche in which Jungle operates.
Arabica, originally from East Africa, grows only in countries between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, in tropical climates where temperatures are relatively stable year-round and at high altitude. Already, we can see that the areas suitable for growing coffee are relatively limited. Arabica needs mineral-rich soils, and is particularly fond of volcanic soils and high plateaus. Although it can be found at altitudes of up to 1,000 metres, it can be grown much higher still, with some plantations nestling at over 2,000 metres. In fact, in the world of specialty coffee, we tend to prefer beans from trees that have grown very high up. But why exactly?
In the world of wine, it's often said that it's good for the vine to "suffer" in order to give its best. A similar principle applies to the coffee plant. You don't necessarily want to make it suffer - Arabica coffee plants are very fragile and need a lot of care and attention - but you do want it to work in a particular way, anaerobically to be precise. The principle is well known to anyone who trains physically. An anaerobic effort occurs when the body doesn't have access to enough oxygen to provide the effort required. Think of holding your breath when lifting, for example. In this context, the body must find another source of energy to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Humans and coffee plants have roughly the same reaction: metabolize sugars to produce energy. This metabolization of sugars triggers a similar reaction in humans and coffee plants: the production of acids. This is precisely what we want to achieve. We want a good acidity content, because that's what produces complex, taut, fruity coffees - in short, interesting coffees.
Of course, there are a myriad of factors influencing coffee quality, the most important of which is always the quality of the grower's work. Altitude, as well as soil quality, temperature and humidity, are just a tiny part of the whole that is a single coffee bean. When you take your next sip of coffee, close your eyes and imagine all the work and expertise it took to bring this product to you. You have to admit, it's almost dizzying.
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