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The Importance of Latitude

How does elevation affect the taste of coffee?

Skybury’s team is often asked what impact elevation (or altitude) has on the taste of coffee. People will often assume that because Skybury coffee is grown at a relatively low altitude (approximately 520 metres) it will produce an inferior taste.

But that’s not all the story…

In general terms, elevation does have a major impact on the way coffee tastes, which is why roasters note a coffee’s country and region of origin. Higher elevations tend to produce hard, dense beans that are more sought-after than beans grown at lower elevations.

Hard beans are of a higher quality than soft beans, because they have a higher concentration of sugars, which in turn produces more complex and nuanced flavours. Several factors contribute to the increased concentration of sugars in coffee grown at high elevations, including:

- Cooler annual temperature range
- Generally, more cloud cover and rainfall

Higher is, of course, a relative term. The highest-grown coffees in Costa Rica might come from farms that are 4500 feet above sea level, while Ethiopia has farms that sit at 6000 feet. Generally speaking, though, an altitude above 4000 feet is considered high enough to produce the growing conditions that create dense, desirable beans.

The important thing to note is that elevation creates the right growing conditions for better quality coffee, but latitude also plays an equally important role.

The importance of latitude.

There are exceptions to the general rule of thumb regarding high altitude coffee. Coffee grown at lower elevations can still develop slowly, if it experiences the same type of growing conditions as high altitude coffee, such as cool overnight temperatures, adequate rainfall and relatively low humidity.

Notable exceptions are Hawaiian Kona coffee (which is grown below 2000 feet) and shade-grown coffee. Hawaii is far north of the equator and its coffee is still excellent, even though the elevations it is grown at are not high, and shade slows the maturation process by reducing the daytime temperatures.

Altitude and latitude are interchangeable when looking for suitable conditions for growing good coffee.

Let’s look at Skybury Coffee and its particular growing conditions. In common with Hawaiian grown coffee, Skybury is located relatively far from the equator – this time on the southern side. This creates a cool climate over the growing period, which gives Skybury Coffee time to mature and develop its flavours.

The Skybury plantation is just outside of the frost line for its farming area, which would indicate any additional altitude would be too cold to grow coffee without the risk of frost. Furthermore, the Mareeba area experiences adequate rainfall over the growing season, which is backed up by an extensive local irrigation network.

Skybury can therefore precisely control the amount of water each tree receives through a sophisticated irrigation system. Importantly, flowering can be controlled, which many coffee growers are unable to manage.

The farm also has very well drained soils, which prevent water logging. Australia doesn’t suffer from many of the diseases and pests, which affect coffee trees in other parts of the world. This means Skybury can grow a great coffee in an environmentally sound and sustainable way.

So, there you have it – while altitude is important, latitude is equally as important.