Posted by Bethany Warren on 9th Apr 2014

Coffee Comes From Dirt

Happy Thursday, coffee-lovers!

Today I thought we'd discuss what I think is not only a huge determiner of quality and flavor in coffee, but a beautiful concept: terroir. Plus it's a nice, pretentious, hard-to-pronounce French word. (So, pronounce about half of the letters, and you're probably close.)

This, by the way, won't by any means cover this rich topic in as much detail as it deserves- we're just going to scratch the surface!

"Terroir" can be defined thusly: the conditions in which a food is grown or produced and that give the food its unique characteristics. It has it's roots in the French "terre", which means earth or ground.

It's kind of like when this thing happens in that movie:

that one tastes like the cow got into the onion patch

If you remember the scene, he judges the defects and quality of the milk based on the environmental factors on its production- like the cow's habits and the bottling process. Many people would also compare coffee's terroir to the same concept in wine. The wine tastes like the specific grapes, and those grapes are affected by the rainfall, soil, angle of sunlight and hours of sunlight per day, etc. All these things contribute to the end result of the wine, no matter what's involved in the process after the grapes are harvested.

This is the case with every agricultural product, from celery to bananas to hops, and it is especially true for coffee, whose complex and sensitive internal chemistry is so easily affected by environmental factors. Those elements are among the first within the production story of coffee to heavily define the character of the finished product. There are many other contributing factors, like at-origin processing methods (another episode!), storage, roasting, etc.

Coffee is grown in the varied dirt of three main regions of the world: The Americas (South and Central), The South Pacific (Indonesia, India, Southeast Asia), and Africa. The differences in elevation, rainfall, soil composition, water sources, pests, birds and animals, other vegetation, etc. define the character enough that many coffee professionals can judge which of the three regions a coffee might come from based on one taste. And within those very generalized flavor profiles, every hillside of every microlot on every coffee farm in every region of every country will have variations of (or even total deviations from) those profiles.

Consider a typical farm, high up in a mountain range, with volcanic soil and natural springs. Its highest-planted south-facing hillside may face the sun's rays for more hours per day than the little valley 500 feet below. The valley gets more of the natural spring runoff, but the hill catches more rain during the six-month-long rainy season. The higher hill has fewer insects but the trees need less pruning as it's physically harder to grow up out of the hillside than in the vale.

The varied conditions within the same 500 feet- in the valley and on the hill- will manifest most recognizably as different levels of acidity in the beans, which is basically code for sweetness (here, acidity doesn't mean heartburn-inducing tomato-sauciness as a feeling, but brightness and sweetness in flavor). A higher-acidity coffee might "cup" with lighter fruits and nuts (maybe "clementine and toasted almonds with a hint of Tartarian cherry") and a lower-acidity coffee might read with "baker's chocolate and walnut". We're getting more pretentious by the minute, eh? But really, appreciation and understanding of these widely-ranging flavor profiles is quite widespread and common, especially among craftsperson-roasters, intentional baristas, and discerning customers. These distinctions, and the increasing practice of developing these distinctions at the farming level has led to higher quality specialty coffee on a global scale.

This is why, for the most part, I don't see in-depth cupping notes (think of a coffee cupping as like a wine tasting) as "pretentious" (unless the cupper is making it up as they go along, then yes, pretension). Although coffee should taste like coffee, the more developed our palates, the more we can experience and appreciate from our coffee and its growers. And the more biologically diverse coffee farming is now, the longer into the future we will be able to harvest fruits that bear so many different aspects. This certainly doesn't mean we have to be able to discern 8 varieties of citrus fruits in a cup of coffee to enjoy it at all. But that sure is fun.

This industry is so big, and ever-changing, and we can never know everything about it. I find that to be a beautiful, mysterious, exciting aspect of my work as a coffee professional. We can never stop learning more and developing our craft!

Many others have written extensively on the terroir concept. Here's my favorite resource. It's sciencey and very, very thorough. I make my staff read it while they are in training. And don't worry, I touched on a few things that we can CoffeeTalk more about later, like growing methods, processing methods, and how a country's natural resources define its coffee processing and therefore huge aspects of its coffee's flavor.

Interested in your thoughts!