If you know anything about wine, you may have heard the word “terroir” before. Terroir is a French word that can mean country, region, soil and land. Terroir as a concept is French in origins, and began as a part of a standardization system for French wines. It refers to all of the environmental influences on a particular crop and its quality/qualities. The soil, altitude, precipitation and more can have a tremendous influence on how well a crop grows, what it looks like and, in particular, what it tastes like. This is why true Champagne has to come from the Champagne region, for example, because that region produces the quality of drink specifically defined as Champagne.
Coffee influencers, like George Howell, have been investigating the ways terroir affect coffee crops and terroir has become a prominent focus for third-wave and specialty coffee shops. Terroir is different from coffee varietals, but the two can be interlinked. Gesha coffee is only considered true Gesha coffee and its best quality if it is grown in the original regions in Panama or Ethiopia. Gesha refers to the region where the coffee originated.
Coffee varietals can differ in quality and qualities depending on the farm they are grown on. Gesha plants that have been cultivated in places other than Panama tend to be completely different from the “true” Gesha crop. Caturra is a varietal grown mostly in Central America and it has a particularly different flavor when it is grown in specific farms in Colombia (sweet mint, unique from any other terroir where Caturra is grown).
Part of the regional variations can be attributed to different cultivating and processing practices each region has. Robusta coffee beans tend to be extremely bitter; but, some have found that if they are wash processed this bitterness can be diminished.
Terroir is of particular interest to specialty coffee shops. Its influences on the coffee flavors are best expressed in a light roast and a light brewing method, like Aeropress or Chemex. George Howell is credited with either creating or accelerating this terroir “craze.” He is almost obsessed with finding extremely unique coffees and crediting not just the country or region from which they come, but the specific town, farm and farmer if he can, along with noting the altitude. Gesha was brought to Panama from Ethiopia, and in the 50s flood waters threatened coffee crops in that region; the Gesha tree grew high up on a hill and was saved from devastation. Many coffee purists consider true Gesha only that which comes from that specific hill.
Terroir is not an exact science when it comes to coffee because of the various processing methods and the effects roasting has on flavor and aroma. Many people dismiss terroir as unimportant. Generally, you can articulate a coffee’s qualities based on region better than you can based on altitude or precipitation; that’s because region is an umbrella that encompasses those terroir characteristics as well as the usual processing practices.
However, sometimes region is not enough. In Ethiopia the biodiversity of coffee is so vast that neighboring regions, and even different areas within the same region, can produce wildly distinct flavor profiles. Coffee from the Harrar region tends to have a berry-sweetness and be chocolatey. Coffee from the Sidamo region are generally described as wine-like and citrusy with a particularly heavy body. And coffee from Yirgacheffe tends to have a lemony-sweetness with floral overtones.
Research into any specific effects the different aspects of terroir have on coffee is still very limited. Most experts (including coffee people, farmers and scientists) agree that higher altitudes tend to act in beneficial ways to a coffee crop. In places like Uganda, the highest quality arabica are only found above a certain altitude. Some researchers believe that this can create a sort of cyclical effect in which farmers at higher altitudes produce superior crops, are able to ask for higher prices and are then able to invest more into their coffee production, furthering the benefit to their coffee crop.
It is also believed by some scientists that lower temperatures extend the development process of the coffee fruit, which can impact the final product. One study showed that coffee plants grown in shaded areas end up with larger beans than those directly in the sun. Further, plants grown in the shade have been found to develop more natural sugar compounds, likely enhancing the flavor profile of the coffee. These sugars are what give the beans the trademark brown color when roasted and a higher concentration of these would counteract the bitterness of the caffeine and likely produce a more complex and pleasant overall cup.
Research into the specific effects of terroir elements on a coffee crop’s characteristics is ongoing, and there are few definitively proven effects that we know. It follows intuitively that the climate will affect the crop. Plants depend on sun and water to grow and flourish, and it makes sense that more or less of both would have varying effects. The crops are also going to be affected by the pruning practices of the farmers and the other crops grown in the area. Because there are so many steps in the coffee process we may never be able to know fully and exactly what specific effects terroir has.
Thinking about terroir, at least in the abstract, is important to you as a roaster. If you want to go the George Howell route, you’re going to be meticulous, scouring farm after farm for the beans that speak to you, and noting all of the elements that could have possibly had an effect on the excellence of your cup of coffee. At its core, terroir reminds us that considering where a coffee comes from is important when looking for good quality and specific qualities. The terroir elements and the region you source from are choices you have to make (like choosing between arabica and robusta, or light and dark roasts) based on the product you want to sell.
Many specialty coffee shops are taking the George Howell approach, and inspiring the big multi-chains to follow. They feature single-origins, they feature coffees from independent farms, grown at certain altitudes, and so forth. As a roaster, if you are packaging and marketing your own batches, you may want to consider these trends for your marketing. Your packaging could include terroir and regional data. Whether or not the amount of rainfall has a tremendous effect on the final coffee product more than whether it is dry or wash processed, you can develop a narrative to go on your packages and giving your customers a more emotional, personal connection to your product. Specialty coffee drinkers, especially, like to know that the farm and the farmer have names, that the farm was passed down through their family, that heavy rains this year gave the crop more of a natural sweetness, that growing 1500 feet above sea level puts this coffee among the highest quality coffees in the world. If you buy your packaging through PBFY.com your labels can be fully customizable, giving you the freedom to detail as much, or as little, about terroir as you want.