Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

What Is Terroir and Why Does It Matter?

Terroir: we hear it more and more often when talking about coffee. But what does this mysterious word mean? What does it have to do with how our beverage tastes? And why should coffee-lovers, baristas, roasters, producers, and more care?

I reached out to several leaders in the coffee and wine industries to answer all these questions and more. Read on to discover what I found out.

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volcanic soilsTarrazú, Costa Rica, a region known for its volcanic soils and high altitudes. Credit: Maria Fernanda Carrillo Chacon

What Is Terroir?

Let’s start with the basics. “Terroir” comes from French and is most used, in English, when talking about wine. Pamela A. Villablanca Núñez of Latinamerican Specialty Coffee Alliance and Bee Coffee Shop says that the word “literally means soil, dirt; whatever you think around the soil is terroir.”

But when we speak about agriculture, it gets more complex. She defines it as “specific characteristics of soil composition; temperature; rain; micro, macro, and mesoclimate; and particular cultural procedures applied to agriculture.”

Keith Pech of Damarli Estate, Panama echoes Pamela, telling me that terroir encompasses everything around where coffee is grown. It’s not just the soil and climate. It’s the whole environment, including the people and the local knowledge.

coffee farmWalking through a high-altitude coffee farm in Tarrazú, Costa Rica. Credit: Maria Fernanda Carrillo Chacon

Why Does Terroir Matter?

Stefano Biscotto of Chambers & Chambers Wine Merchants says that terroir “brings out the characteristics of the given variety.”

But, since every terroir is different, this means that it brings out these characteristics in different ways. In other words, terroir is what makes a Colombian coffee different from a Brazilian, Ethiopian, or Indonesian.

For instance, even if you plant the same variety of coffee – say, a Villa Sarchi – at 1,400 m.a.s.l. in Costa Rica and 1,900 m.a.s.l. in Panama, they will taste different. Even though these small countries are neighbours, the higher altitude of the Panamanian coffee will lead to a cooler climate which, in turn, will most likely cause the coffee to be more acidic and sweeter.

Learn more! Read Coffee Quality & Altitude: How Important Is Elevation REALLY?

For consumers, terroir affects how brewed coffee will taste. But for roasters and producers, it has an even greater impact. Roasters will need to choose a roast profile based not just on the beans’ potential flavours and aromas but also on their molecular composition – something that terroir can impact on.

And producers will need to adjust their production and processing methods (themselves part of terroir) based on the local geography, climate, and resources.

Thiago Borba of Burgeon Specialty Coffee Trading tells me that “the most important moment to acknowledge terroir is prior to planting the seeds.” He states that knowledge about terroir “will determine the plantation system” as well as “the varietals that will assure the best quality, cost efficiency, pest resistance and production productivity.”  

coffee cherriesCoffee cherries ripen on the branch in Tarrazú, Costa Rica. Credit: Asha Price

“Good Terroir” & “Bad Terroir”

No matter the subject, “good” and “bad” is always going to be subjective. Nevertheless, the phrases “this is the perfect terroir” and “due to its terroir, this is good-quality coffee” are commonplace.

Pamela tells me, “There is no such thing as bad terroir. There are more adequate varieties suited for a specific terroir.”

Keith has a similar opinion but links it to quality. He believes that, if your aim is exceptional coffee, it is much harder in some regions and countries than others. He uses the cup scoring system, in which every coffee can be graded out of 100. Coffees that ranks 80+ are specialty while 90+ are rare and normally extremely expensive lots.

Within specialty coffee, certain countries have better reputations than others. Costa Rica, Colombia, Ethiopia… these are all acknowledged as producers of excellent coffee. Brazil and Indonesia, however, are often associated with more affordable crops.

This hints at one of the many limitations of terroir: the fact that countries like Brazil are, despite this reputation, capable of producing high-cupping coffees. Take the 2017 Cup of Excellence, in which nine natural and pulped natural coffees were scored as 90+.

Some countries may have a terroir that’s more suited to particular varieties, coffee flavours, and cup scores: that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to produce that coffee there.

mountainsLooking out at the mountains of Tarrazú, Costa Rica. Credit: Maria Fernanda Carrillo Chacon

3 Key Factors for Terroir

So, now we know that terroir brings out certain characteristics of a given coffee variety and that some terroirs are more suited to certain coffees. But can we also attempt to understand what makes a terroir ideal for growing high-quality specialty coffee?

My interviewees highlighted three key factors:

1. Soil

With “terroir” meaning of the earth, it’s no surprise that soil is on the list. Thiago tells me that minerals in the soil “can affect the body and the acidity of the grain.” In particular, Keith explains that volcanic soil is great for coffee. It’s rich in nutrients such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and zinc, all of which are essential for the plants.

What’s more, Keith explains that volcanic soil has deep drainage. Thiago elaborates on this, telling me that “soil with more air-through and higher amounts of organic materials can guarantee better water retention during rainy seasons, creating reserves for the dry periods”. In turn, this directly affects how plants access nutrients and minerals.

2. Climate

Coffee production generally happens within a region called “the bean belt”. It’s a region that stretches around the world, sitting over the equator but extending as far north as Mexico and Myanmar and as far south as Brazil and Tanzania.

Yet within the bean belt, there are many different climates – macro and micro. You’ll often hear coffee professionals talk about a coffee’s microclimate. This refers to a small area with a markedly different climate to that of the region. It may be caused by sheltered valleys, for example.

Keith tells me that it’s important to have distinct dry and rainy seasons. “[The] rainy season helps you to grow the plants, the fruits to grow, and the trees to gain all the nutrients,” he explains. On the other hand, during harvesting, rain is a bad sign. It can damage the cherries, slow down drying, and more. And according to Keith, the dry season also helps with the following harvest as it prompts flowering – something that’s necessary for new coffee cherries to grow.

3. Elevation

All of my interviewees mentioned elevation or altitude. As Keith says, “the higher you go, usually the sweeter and the higher quality the fruits are going to get. Because, for one, it adds acidity. It’s similar to wine.”

But this isn’t actually about elevation. It’s about climate. “It’s really the weather, the temperature,” Keith continues. “The colder atmosphere creates more acidity both in wine and coffee.”

Thiago tells us that this “directly affects the process of maturation of the fruit. The fruits with slower development have characteristics such as a higher concentration of sugars, and so, more complexity and higher density.”

Since elevation is really about temperature, it’s important to also consider the distance from the equator, wind factor, and more when talking about it. Elevation can be a useful tool for comparing two farms from the same region; it’s not so useful for comparing, say, an Ecuadorian coffee with a Mexican one or a Yemeni coffee with a Kenyan.

ripe cherriesRipe cherries ready for processing in Tarrazú, Costa Rica. Credit: Maria Fernanda Carrillo Chacon

Terroir: Is It The Most Important Thing in Coffee?

“In wine,” Stefano tells me, “it’s everything.

“When you talk about terroir, it is mother nature speaking to you. When you have a heavy hand in wine, then you cancel out the traits that mother nature is handing out to you.” He also adds that for this reason, the wine industry has recently seen a growing trend of “natural wine”, in which humans have minimal involvement in the making of it.

But is this also the case for coffee? Is terroir everything?

“Processing,” says Keith “in my opinion, is more important than terroir… Processing can definitely triumph over the terroir if you know what you are really doing.” This is the method by which the coffee seeds, or beans, are removed from the cherry flesh. Depending on how the coffee is picked, fermented, dried, and stored, processing may add flavours – some positive, some negative. It can improve a coffee’s quality or reduce it.

Discover more! Read Washed, Natural, Honey: Coffee Processing 101

Thiago adds, “Terroir can improve quality but it does not assure quality in the cup by itself. Appropriate harvest management is also crucial… from choosing the ideal area (for plantation) up to the drying process.”

Of course, as we’ve already discussed, local processing practices can form part of terroir. Brazil, for example, is known for its naturals and pulped naturals – processing methods that bring out sweetness and body. The country’s dry climate is perfect for these methods. On the other hand, Kenya is well-known for double washed processing: an extremely clean method that adds almost no flavours and allows the coffee’s natural profile to shine.

However, sometimes a producer will choose to experiment with their processing methods or go against local traditions in some way. This lies outside of terroir.

And, as Pamela states, “the human factor is key to achieving an amazing final cup.”

Coffee cherry pulpCoffee cherry pulp lies in a heap after the beans have been removed. Credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT) via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Climate Change: What Now?

While it’s debatable whether terroir is the most important thing, there’s no denying that it is important. This makes climate change a daunting prospect for many producers. As Stefano says, “You cannot talk about terroir without talking about climate change.”

He tells us that “climate change is really affecting terroir.” With increasing temperature, those cooler temperatures that produce sweeter, more acidic coffees are no longer found in the same places.

“People are trying to go up the higher elevation… to capture that acidity and the freshness,” he explains. He also says that many wine producers are adapting to the changing climate by switching to varieties more suited to warmer weathers.

More than 100 million of the world’s population depends on coffee for their livelihoods. But by 2050, researchers predict that the global area suitable for coffee production may be reduced by 50%.

“Where are [producers] going to be in 10 years?” Stefano asks. “Terroir right now is evolving as the climate is changing.”

What does that mean for coffee, wine, and other crops such as cacao? How far up can we go? And how much can the human component play a role in ensuring a product’s quality, despite the changes in terroir?

Perhaps, only time will tell.

Enjoyed this? Check out Geisha vs Bourbon: A Crash Course in Coffee Varieties

Written by Sunghee Tark of Bean Voyage.

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