By Martin Diedrich
Coffee grows throughout the tropical world in countries that we have all thought of as destinations
for travel fantasies, places whose very mention conjures up vivid image of exotic cultures
and their customs, unusual wildlife, and lush tropical rainforest Shangri-las. Places like
Java, Sumatra, Kenya, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Peru.
The coffee tree as a living entity is, in every way, very much a product of its environment.
It draws its nutrients from the soil in which its roots are firmly planted. Its growth depends
on the local climatic patterns and rainfall and temperature. The care of the farmer’s husbandry
is equally important, as is the care and thoroughness of the processing given to the coffee
after it is harvested.
Most people perceive the tropics, to which coffee is native, as being hot and humid – but
that is not always the case. The best coffee actually comes from the cooler, more temperate
environments of the higher mountainous regions within the tropics. Conditions most suitable
for coffee growing include: abundant rainfall, mean annual temperature of about 70 degrees
Fahrenheit, and well drained, nutrient-rich soils – elements that can be found at a variety
of altitudes. Coffee is cultivated at all altitudes from sea level up to the frost level.
Lower elevations push the ideal growing conditions to one end of an extreme. In this hot and
humid environment, with its excessive year-round rainfall, coffee trees produce fruit almost
endlessly with no particular season, as the higher temperatures tend to accelerate ripening.
Under these conditions, much of the fruit tends to rot or be eaten by prey before it has the
chance to germinate and give life to the next generation of coffee trees. The parent coffee
tree’s biological response is to produce an excessive quantity of fruit to overwhelm the adverse
conditions, so that a few of the seeds might succeed in becoming the future generation. As
a result, lowland coffees lack substance, and the coffee flavor is often harsh, bitter, and
dirty, as well as high in caffeine, and quite undesirable overall. Yet, the tendency of these
lowland coffees to be low cost and easy to grow makes them ideal for commercial mass production.
In contrast, the higher mountainous elevations are conversely different – stretching the growing
conditions to the other extreme. Rainfall is sparse, and the much cooler temperatures at these
altitudes slow down growth, causing the beans to mature more gradually and develop more flavor
essence. The soils in these rugged mountainous terrains tend to be thinner, and without rich
soil there is meager nourishing support for the coffee trees. It is a hard environment for
the coffee tree to contend with. In response to these conditions, the trees only produce a
small annual yield averaging about one pound per tree every year. Yet, each one of those beans
is plump full of valuable essence and coffee flavor. These coffees, because of their low yield
nature, tend not to be very abundant. However, their scarcity, along with the special attention
required for their cultivation, makes these genuine mountain grown coffees more costly and
more special than the mass-produced, commercial varieties. Wrought from these extreme conditions
is a flavor that is worth all the hardship. It is a taste that is often described as rich,
deep bodied, well balanced, delicate, aromatic, and overall an excellent coffee.