Terroir - traces from Mother Nature

"Due to the coffee's terroir, the quality of this coffee is particularly good." You may have heard this wording, but what does it mean? Taste The coffee makes you wiser to the slightly difficult-to-pronounce word terroir.

terroir coffee

Terroir is pronounced in French. 

The word comes from the word “Terre”, which means land, and it is used in connection with wine, tea and coffee production.

Terroir is both a concrete physical place, which is found on a map, and it is at the same time a kind of cultural construction. 

It can be described as the interaction between the earth and man.

Terroir in connection with  coffee can mean that the coffee’s profile and taste notes stand out clearly, that you get a clear experience of what the coffee stands for, and that there is balance in the taste.

There is no word in the English language that fits the meaning exactly, so rather practice the French word terroir.

Terroir is not a commonly known concept among coffee consumers, and it may not seem particularly important, but for coffee roasters and producers, it is crucial. 

For the roasters, it is important to know the molecular composition of the bean in order to achieve the optimal taste. 

For coffee producers, terroir is important as they have to adapt their production and processing methods accordingly.

If you look more closely at the physical place, it applies to the conditions by which the coffee is affected during its growth and before it is processed.

It applies

  • Where on earth and how high the coffee grows
  • The soil the coffee grows in
  • The surrounding climate / local geography, which includes temperature and precipitation

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Elevation (about 900-2,200 meters above sea level)

Elevation can be a useful parameter when comparing two coffee farms from the same region. 

Height is related to temperature. 

The coffee is very sensitive to heat and cold, and thus the taste changes. 

Up in the heights, the beans become harder and sourer.

More heat gives faster growth and means a higher concentration of sugars combined with slightly lower acidity.

Coffee grown in height requires shade trees to hold on to the rainwater and to protect against the strong sun.

The shade trees mean that the coffee plantations often stand in something reminiscent of mountain rainforest.

From a distance, the shade trees of a coffee plantation can look like giant broccoli that completely covers the bushes.

The Soil

‘s composition of nutrients and minerals affects the acidity of the coffee bean itself. 

Volcanic soil, for example, is particularly good for coffee because it is rich in nutrients such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and zinc, all of which are important to plants. 

Volcanic soil has good airflow and can contain high amounts of organic materials.

During rainy seasons, this can mean better water flow and can create reserves during the dry periods.

High biodiversity with several kinds of trees and different kinds of birds also results in better fertilizer.

For the coffee terroir to make an impact in the coffee taste, the coffee plants must reach a certain age – on average 4 to 7 years.

The root system of a coffee plant only develops properly after five years, and the older the plant, the larger the root network.

But at the same time, the yield also falls per plant.

On coffee plantations with high-quality coffee, it is typical that the plants are relatively large and over 7 years old.

The Climate

Coffee grows best within what is referred to as the ‘Bean Belt’. 

It extends around the entire Earth and represents many different climates, depending on the location. 

The bean belt lies around the equator but extends as far north as Mexico and Myanmar, as well as Brazil and Tanzania.

Close to the equator, you can harvest coffee twice a year – a smaller harvest in November and a larger harvest in April / May.

It is important for the growth of coffee that it grows in both dry and rainy seasons. 

The rainy season helps to grow the plants, makes the fruits grow and helps the trees get all the necessary nutrients. 

On the other hand, rain can also damage the coffee beans and delay drying. 

A dry season causes the plants to bloom, which is necessary for new coffee beans to grow.

However, climate change may have an impact on where coffee grows best in the future. 

Read about it here .

Terroir coffee - a holistic understanding

As mentioned, terroir does not only include the earth itself and the climate. 

It is also the special cultural procedures that are applied to the place where the coffee grows. 

Some thus attribute to the terroir a more holistic understanding of the qualities associated with a particular place. 

It could concretely be that you combine ingredients, traditional recipes and music from the place where the coffee grows. 

That way, some will have a special holistic experience. One could also use this proverb about this understanding:

“What grows together goes together”.

Whether terroir can be described as good or bad is a complex matter, and terroir conditions can fluctuate within short distances. 

Sommelier Thilde Maarbjerg explains:

“ It is difficult to discuss good and bad terroir. Certain terroirs give a stronger expression or imprint in the finished coffee, which clearly differentiates it from other coffees. 

When coffee differentiates due to the terroir, one can directly talk about terroir coffee. It does not make sense if the terroir is not clear in the coffee ”.

Some countries have terroir conditions, which have a better reputation than others, and thus have a greater chance of successful crops.

In very rough terms, Costa Rica, Colombia and Ethiopia are described as good terroir conditions.

Brazil and Indonesia are often associated with more common conditions.

However, this does not mean that coffee from these countries is not of good quality.

Brazil has repeatedly been able to produce high-quality coffee and is often awarded in international competitions – most recently in 2017 at the Cup of Excellence competition. Read more here.

coffee farm terroir1

Søren Sylvest, coffee expert

Søren Sylvest is the owner of “Copenhagen Roaster” – a specialty coffee company where you roast coffee by craft with a focus on getting the highest quality and taste. 

At Copenhagen Roaster, green coffee is purchased directly from coffee farmers in five producer countries, to ensure quality and sustainability. He has a great deal of knowledge about the importance of terroirs for coffee production.

How do you perceive terroir to have a role in coffee production?
“ I am so lucky to gain insight into the work of the most talented producers around the world when I travel as a judge for competitions, and here it is exciting year after year to see which regions win. 

It is quite clear that if a region has had a bad climate for a season, then it has huge significance for the result of the taste and thus the result. 

But I have also experienced that some producers have been named No. 20 for a year, only to be on the winning podium next year. 

We know the same thing here at home.

When Mother Nature has let the sunshine for a whole summer, then the grain harvest will be the same ”.

How much does human intervention mean in relation to terroir?
” The human imprint on coffee has gigantic significance. How it is fermented, dried and stored.

In these processing processes, you can add flavours – some positive and some negative.

It can thus improve the quality of a coffee, but also impair it.

This process requires one to be very critical and precise. The more homogeneous the material, the better.

At roasting, the human judgment also has a huge influence.

But in order to be able to set the right roasting profile, the roaster must know where in the world the prayer comes from so that he can supplement its taste with the right heat effect at the right time ”.

Read more about coffee roasting here .

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