By Karine Lesage

On the bag - A question of terroir?

4 from 4 - We end our serieson the bag with the concept of origin. If the term terroir is already well established in the wine industry, it also takes on its full meaning in the world of coffee. Each country and each region has its environmental requirements (climate, topography, type of soil, insects, microbial flora), but also specific agricultural methods, traditional or not, which characterize the coffees produced there. If we doubted the real impact of terroir, a recent wave of scientific research has revealed that it can truly confer a distinctive chemical or microbial signature making it possible to trace certain foods back to their origin.e.

The countries practicing coffee cultivation are located in the tropical-equatorial belt in Africa and Asia, in the Americas and in the Pacific. Today, there are more than 60 producing countries, the largest in terms of volume being Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia. Alongside mass producers cohabit farms, often on a smaller scale, whose principle is the search for quality and being driven by an environmental conscience. Integrating the specialty coffee market, these farms established all over the world are highlighted on the coffee bags of most roasters as the region and the producing country where they are located. These origin indicators make it possible to ensure the traceability of the product, but are more than a simple geographical marker for some. From their sight, we can also deduce some potential characteristics of the coffee.

Thinking about terroir in the world of coffee

Certain origins give coffee a unique profile due to geography and climate, the varieties grown there and the methods developed by local coffee growers. This is what is meant by terroir. From the Latin phrasee land, this term was used in France from the middle of the 19th century. Its use has spread over the years due to the effects of globalization, allowing local productions to travel and stand out in a foreign market. It was towards the end of the 1960s that coffee players and consumers became increasingly aware of the supply chain and focused on the origin of coffee and how the beans were treated. With the founding of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) in 1982, then its merger with that of Europe in 2007, the issues related to the traceability of beans from the farm to the roaster as well as those of quality standards have become established as priorities.

The terroir is, above all, synonymous with aromatic traits and taste signature for coffee consumers. But, for growers as well as roasters, it has bigger implications. Coffee producers must comply with several imperatives imposed on them by their geographical location, the climate and the surrounding resources to which they have access or not. A country where few rivers run through the territory is destined to focus on processes other than the washed method. Or, if a country is made up of plains and gains very little height, the coffees produced there are influenced by the lower altitude at which the plantations are located. Overall, there are considered to be three key factors that impact coffee production and define the terroir of a region. Let's see which ones.


The composition of the soil is very important, since it is where the plant absorbs water and nutrients such as phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium, etc. The farmer must ensure that the soil has a good amount of organic matter, moisture, light, aeration, nutrients and shade for the health of the coffee trees. Beyond the crucial work of farmers to nourish and increase the productivity of coffee trees, the prevalence of certain minerals in a soil rather than others is likely to influence the body, aromas and acidity of a coffee.

To understand the role of soil, we often take the case of volcanic soil as an example. Known to be fertile, the volcanic soil is, among other things, rich in potassium, which affects the formation of cherries, in sugar and in citric acid, which modifies the flavors of a coffee and in calcium, which impacts the development roots and leaves as well as the rate at which fruits ripen. In addition to being rich in minerals, the structure of such soil is less dense and more porous, making it possible to make water reserves during the rainy seasons and better resist droughts. Several Latin American countries such as Colombia, Ecuador and Guatemala are located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, so called because it is made up of 75% of the world's active and dormant volcanoes. The composition of this soil as well as the altitude allowed by the volcanic regions benefits and influences the coffee production and the cup result.


High-altitude coffee plantations take advantage of the cooler climate, which ensures slow ripening of the cherries. The slower the fruit ripens, the denser the grains and the more complex the cup. This is why countries like Colombia, some of whose plantations are located at 2300 m.a.s.l. are appreciated and sought after as an origin.

On the other hand, the altitude is not information to be taken raw, but to be put into context. Latitude, i.e. the distance from the equator, is also to be considered. For example, an elevation between 800 and 1300 m.a.s.l. in Brazil (a country that is further north) offers ideal conditions, as it is found closer to the equator at higher heights, with an average temperature of 23°VS. Or, in certain geographical situations, the winds as well as the sea currents will also have their influence. In the Galapagos Islands, at only 200-300 m.a.s.l., the local temperatures are cool enough to produce excellent coffees. It is the Humboldt Current bringing cold air from Chile and Peru that creates this favorable climate for coffee growing. Therefore, approaching coffees produced in countries with different geographical positions on the sole basis of altitude seems somewhat simplistic.

It remains that, for close regions, the altitude becomes a handy tool of comparison, knowing that the grains of higher elevation are very often more developed and concentrated in sugars and acids. And, even denser, which will have an impact on the style of roasting used.

The climate

We can think of the climate of a country as multiple, shaped by micro-climates specific to each region. These involve a set of atmospheric conditions, exposure to wind, rainy and dry seasons, temperature, etc. which promote the establishment of such varieties, the use of such type of planting (shade or sun), the improvement of such treatments of cherries. The climate impacts, among other things, the harvest cycle. In equatorial regions at altitudes of 1100-1900 m.a.s.l., frequent rains cause almost continuous flowering, resulting in two coffee harvest seasons. These successive rains, on the other hand, affect the drying of the grains on outdoor patios and therefore involve drying them mechanically, as is sometimes the case in Kenya, Colombia and Ethiopia.e.

The climate that partly defined the terroir of a region can vary from year to year. With climate change, this reality is all the more relevant. With rising temperatures, a region that previously had a cool climate, favorable to slow fruit development, may gradually lose this appeal. This variation in climate is noticeable and coffee growers try to adapt to it by going to higher and higher altitudes or planting shade trees as examples. Rising temperatures also play a role in the spread of disease and insect infestations. Coffee rust is much more virulent around 21 to 25 degrees Celsius and cannot survive at temperatures below 15 degrees Celsius. Climate change, in addition to modifying the terroir of certain regions, impacts the future of coffee growing and the coffee growers themselves, while a study published in the journalClimate Change suggests that 50% of agricultural land used for specialty coffee will be unproductive by 2050.

At the beginning, there is the terroir: its nourishing capacity, the components of the soil, the climate, the altitude, the biodiversity, etc. But, unlike the wine industry for which the terroir is fundamental, we note that the quality of a coffee is based, more particularly, on the human factor. The terroir can definitely improve the quality, but cannot, in any case, certify it. Depending on the technique used and the care taken in picking, fermenting, drying and storing, a coffee will develop either positive qualities or negative qualities. For many, this is really where it all comes down to.

Read also:Three distinct origins to discover

Research and writing by Chloé Pouliot


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