Coffee marketers are clever, they use the altitude claim over and over, but without really committing to a range. And that is actually the most important issue in coffee quality.
That is why, the next time you see a bag or an ad promoting HIGHLAND coffee or MOUNTAIN GROWN coffee, please ask how tall the mountain was. Why? Because it makes all the difference in the world. Coffee quality is classified according to altitude ranges, being the highest and best the SHB, or Strictly Hard Bean.
SHB is coffee that grows between 4,900 and 6,000 feet. Above that, coffee quality and productivity starts to dwindle and below that you get an array of lower quality beans without a well defined personality that are mostly good for fillers, specially in the 2,400 feet altitude range.
So why is coffee better in the SHB range? Because at that altitude, the temperature at night goes very low, around 45 F to 50 F, and that slows down the metabolism of the tree which then produces a smaller, denser bean that concentrates aroma and flavor. The size of the true SHB beans is much smaller than the regular coffee beans and can be recognized because they have a corrugated surface.
In the SHB range, the growth process is slower than normal and the plant goes well into the dry season (summer) maturing the bean. This also contributes to the smaller size because the plant and the bean dehydrate. Our farm, in the Dota county of the Tarrazu region, is a late harvest area if you compare it with the rest of the country. Most areas in the Central Valley of Costa Rica are done with their coffee harvest by the time we start in late December.
If you are serious about coffee, please make sure you demand Strictly Hard Beans (SHB). Now, if the coffee you buy is a blend, the SHB beans will not be pure but used only in a small percentage to flavor the blend and most of the beans will be lower altitude ranges. Long gone are the days when blending was done to search for the ultimate cup of coffee.
Nowadays, blending is the norm and done to stretch out the good beans with lower cost fillers. The rule is that the more commercial the coffee, the lower the quantity of good beans in it. Unfortunately, coffee is like a drug where every hand that touches it on the way to the market cuts it down. Just to give you an idea, you can find blends where the percentage of Single Origin SBH coffee is 3% to 5% and the rest is fillers. The worst problem is that the coffee at this quality abounds in the market and the finer coffees are the exception. but there is always hope, and you just have to be careful of what you buy and always demand the best.
Enjoy your cup!