This week’s question comes from Suneal at the Roaster’s Pack. He asks, “the word terroir in coffee circles is sort of is a catch all, so what are the important elements when talking about terroir? And does it really matter or is there more important things at play here that determines cup quality?
One little preamble: I love coffee subscriptions because they allow you to try a range of different origins and approaches to roasting. Having subscriptions like the Roaster’s Pack or Matt Perger’s Superlatives on our cupping table allows us to contrast and compare our roasts with the multitude of roasts philosophies and trends in modern coffee. A very useful and highly recommended adventure.
ANYWAYS, part of the difficulty in talking about coffee is that it borrows so freely from parallel craft industries be it cooking, baking, or wine, alcohol, and beer. Terroir in coffee typically alludes to a selection of country, region, variety, altitude, crop cycle, soil, weather, and processing. I would never argue against these being the integral components that contribute to taste but it is difficult to disentangle or separate them. I would argue terroir for coffee is the accumulative effect of origin.
Country and region certainly will have a massive determinate on flavours because they shape growing conditions. Processing is key, as a coffee is only as good as its weakest link in the growing, picking, processing, shipping, roasting and brewing chain. Altitude influences density, which benefits clarity and acidity but only with agreeable weather and rainfall. The varietal will produce or hinder specific ranges of flavour but only when washed properly.
Hence, my stress on interconnection. Take for example, the influence of volcanic soil in Guatemalan coffee. These regions attract greater prices due to the soil, which means investment in local milling infrastructure and subsequent quality increases in processing. Coffee can then score higher resulting in larger premiums and a shift from picking by weight to hourly wages on farm level. Down the line, there are less quakers (those under or overripe cherries) and a better extraction at a cafe.
Alternatively, in Colombia, the disease resistance castillo variety continue to prove invaluable in reducing the impact of leaf rust. Yet, due to a continued assumption in specialty coffee that castillo lacks the potential of traditional caturra crops, there are decreased returns. Thus, farms or regions might not be able to make improvements in washing and drying equipment and see consequent decreases in quality.
Extensive socio-political factors will always guide and shape terroir making it less a checklist of independent taste notes and more an active assemblage that opens and closes the possibilities for the cup.
tl;dr: terroir is the constellation of interlocked component parts that form coffee’s potential.