How Does Terroir Affect The Flavor Of Coffee?


By: Matthew Bryce


If you are seated with your cup of coffee, reading this from a major US city, chances are, you arrived at that city from someplace else. Most inhabitants of large cities, including yours truly, came to those cities because they moved there from…well, who knows!? This is a common, historical theme so it may not be surprising then to discover that your favorite beverage, famous for its rich, full flavors, and excitable caffeine content, shares a similar story as it traveled from its origins in Africa to the Americas and further still back to Africa. It’s a match made in heaven.



For our purposes, I’ll focus on the leg of the journey which ends in the propagation of coffee in Central and South America. Most coffee people know the story, but it’s a good one to tell nonetheless, and of course, if you haven’t heard it, there’s no better time than the present. A millennium before Juan Valdez, “third space” cafes and specialty coffee shops, coffee grew in the jungles of Ethiopia. It’s said that it was discovered there by a shepherd named Kaldi. The berries found their way into different legends which describe the various means in which they were consumed, but what interests us is the story of how ancient heirloom varieties similar to today’s “Typica” and “Bourbon” left Ethiopia. Reliable legend states that traders en route, returned from Ethiopia to Yemen in the 10th century, cultivated coffee, and boiled the beans in water to create a beverage known as “qahwa,” the Arabic word for “coffee.” It continued to evolve and develop as a beverage throughout the Arab world because of its popularity, and is still preserved in these formats throughout the Middle East where it’s known today as Arabic or Turkish coffee.


Photo by Marco Secchi 


Those ancient varieties were brought from Yemen to India in the late 17th century by the famed Baba Budan, and from there, they were brought to Indonesia. From a single plant, this variety found its way to the botanical gardens in Amsterdam. It was this ancient form (one of many in its genetic group) which was the ancestor of the Typica variety that became popularized throughout the Americas in the 18th century. During that time, the French attempted to transplant seeds from Yemen to the French island, Bourbon which is known today as Reunion, but it wasn’t for quite a while before coffee would leave that island and be transplanted throughout Africa by French missionaries and eventually make their way to the Americas in the mid-20th century.



I bring up this story because it’s good to remember your origins. Origin is important, it’s part of who we are, and where we are headed. For us, it helps to develop and define our personalities, and informs important, life-changing decisions. We can say the same for coffee. For every step of its journey, coffee was subject to its producers who had to care for it, and tend it well so it would grow and produce. We know too that the original types which came out of Ethiopia were not the same as those which were planted in central and south America 300 years later which means that the coffee’s DNA was affected and mutated into today’s type with each step of its journey. This happens all the time and in addition to other local and human factors, affects the taste of our coffee.  


This brings me to the point of all this story-telling; the place where we get our coffee from leaves such an impression on it that the place begins to affect the taste of our coffee. The name we use for the “taste of a place” is “Terroir.” Some factors which we can take into consideration when thinking about our favorite coffee’s terroir are elements such as those on our coffee labels. These oftentimes include the country the coffee was grown in, the region within that country, the farm that our coffee comes from, the individual lot number on the farm designating which field it came from, and what type of processing that coffee underwent once it’s harvested. Not only is the place important, but the people as well. A farm is nothing without people to work it, and cultivate it into fruition. Without producers, coffee is just a weed, but in Klatch Coffee’s experience, the Ortiz Family of Finca Las Mercedes in El Salvador and Wilford Lamastus of the Elida Estate in Panama are both essential, developing high-grade, world class coffees which elevate our palates, and keep us coming back year after year to sample and purchase their delicious offerings.



These factors play into how we shop all the time for other products. At the grocery store, we will often utilize certain investigative measures regarding terroir to buy produce. We look for the signs which tell us where our produce came from. If it’s local, we want to know the name of the farm and whether that farm uses sustainable means, ensuring quality flavor and applying responsible, conscientious methods which allow the farms to grow, and help secure a strong foundation for the future of the towns in which they reside. The same goes for meats and cheeses; some famous examples of terroir basically defining a product (besides Bourbon coffee) are Tangerines, Fuji Apples, Champaign, Cognac and Scotch whiskey. All of these locales rely on terrain, soil, weather, people and available water as distinctive, local elements for the production of their products and particular flavors found therein.


When coffee buyers visit producers, they’ll often tell about how differences such as the angle of a mountain slope, the exposure of sunlight and the presence of various, indigenous species of plants and animals on the farm add or detract from the taste of the available coffees that season. Sometimes a season will not produce as much rain limiting the amount of minerals carried into an area, or changing the solubility of the elements in the soil. Sometimes a farmer will decide to plant in direct sunlight, or else in the shade, some in angled irrigation rows, and some in curved. So much of the place relies on the farmer that in order to get the desired outcome, they must employ specific means in order to work with the land, coaxing out the taste of the place. You might even say the taste of the place in our time depends so much on the wisdom of the grower. I like to think that the plants and the people and the places all come together forming unique flavor potential. Forest fires devastate fields, war rages, the presence of ash, decay, and debris brought to farmers’ fields changes the flavor of what’s grown there. We can take so much into account, but it’s important to remember that buying coffee from certain countries or farms isn’t always going to give us what we expect. Seasons differ, farmers differ, things change.


Remember our start? How we talked about the places we’ve been, and how they affect us? How they built us up, and brought us to this moment? We remember what makes those places special forever in memory and in action and that’s the harmony of each element combined. Just like when we think about the balance of place, variety and people, we look for harmony, so too, life tends to humble us, and we are forced to find harmony. I know for me, change isn’t always comfortable, but the harmony that’s available for us to see in each moment, as in the case of coffee, is what really allows the outcome to shine.