To answer this, it helps to first understand all the different things that can influence the taste of a coffee on the farm. Well, coffee is a bit unusual in that some relevant postharvest events occur that deserve to be considered. So, let’s consider all the events leading up to the point where coffee can be roasted, as this is where it is a stable, tradable product.
As has been discussed elsewhere, within the English language, peer-reviewed scientific literature, the following things have been proven to influence the taste of coffee: genetic make-up, elevation (with some equivocation), pests/diseases, cherry processing, drying, sorting, and storage. Notice the things we haven’t researched/can’t research, don’t seem to play a role, or don’t have enough information to draw a conclusion on their effect: light levels, health of the tree (having sufficient nutrients and water), soil type, source of fertilizer, exposure to agrochemicals, plant age, and harvesting (though nobody believes this isn’t acutely important). A cynical way to summarize our knowledge at this point is that we don’t really know how to produce a good cup of coffee, rather, we just know how to avoid screwing it up.
Did you know?
Coffee drinking has no effect on the risk of prostate, stomach, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers. It seems to reduce the risk of liver, kidney, endometrial, head and neck, breast, and colorectal cancers, but it may increase the risk of bladder cancer.
It certainly seems to be the case that where and how a coffee is grown influences its taste. Thus, there is a terroir for an individual farm. Is there a terroir to an entire growing region, though?
There are seven categories of things that influence a coffee’s taste, each having multiple variations, some of which might interact with each other, and nevermind the other items we’re agnostic about but might need to be moved up in importance. That’s quite a few potential influences. For the idea of terroir to hold true, then all these things must interact in such a way as they can never be duplicated anywhere in the world.
Currently, at least eighty-seven countries produce coffee to some extent (not all of them are commercial producers) and most of them have multiple regions growing coffee. Let’s say ten regions per country for the sake of our discussion. The International Coffee Organization estimates there are some 26 million farmers in the coffee business, which, even if that were broken into six-member families, would leave 4.3 million coffee farms on the planet. With eighty-seven countries, each with ten regions, distributed amongst 4.3million farms, the number of farms per region is 5,977. Using these values and assuming every farmer within a region is doing the exact same things to their farms, for terroir to be true, there would have to be 5,977 unique coffee flavor profiles on the planet that are recognized by tasters.
Did you know?
There are many ways to go from the fresh coffee seed on the tree to a dried, green coffee bean. Each of them will influence the quality of the coffee.
That’s a pretty large number. While it is possible to generate that many combinations of flavors based on the seven known factors mentioned above, it seems unlikely that there is that much nuance in the world of coffee. Even more difficult to believe is that all the farmers in a single region—even a single mountainside—are farming in the exact method.
This last idea seems the most relevant to me in this discussion. If all these factors can influence a cup of coffee and each farmer has the freedom to farm and process their coffee as they choose, it is very likely that the coffee from individual farms in a region are going to vary from each other. If this is true, how true can terroir be?
I submit that regional terroir for coffee is an artifact of logistics and we are quickly leaving it behind. The artifact is that for most of coffee producing history, all the coffees from various farms within a region, sometimes even a country, were blended together.
This blending occurred post-harvest at the wet mill or at the dry mill. When so many individual farms’ coffees are homogenized like this, the taste of the end product will be some kind of average that accounts for all the coffees that went into it. Then, those coffees were stored and shipped together (not always so well), giving them time to change and equilibrate even more because of the time it took to get them to roasters elsewhere.
Terroir, then, was an artificially created phenomenon that arouse out of the logistics of coffee processing, storage, and shipping, not out of the inherent magic of the climate, topography, and farming.
This might just be a semantic argument because it is perfectly reasonable to let logistics be represented in the taste of a place. Yes, at one point, coffees from a country or region in a country probably had consistent flavor profiles and in places that still operate in such a way, these profiles, likely still exist. However, the past few decades have seen diversification in the coffee industry which suggests coffee terroir is no longer true.
One of the hallmarks of the specialty coffee industry is the celebration of individual coffee farms. Coffees of a particular variety, from a particular farm, that used a particular processing method can be easily found at specialty coffee roasters. These coffees are celebrations of diversity within a particular place. Roasters are seeking and finding coffees that they want to be different from the region’s norm. If these special coffees can be found, how can there be an overarching influence of place on the cup profile?
The reality is that two farmers, separated by just a fence, can produce very different coffees. If this is the case, which one represents the terroir of the region? If there are hundreds and thousands of farmers in a region, all able to do their own thing, then who gets the honor of having their coffee be the poster child for the region? As more and more farmers are able to keep their coffees apart from farmers in their region and strive to produce a rare coffee, the potential of terroir being true falls dramatically.
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