Growing Arabica in the mountains really necessary?
November 25, 2011 10:13 AM   Subscribe

Was the notion in the 1980s that "mountain grown" coffee was a way to sell deforestation-causing coffee B.S.?

There was a story in the '80s that small growers were moving higher & higher into the (forested) mountains of Central & South America because steep, remote land was cheap (or free because no one wanted it) and "mountain grown" was a whitewash of this ecological calamity.

I've read that C. arabica "needs" high altitudes, but the only cites seem to lead back to one non-peer-reviewed paper by one of the Illys.

"Mountain Grown" dates to at least the 60s. [warning: YouTube of sexist TV ad, previously]

I've read about the shade- vs. sun-grown coffee and biodiversity and the land degradation [PDF] caused by poor cultivation techniques, but I can't find anything rebutting the idea that "good" (arabica instead of robusta) coffee needs high altitudes.

I was reminded of this idea in a recent New Yorker article: "It is possible to grow coffee near sea level, just not just very good coffee. The rigors of elevation..." but this is from a grower who is bucking convention: "she was coddling a crop that has, for centuries, been subjected to rough treatment."
posted by morganw to Science & Nature (6 answers total)
You need consistent, year-round 70-degree, 12-hour days to grow good coffee. The only place that happens is in tropical highlands. Tropical lowlands are too hot, and non-tropical highlands are too cold (and don't have the consistent 12-hour days).
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:22 AM on November 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Mountain-grown" seems to be an advertising trope to attempt to convey selectiveness or unique quality in a product. Searching Google News Archive it has always figured prominently in Folger's coffee advertisements (1941) but here's one for Beech-Nut coffee (1940), various brands of coffee at A&P supermarket (1962), Salada tea (1925), and Snow Crop peas (1955).
posted by XMLicious at 10:30 AM on November 25, 2011

I don't think anybody interpreted Folgers "mountain-grown" verbiage as anything other than advertising gas, like "less filling".
posted by Rash at 11:12 AM on November 25, 2011

I have lived in three places where coffee was grown, and in all three it was considered common knowledge that decent coffee is grown in higher (but not super high) elevations. I always assumed that it was because of day/night temperature differences, but I am no expert. But the point is that high elevation coffee is not a new phenomenon; similarly, I'd bet that the deforestation from coffee is trivial compared to larger cash crops like cattle, soy, or bananas.
posted by Forktine at 11:37 AM on November 25, 2011

According to this book, "the positive effect of altitude on coffee quality is well known."
posted by a puppet made of socks at 12:45 PM on November 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Like most endeavors, higher is better.
posted by TheRedArmy at 10:06 AM on November 27, 2011

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