One of the most pointless things on a coffee bag is the altitude/elevation of where it was grown. Maybe my annoyance is irrational but it's a sign of a larger issue in coffee, our communication problem.
To illustrate the pointlessness of altitude lets compare two farms from the 2020 Cup of Excellence. The first is from the Colombian farm Los Tres Mosqueteros which sits at 2,100 meters above sea level and won the competition there with a 90.03 scoring washed processed chiroso cultivar. Next take the Brazilian Sítio Escondica which is at 850 masl and won their competition with exactly the same score of 90.03 with a washed red catuai cultivar.
How did the Brazilians manage to get the same score being so close to sea level? It’s because altitude doesn’t matter. What matters is micro-climate, great agricultural techniques, delicious cultivars and expert processing and that’s what Sítio Escondica has.
What adds to the absurdity is that we all know the further north or south of the equator you are the colder it gets. This means what it takes far different altitude to access the climate needed to grow great coffee depending where you are. To help contextualize this Sítio Escondica is the same latitude south of Los Tres Mosqueteros as Algeria’s south Sahara desert is from my home in London.
In Brazil a lot of farms sit around 800 masl to 1,200by by making altitude an indicator of quality were disregarding farms and elevating others. So why do we as roasters and cafes do this? Well, it’s because we all do this. In coffee the rightful and good trend towards information transparency and story telling has led to us wanting to share as much information as possible and altitude is an easy thing to share. Since we’ve had it on there for so long when information like altitude is missing people can feel the absence leading to push back on roasters.
Coffee is incredibly confusing for people, there's so much to learn it can be overwhelming and make people disengage. Our industry has a communication problem. It's often said we should be educating but I think more we should be simplifying. It's our job in coffee to translate the obscure or arcane to the masses giving them what they need to have better coffee experiences. We get precious little attention from them in doing this so we shouldn't waste time communicating anything that doesn't give them value.
When choosing what information to put on our bags I think we should ask ourselves two questions, does it help consumers pick the coffee they will enjoy easier and does it grow people's understanding the coffee in a meaningful way? If it doesn’t do either of those things, like altitude, I reckon we scrap it.