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High-Altitude Roasting:
Taking It Up the Mountain
By Alexis Rubinstein

In my last article, I explored the theory that generally, higher elevations produce higher quality coffees. Upon my research, I came across numerous companies that participated in high altitude roasting of their coffee beans, claiming it too produces a superior cup.

Most experienced bakers are aware that is almost impossible to duplicate a cookie or cake recipe from, say, New York in Denver, Colorado. Being in “the Mile High City,” one must adjust their recipe to account for the higher altitude, or they will never produce the same quality product. In this sense, coffee roasting is similar to baking, and can easily be affected by the altitude at which the beans are roasted. While coffee roasters found in places such as New Mexico, Montana, Colorado or even Switzerland, may roast their beans at high altitudes simply because this is where their facility is located, they may have inadvertently stumbled across one of the coffee industry’s newest trend.

The Scientific Approach
Beans & Brews, a coffee roaster located in Utah, proclaims themselves to be the “original home of high altitude roasting.” According to their website, “In roasting coffee, high altitude allows for quicker bean development at a lower temperature, avoiding the two most common tribulations of roasting coffee: baking and scorching. Baking coffee occurs when it is roasted too long causing inadequate structural expansion and resulting in flavor that is flat and lacks intensity. Scorching coffee occurs when coffee beans are roasted at too high of a temperature causing lack of development and resulting in flavor that is wild, woody and unappealing. It is common knowledge in the coffee roasting industry that heat should be applied at both the lowest temperature possible and for the shortest possible amount of time. High altitude roasting accomplishes that exact objective.”

There are many different theories on why high altitudes facilitate these ideal roasting conditions, and the answers probably lie in a combination of them all. Michal Pivrnec, quality manager for La Semeuse in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, believes the difference in air pressure accounts for the successful roasting. “We believe that the high altitude roasting has something to do with the air pressure, which is lower than at sea level. At 1,000 meters, the pressure is about 0.9 Atm. That means that water boils at 95? C. We think that during the roasting process, the water content of the green beans needs a lower temperature to leave the coffee. It seems to be a less aggressive way to make coffee. For the roasted coffee, the reduced air pressure could help some volatile components (organic acids) to leave the bean quickly, as in a traditional process. Maybe it is one answer to obtain a well-balanced coffee without bitterness or acidity,” Pivrnec explains. At 1,000 meters (approximately 3,280 feet), La Semeuse unquestionably feels the affects of their elevation, and continues to study the roasting-altitude relationship.

Leo Johnson of Kicking Horse Coffee, located in Invernere, British Columbia, Canada, also attributes his superior roasted coffee to his location high up in the Canadian Rockies. However, for Johnson, air pressure was less of factor, while air quality and humidity seem to play an important role in the process. “There are two significant benefits to roasting in our particular location. The first is the air quality in which we roast with. Unlike lower altitudes where the air particulate and pollutants are denser, the air here is consistently clean. This in turn gives better convection because there are less contaminants in the air mix while roasting. I like to use the analogy of brewing coffee with chlorine treated water instead of filtered or untreated water. Most roasters work their magic in densely populated centers where air quality is compromised,” Johnson states. Aside from the environmental benefits of roasting in an unpopulated area, Kicking Horse Coffee also has an advantageous climate for roasting superior coffee. Johnson continues, “The other benefit which we can take advantage here in our little town of Invermere, is the humidity. Again, we are blessed with consistent humidity readings all year long, which is perfect for storing green coffee. As you move south along the continental divide of North America, the air becomes drier and drier and less forgiving on green coffee. We are also able to cool our coffee in four minutes without water quenching because of this perfect humidity.”

Weather Watch
Agreeing with Johnson’s perspective on humidity, Peggy Sue Ennenga, owner/roastmaster of Fieldheads Coffee Company in Kalispell, Montana, has perfected the art of high altitude coffee roasting. “The moisture evaporates faster, just from the altitude itself,” she explains, “so if you put less heat to begin with you can slow up the roast a little by roasting it with less heat to start. If you did crank up the heat the same as you would at sea level, the amount of time you roast the beans for would need to be dramatically different. This ensures a more gentle approach.” However, with experience Ennenga has learned that the formula of temperature and time is not set in stone, and will vary depending on the weather. “On a rainy day, roasting is different than on a dry day,” Ennenga reveals, “You wouldn’t roast as slowly, or crank up the heat very quickly. You would need to hold back on the heat a little but so that your not evaporating moisture too quickly. So, the more moisture in the air that day, the more quickly you can turn up the heat.”

While La Semeuse does “not really alter their roasting setting with climate changes,” according to Pvrnec, he did admit, “Between the winter and the summer season, it could be interesting to check the temperature settings.” Kicking Horse Coffee Company once shared this interest, and they now alter their process to accommodate the changing climate. “We have a saying here in the Canadian Rockies,” says Johnson, “If you want the weather to change, wait five minutes. The altitude pressure can change within the hour, which can be a challenge to our roasters. They have to constantly fine-tune the fuel energy to accommodate the air density. Once can never be complacent while roasting because the weather dictates how we roast. The roasting training program is intense because of this variable. We have to be extremely in tune with the density changes. This keeps our roasters on their toes and their senses sharp.”

Fact or Fiction?
While many coffee industry professionals doubt the seemingly “magical” affects of altitude on coffee roasting, as we have just seen, there is scientific logic to back up the theory. Even major roaster manufacturers are accepting this trend and accommodating to their high altitude clients. Probat, a roaster manufacturer based out of Germany has developed roasters designed for these specific locations. “Due to extensive, historically acquired experience in the production of roasting machines, Probat is very aware of the problems involved with roasting in mountain regions. Scientific examinations and tests in our own research and development department therefore deal particularly with these problems in order to design roasting machines that meet the special requirements involved. Probat has delivered diverse roasters around the world for roasting in mountain regions, from sample roasters, which are frequently used on coffee plantations at high elevations, to shop roasters and industrial roasting units. Roasters with higher capacities have to be adapted to the elevation in order to maximize productivity and achieve the desired roasting results. Therefore, Probat asks the customer at the first opportunity about the elevation of the installation location. When configuring roasters to be installed at an elevation of more than 1,000 meters above sea level, Probat automatically adapts the fans and heaters to the pressure and volume flow for the elevation at which the roaster will be operated,” the company has stated.

For the nonbeliever who sees high altitude roasting as nothing more of a marketing gimmick, or a way to justify a pricier pound, listening to the knowledge and commitment of these high altitude roasters can convert almost anyone into an advocate. Pivrnec admits, “La Semeuse is a Swiss roasting company, and when you are talking abroad about Switzerland, you immediately think of chocolate, watches and mountains. Our location in the Neuchâtel Mountains is a way to promote our Swiss quality products with a strong image.” However, this should not be viewed as promotional, but more so pride in their product and its origins. As for the price, “We are producing premium coffees and our prices are higher than others because of that. The altitude has never really influenced the prices. But, we don’t use water quenching, which also makes the coffee more expensive, “ says Pivrenec. So while the actual act of roasting at high altitudes might not attribute to La Semeuse’s slightly higher pricing, the quality that the process delivers does.

Peggy Sue Ennenga also does not rely on her high altitude roasting for the popularity of Fieldheads coffee. “Although we do promote the fact that we are high altitude roasting, it is not just about our location, it is all the factors that go into our coffee: we start with good green beans and great roasters and style of roasting. It’s a package deal,” she says. As for the pricing, she continues, “Roasters closer to a port (generally closer to sea level as well) don’t have the shipping costs. If you roast at high altitudes, this means you are most likely not near a coast. There is also the issue of shrinkage rate. Because we have such a healthy shrinkage rate at high altitudes, you must buy more green beans to account for the moisture evaporation — also, the darker you roast, the more shrinkage you will experience.”

So before you bring your beans back down the mountain for roasting, consider the tremendous benefits of letting nature takes it course.

Tea & Coffee - December, 2007

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