What is meant by highland coffee?

Coffee is one of the most widely consumed and cultivated beverages in the world, and of course, this means that it is harvested in many regions across the globe. But we also know that climate and circumstances are not the same everywhere and that some conditions are more ideal than others for growing coffee. From this scenario arises the concept of highland coffee, a definition that not everyone knows and that in many cases goes unnoticed by the general public.

In fact, if we buy a single-origin packet (not coffee blends), we will usually find a bunch of information on the packaging about its origin, including the altitude of the farm where it was grown, expressed in metres above sea level. Do you know what this means? What does highland coffee mean? Why is this information important, and why do all baristas check it?

Well, that is what we are going to talk about in today’s article: what is highland coffee, what are its qualities and why we should know about it if we like to enjoy this drink.

The first thing, of course, is to know what is meant by highland coffee, so let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of the definition.

When is it considered a highland coffee?

The definition of highland coffee is fuzzy; it is not strictly or dogmatically laid down anywhere, but broadly speaking, it refers – you don’t have to rack your brains to find out – to the climatic conditions and the altitude at which the plant in question has been cultivated.

In general, although this is not a certain science, it is considered that the higher the altitude of the cultivated land, the better the resulting coffee bean. This highland coffee is then harvested, roasted and can be prepared in many different ways. But its common denominator is that it is grown at a higher altitude than normal.

The confusion arises because this height is not the same in all countries. There are certain standards for the definition of highland coffee, which can be summarised in these three:

  • SHG: Strictly High Grown. Strictly High Grown coffee.
  • HG: High Grown. High Grown coffee.
  • SC: Standard Central. Central, or medium height.

And in each country, the altitude for each label is different. For example, coffee from Honduras must be grown at more than 1520 metres above sea level to be considered SHG. But in Mexico or Nicaragua, a lower altitude may be sufficient.

For reference, an SHG coffee is usually grown above 1500 metres above sea level.

To complicate matters further, for a crop to be considered highland coffee, that number alone is not enough. Complex parameters such as density, temperature and rainfall also come into play. For example, the temperature must be between 20ºC and 25ºC (purely tropical climate), and rainfall must be moderate, not excessive. In other words, a crop can be SCH one year, and the same crop in the same place may not get that label the following year.

As you can see, it is not at all easy to get a good highland coffee with an SHG label.

But then… why is it called highland coffee?

Well, although many factors come into play, it is true that the altitude is immovable and is usually an inexcusable condition to achieve the excellent quality of the coffee we are looking for.

Although the altitude may vary depending on the geographical area, everyone understands that a true highland coffee must have been grown at a considerable altitude (as well as meeting other conditions, as we have seen).

Why is highland coffee better than others?

In order to know what is highland coffee-like, we need to familiarise ourselves with the characteristics of the crop and how climatic variations have a significant influence on the development of each plant.

We have already noted above that beans grown at high altitudes and in shady soil (without much direct sunlight) are generally of better quality than those grown in other conditions.

The altitude causes the beans to grow more slowly and to be denser.  The trained eye or barista will be able to recognise them at a glance: the SHG high altitude coffee bean has a very closed and slightly curved or twisted fissure. These are beans that, when well processed, will offer more acidity and much more aroma than beans harvested at low altitudes.

We should also bear in mind that beans grown in the mountains, being denser and harder, tend to resist extreme temperatures better during the roasting process and hardly suffer any damage or breakage at this stage.

So as you can see, the advantages of highland coffee are manifold.

This, of course, is not a mathematical dogma. Excellent coffees can be achieved at lower altitudes, and speciality coffee is not necessarily equivalent to a highland coffee. Likewise, a high altitude crop can come out with regular or just standard quality.

In short: altitude has a direct effect, a clear impact on the quality and final condition of the coffee bean. But it is by no means the only influencing factor.

The best highland coffee varieties

There are really no highland coffee varieties as such, but rather certain origins are or are not highland, depending, logically, on the location of the farms where they are grown. Some of the most famous and prestigious coffees in the world are harvested in the highlands, such as the highland geisha coffee from Panama or the Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica.