Does Terroir Matter in Coffee?

Geisha variety: An Ethiopian coffee flourishing in Panama. Counter Culture Coffee on Flickr

Place has long been held as virtually as significant an element of winemaking as grape variety and processing: When we think of Burgundy, say, or Champagne, we think as much of the land itself as we do the famed liquid that come from there. The two are virtually inseparable. Does the same hold true, however, in coffee?

We know that climate can and does play a major role in the development of the coffee plant and the flavors its seeds (or beans) express. Beside simply the soil type and health in a region or on a farm, the plants are also potentially affected by their access to water, whether they grow in sunlight or shade, aggressiveness and type of pruning, and the flora and fauna around them. These things, in turn, will influence a coffee producer's decisions about processing: When and how the coffee fruit is removed from its seed, whether or not there will be a fermentation period, and if that fermentation happens in the open air or under water—among myriad other choices.

The question is, then, does terroir so significantly impact the flavor of a coffee that the same variety grown in two different soils will be distinct enough to the discerning taster?

It is seemingly impossible to answer definitively, because it's exceptionally difficult to re-create non-terroir-related conditions enough among coffee producers to really compare. However, tasting the same varieties of coffees from neighboring farms (such as the Bourbon variety grown by Aida Batlle on her Finca Mauritania and that grown by Fernando Lima on his nearby Finca Santa Elena, both in El Salvador) does yield interesting discoveries.

Is the sweetness of Finca Mauritania caused by the meticulously ripe picking that farm owner Batlle specifies of her staff, or is it due to some quality in the farm's soil? Is the fruity pucker of the Bourbon from Finca Santa Elena caused by a different strain of wild yeast present during fermentation, even though the farm shares Mauritania's volcanic mountainside microclimate? I'm not sure anyone can say for sure.

Is this what makes Hacienda la Esmeralda's Geisha coffee taste the way it does, the farm itself?. Counter Culture Coffee on Flickr

A prime example of the terroir vs. variety vs. processing debate comes to play in the story of Geisha, an heirloom type of coffee native to the area around the Ethiopian town of similar name (Gesha), whose plant's descendants have found themselves rooted in soil in Honduras and, most famously, Panama, among other places. What's remarkable about the Geisha variety is that it does, in fact, taste nothing like a coffee from Honduras or Panama, and everything like a coffee from Ethiopia: Soft, delicate, intensely floral, with lemongrass and green- or black-tea-like characteristics that caused those first tasting it to wonder if they'd been duped.

Would a Geisha planted, say, in Brazil have the same characteristics, though? What about Sumatra? How close does the climate need to be in order to transfer the qualities of the variety from one plot of land to another? Or is there something else at play here?

Usually, changes in terroir seem to bring about great changes in the plants themselves: Moving a variety from a lush, green clime to a more arid one usually does cause distinct changes in the cup profile, and many subvarities have been born through natural mutation likely spawned by transplanting. Additionally, in many growing regions, producers follow generally similar processing practices that will impart specific flavors to the coffees grown there, which we might associate with location but in fact relates more to technique than topsoil.

Over the next few columns, we'll explore both regionality and variety in coffee, and discuss some of the flavors these elements might (or might not) contribute to any particular batch of beans.

What do you think about the importance of terroir on coffee? Sound off in the comments.