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Will climate change ruin coffee?

This Guide is a big fan of coffee, and ever more since we learned how to drink it without turning into an anxious, jittery mess. Canned coffee in Fukuoka hotel rooms. Volcanic French press in Bandung. Sipping espresso shots before workshops in Lisbon. Coffee is travel gas. But lately, we’ve seen an increasing number of news articles suggesting all is not well in coffee land. We dove into what’s happening to see if climate change will ruin coffee.

How will climate change affect coffee growing?

Like you without your coffee, the coffee bean can be irritable. It likes things a certain way. It’s not interested in developing ecological flexibility. It wants to be in a warm place, but it needs to be up high to get away from those really hot, humid days. But it also doesn’t want to be too cold–definitely no frost–so it can’t get too high or too far north. And it also needs ample water, but of course not too much rain, because it also needs lots of sunshine, but not constant sunshine, because then the juicy berries dry up. It likes a consistent, average temperature in the 20s (That’s in the 70s and low 80s if you like Fahrenheit). This means that coffee loves mountains around the equator. But as the planet heats up, coffee needs to move.

Climate change will alter the flavor of your coffee.

As coffee moves away from the equator, new regions will begin to grow coffee, but there’s a catch to this: they generally won’t be at the same altitude as previous coffee growing regions. Lower altitude means more oxygen and the coffee beans grow more quickly. At first, that sounds appealing, right? We’ll have more coffee and it’ll grow faster! But when coffee beans grow quickly, they pack in fewer nutrients and less flavor. Low altitude coffee is blander, the flavors are less complex. High altitude coffee gives you that rich aroma, it dances three different tunes on your taste buds. 

Check out this diagram that breaks down how the flavor profile of coffee changes as you move up or down in altitude:

Diagram of layered mountain with each layer corresponding to a range of altitude and related coffee flavor notes. Around 1500 meters, coffee tastes floral, fruity, acidic, and complex. Around 1200 meters, it gives notes of cocoa, citrus, vanilla, and it has a nutty flavor. Around 900 meters and below, it becomes earthier, mellow, and is generally less delicious.
Higher up = more delicious coffee that slaps you in the taste buds. Lower down = may as well drink water.

Climate change negatively impacts coffee growers and local economies.

Something else that coffee enjoys: predictable weather. It especially likes predictable dry and rainy seasons. During the dry season, the coffee bush blossoms with white, star-shaped flowers. When the rainy season arrives, those flowers turn to red berries, which then soak up the water and nutrients from the soil. That grows the delicious bean inside the berry, which later gets dried, roasted, and you then chug by the venti. 

Climate change is already messing with the predictable dry and wet seasons, which impacts farmers. Guatemalan coffee growers are seeing yields impacted by too much rain encroaching on the dry season: What’s Climate Doing to Guatemala’s Coffee And in Brazil, things have gone in the opposite direction, with a lack of rain causing so much disruption to the coffee crop that prices are at an all-time high: Record Brazilian drought causes coffee prices to spike to highest level in years

As yields shrink, coffee becomes less economical to grow. We’ll see more small coffee growers sell their farms or lose them. This is relevant because 60% of the world’s coffee comes from farms with fewer than 5 hectares. And 44% of coffee farmers already live in poverty. Bringing Smallholder Coffee Farmers out of Poverty 

Rising coffee prices could be a good thing for farmers, if they had crop to sell and that money was making its way to them. Farmers can’t make any money when their crops are damaged by droughts and floods. As ideal coffee growing regions shift, it won’t be small scale farmers that have the money to invest in planting new areas. It’ll be large corporations with the capital to invest. That will mean even more money leaving local economies.

Sicily produced its first ever coffee crop in 2021

After decades of trying to grow coffee in Italy, a family-run coffee business in Palermo, Italy, produced 30kg of coffee this past year. You can read all about it here: Climate Change and the Dream of Growing Coffee in Sicily 

Coffee is on the move. But don’t forget that coffee likes a very particular environment. Although Sicily produced Europe’s first ever coffee harvet this year, it also registered the hottest temperature ever recorded in Europe: 48.8C (119.8F) That’s well above coffee’s comfort zone. In the winter months, the temperature can drop to the single digits (in Celsius). Coffee won’t have the comfortable, relaxed life it once had before climate change. And that’s bound to come through in your cup of espresso. 

So while you’re fueling a late night train trip with a giant mug or coffee, or sipping a morning cappuccino on a quiet town square, enjoy it. Be present for it. That coffee has been on an incredible journey, helped along by so many people, to reach you. Its journey will become increasingly difficult.

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