You might have heard of terroir in wine. Did you know that terroir is also used to describe coffee? In this post, you'll learn what terroir coffee is and the factors affecting it's flavor and aroma.
Guide to Terroir Coffee
Coffee is known for unique flavor notes across bean types and growing locations. Coffee terroir describes the factors that affect it's flavor and aroma.
Meaning of Terroir
Meaning of Terroir: Land / soil.
From the French terre.
See below for what terroir means in the context of coffee.
How to Pronounce: Terroir
Here's to pronounce terroir: sounds like “tare WAHr”.
Remembering the French origins of the word might help to pronounce it correctly.
What is Coffee Terroir?
If a coffee bean has terroir, it can be specifically located. The unique set of circumstances (climate, soil, terrain, and sometimes tradition) forms a unique fingerprint that tags that terroir to that specific location.
That coffee (with it's flavor and aroma combination) cannot be grown anywhere else.
Coffee terroir amplifies the already present features of the variety.
What Does Terroir Coffee Describe?
What are the factors affecting terroir coffee?
Here are the four factors.
- Soil: The nutrients in the soil and it's drainage both affect the terroir of coffee. Coffee plants grown in volcanic soil of Hawaii produce a terroir distinct from that of the highlands of central Kenya.
- Climate: The amount of rain and sun that coffee plants get directly affect the flavor notes in the beans.
- Terrain (Elevation): Higher elevation produces sweeter and higher quality coffee cherries. This is the same as with grapes.
- Tradition: As with wine, the method of producing (processing, grading, roasting) coffee will impact flavor and aroma. This factor should only be included when there is a unique tradition in producing the local coffee.
Does coffee terroir change? Yes. Because climate can be highly variable, the terroir of a specific region can change from one season to the next. The amount of rainfall or hours of sunshine can impact the growth and size of the coffee cherries.
What is the Coffee Crop's Phenotype?
Phenotype is a genetic term to refer to the characteristics of an organism. Coffee terroir described the environmental factors affecting the phenotype of a specific crop of coffee cherries.
Is Terroir a Trademarked Word?
No, not according to the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). It appears that George Howell Coffee owned a variant of this in the past, but it has since been abandoned.
On their site, George Howell Coffee lists Terroir as a registered trademark. But from what I can tell, this isn't current. By indicating Terroir® on their site, they are claiming a registered trademark on the word “Terroir”. As if this is their brand and no one else can use it without their permission. It would be like the USPTO allowing a trademark on the word “Arabica”, or any other word commonly used to describe coffee. Patent offices just don't allow this – at least not as a stand alone term.
And yet this is what appears to be claimed here. The word “terroir” is being claimed as a registered trademark, as of September 28, 2020.
Even if they had a current trademark registration, they are claiming it inaccurately. Their (now cancelled) trademark application was for a word mark:
GEORGE H. HOWELL TERROIR SELECT COFFEES. This would give them the right to use this word mark for their coffee products. But nowhere does it give them trademarked use of only the word “terroir” as they are claiming on their site.
Trademark History: Back in December 17, 2003, GHH Select LLC LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY DELAWARE (GEORGE HOWELL COFFEE COMPANY LLC LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY DELAWARE) submitted trademark application (Serial number 78341965). Registration date (Registration number 3230498) is listed as April 17, 2007. Cancellation date is listed as November 22, 2013.
Trademarks can be cancelled for any number of reasons, including abandonment, improper licensing, improper use, or if they are too generic. It appears that their site webmaster wasn't advised that the trademark was cancelled. And that they don't own the trademark for the single term “terroir”.
If you plan to use the term in your own marketing, you should definitely speak with an intellectual properties attorney. I'm only sharing what I found online. My search might have been faulty or maybe I misunderstood something. If you have more to share on this, please let me know so I can update it. But from what I found, it doesn't appear that anyone owns a defensible claim to that individual term.
Coffee Terroir is Region Specific
Because of all these factors, coffee terroir is specific to a region. It is terroir that makes coffee from Honduras distinct from Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. And why Kenyan flavor notes differ from coffee from Costa Rica.
Other Factors Affecting Coffee
How Important is Terroir in Coffee?
So after all of this, just how much does terroir matter for coffee? Probably not that much – at least in comparison to wine.
Our role in producing coffee actually affects the flavors more than the environmental factors. The method of processing and roasting will impact flavor more than the specific terroir.
So while knowing which regions are known for which flavor notes is helpful, having an amateur process and roast your beans can unravel all of this. Of course, most coffee is actually processed and roasted by experts.
For me, knowing the specifics about a region helps me choose the next bean to try next.
What coffee terroir do you prefer? Do you have a favorite region or variety? Let me know in the comments!
Bryan Haines is a co-founder and writer on EnjoyJava! – and is working to make it the best coffee blog in the world. He is a travel blogger at Storyteller.Travel and photographer at Click Like This. He is also co-founder of Storyteller Media, a company he started with his wife, Dena.