Brewing Espresso at Altitude

January 27th, 2011

There has long been discussion about what happens when you brew espresso somewhere at relatively high altitude. This has become, and will become even more, relevant as the WBC is taking place in Bogota this year. Bogota is the third highest capital city in the world, some 2625 metres above sea level (approx 8,600ft).

At this altitude water will boil at 91.2°C/196.2°F – below the 93.5°C/200°F that the Aurelias will be set to. What follows is mostly personal opinion 1, coupled with a possible experiment that might answer some questions.

When we’re brewing espresso the system is under pressure (9 bars mostly), rather than the much lower atmospheric pressure. One of the unique aspects of brewing under pressure is that water is able to dissolve a lot more CO2 than it usually can at atmospheric pressure. When the coffee liquid leaves the basket we see that it is unable to retain that CO2 which forms bubbles that get trapped by various surfactants as a foam: crema.

People will often remark that at altitude the coffee acts like it hasn’t had a chance to rest/degas. The espresso tends to have very large bubbles, and lacks strength – often disappearing very quickly. This is, of course, similar to brewing very fresh coffee (up to 48-96hrs post roast) at sea level.

What doesn’t make sense to me is that surely CO2 would be more likely to be drawn from the coffee bean when stored at low pressure than at higher pressure?

My guess (and it is a guess) is that the pressure change from the bottom of the basket to atmosphere is much larger than normal when brewing at altitude. I would guess that the saturation point for CO2 in water at 2625m is significantly lower than the saturation point at sea level. The liquid loses more gas, and we see this as bigger bubbles. With foams in liquid the strength is dependent on bubble size (the smaller the stronger – think good milk foam), so these larger bubbles of crema will disappear faster.

What does this mean for competitors? Here is my advice:

Bring scales. I know a lot of people don’t like it (though I don’t really understand why), but your espresso volume is going to be radically different for an identical flow rate at sea level. Know your brew recipe before you come, and before you start freaking out about how things taste, check whether you are brewing on spec. Espresso is a recipe that is based on weights and flow rates. Going by eye is tough. I’ve tried, when I was there in 2007, and it took a while before things made sense!

Pulling shots in Bogota

Another question remains – should espresso be aged longer for brewing at altitude?

This is a good question, and one I think we need to do a few experiments on. Ageing espresso will certainly reduce the amount of CO2 left in the coffee beans, but surely at the expense of some loss of pleasing aromas and the potential development of negative flavours. I’d like to run a two way experiment, but it needs participants who have access to coffee machines at different altitudes.

Take two bags of espresso from the same roasts/blending batch. Store one at sea level, store the other at high altitude. Ideally in similar temperatures. After 10 days bring both back down to sea level and observe variations in volume for a fixed weight of coffee, liquid and brew time. Based on my amateur theorising above – there should be no detectable differences, or – if anything – the coffee stored at altitude might have less crema/volume when brewed.

Then take two bags of identical espresso and store both for 10 days at sea level. Then brew one at sea level and one at altitude. Record variations in volume for fixed weight of coffee, liquid and brew time.

This way we’ll know whether the issue is ageing of brewing. I would predict that when brewed identically the high altitude espresso should be just as delicious as the low altitude one – but I am very happy to be proven wrong.

One aspect to consider is when the brewing liquid might reach boiling point. If someone is pulling very fast shots, where the brew water doesn’t lose much heat to the coffee – then I’d expect to see some issues towards the end of the shot as the exit liquid from the basket will be very close to boiling, if not boiling at high altitude. Properly brewed espressos shouldn’t (in theory) see the same problem. Anyone have video of a naked portafilter at high altitude?

Comments, thoughts, accurate science and brutal critiques of the above welcome!  Thanks to Brent Fortune for setting my brain off!

  1. Warning: Amateur Science Alert!  ↩︎

Comment Policy

There are no longer comments on new posts. If you'd like to respond you can find me on twitter.