Coffee Origins : Brazil

Vietnamese Coffee Exporter

For more than 150 years, Brazil has been the world’s largest coffee grower. Brazil currently produces about one-third of the world’s coffee, despite having a market share of up to 80% in the past. While Brazil was still under Portuguese administration, coffee was brought to the country from French Guiana in 1727.

Brazil

Francisco de Melo Palheta planted the first coffee plantation in Brazil in the Para region in the north of the country. Palheta, according to legend, went to French Guiana on a diplomatic trip, seduced the governor’s wife, and was handed the seeds hidden in a bouquet by her when he left. The coffee he planted when he returned home was likely only for domestic consumption, and it remained a minor crop until it began to spread south, being handed from garden to garden as well as farm to farm as a crop.

Commercial production begins

Coffee was first commercially produced along the Paraiba River, which is close to Rio de Janeiro. This area was ideal for coffee, not only because of the land but also because of its proximity to Rio de Janeiro, which would make export easier. Brazil’s initial commercial farms were enormous, slave-driven estates, in contrast to the smaller coffee farms that thrived in Central America. This industrialized method to coffee production is still quite uncommon in the rest of the globe, and Brazilian coffee production is fairly distinctive. The most powerful, or forceful, would win arguments over ill-defined property lines, and a single slave would look after four to seven thousand plants. When the soil became depleted as a result of intensive farming, the farm would simply move on to something else.

Coffee production boomed between 1820 and 1830, overtaking the demand of Brazilian coffee drinkers and beginning to feed the wider global market. Those who controlled coffee production became both incredibly wealthy and very powerful and were referred to as ‘coffee barons’. Their needs would have a significant impact on the government’s policies and its support of the coffee industry.

By 1830, Brazil had produced 30% of the world’s coffee. By 1840, it had risen to 40%, despite the fact that the large increase in production had resulted in a decline in the global price of coffee. Brazil’s coffee business relied on slave labor until the mid-nineteenth century. Slaves were imported to Brazil in large numbers to work on the coffee plantations. After British outlawed Brazil’s slave trade with Africa in 1850, the country resorted to migrant labor or its own internal slave trade. The abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888 sparked fears that the coffee industry would be jeopardized, but the harvest proceeded successfully that year and thereafter.

Brazil

 

A second boom

From the 1880s until the 1930s, a second coffee boom occurred, which was named for the two most prominent products at the time. The political atmosphere known as the café com leite period was influenced by both coffee barons from Sao Paolo and dairy producers from Minas Gerais. During this time, the Brazilian government implemented valorization, a protectionist policy aimed at keeping coffee prices stable. When the market was low, the government would buy coffee from growers at a premium and store it until the market was high.
For coffee barons, this meant constant prices and no oversupply due to reduced coffee prices.

Brazil produced 80% of the world’s coffee by the 1920s, and coffee helped to fund a lot of the country’s infrastructure. This unchecked production resulted in a tremendous coffee excess, which further added to the effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s. In an attempt to boost coffee prices, Brazil’s government burned over 78 million bags of hoarded coffee, but it had little effect.

During World War II, there was rising fear in the United States that with European markets closed, falling coffee prices might encourage Central and South American countries to sympathize with Nazis or communists. An international agreement was drafted, based on a quota system, in order to stabilize the price of coffee. This pact drove up coffee prices until they steadied in the mid-1950s, and it is said to be a forerunner to the much larger International Coffee Agreement (ICA) signed in 1962, which would eventually include 42 producing countries. The International Coffee Organization determined the indicative coffee price, which was used to set quotas (ICO). Quotas were reduced when prices fell and increased when prices rose.

This agreement lasted until 1989 when it collapsed due to Brazil’s refusal to accept a quota decrease. Brazil believed it could prosper outside of the accord since it was a very efficient producer. The ICA’s demise resulted in an unregulated market, and prices decreased substantially over the next five years, resulting in the coffee crisis that sparked the Fair Trade movement in coffee production.

On and off years

Because Brazil is the world’s largest coffee supplier, everything that affects production there has a ripple impact on global pricing. The alternating cycle of Brazil’s annual crop was one such element. Over time, it became evident that Brazil’s harvest would alternate between huge and minor harvests each year. In recent years, some work has been done to try to reduce this effect, resulting in less year-to-year volatility and higher consistency. This fluctuation in yield is caused by a coffee tree’s natural alternating cycle of large and small crops, which can be regulated with mild pruning. In Brazil, a light pruning is not a widespread practice, with producers preferring to prune back heavily.

There have been spectacular events in the past, such as the 1975 black frost, which cut the yield by over 75% the following year. The price of coffee nearly doubled almost immediately as a result of the frost. Two off years in a row in 2000 and 2001 resulted in a large harvest in 2002, resulting in a massive coffee yield. This occurred during a second extended era of low coffee prices, this time due to a global coffee surplus.

Modern coffee production

Brazil is without a doubt the world’s most advanced and industrialized coffee-producing country. With a focus on yield and output, it hasn’t earned a good reputation for producing high-quality coffees. Most large farms use crude picking techniques like strip picking, which involves removing all of the cherries from a branch at once. They utilize harvesting equipment to shake the cherries away from the branches if the plantations are huge and flat (as is usual in Brazil’s larger coffee fields). Because neither method takes ripeness into account, the harvested coffee may contain a substantial percentage of immature cherries.

Brazil used to process a lot of its coffee by sun-drying the whole cherries on patios for a long period (see The Natural Process). The Pulped Natural Process, which was introduced in the early 1990s, helped to improve quality, but for years, Brazil’s specialty coffee producers – who can pick by hand, wash their coffee, and grow interesting varieties at higher altitudes – have battled against the country’s reputation for producing coffees with low acidity and increased body that is best suited to espresso blends.

While much of Brazil’s coffee is grown below the elevations that are ideal for quality, there are still some extremely intriguing and tasty coffees to be found there. Similarly, the country produces some very clean and sweet coffees with little acidity, which many people find pleasant and approachable (quite properly).

Robusta production

While not a focus of this book, it should be noted that Brazil is one of the world’s primary producers of Robusta, along with Arabica. In Brazil Robusta is usually called cotillon and is produced in regions such as Rondonia.

Domestic consumption

Brazil has been aggressively attempting, with increasing success, to expand its domestic coffee consumption. While offering coffee to children at a young age may raise some eyebrows, Brazil’s coffee consumption currently matches that of the United States. Because raw coffee cannot be imported into Brazil, a considerable portion of the coffee cultivated there is consumed domestically, albeit the quality of coffee for domestic use is often poorer than that for export.

Coffee shops have sprouted up all across Brazil’s main cities, despite their prices being comparable to those found in better coffee shops in the United States and Europe, and they have become yet another emblem of the country’s growing wealth difference.

Traceability

Brazilian coffees of high grade may usually be traced back to a specific farm (Fazenda), whereas lower-quality coffees are sold in bulk amounts and are not traceable. Coffees labeled ‘Santos’ were simply sent from the port of Santos, and the name has nothing to do with the origin of the beans. Because there are farms in Brazil that produce more coffee than the entire country of Bolivia, the rule of thumb that traceability is linked to quality is likely to be broken. While the coffee may be traceable due to the large scale of manufacturing, it does not necessarily mean it is of superior quality.

A Brazilian worker opens the sluice of a washing tank, raking the clean beans onto a trailer

Taste profile

Better Brazilian coffees tend to be low in acidity, heavy in body, and sweet, often with chocolate and nutty āavours.

Growing regions

Population: 207,350,000
Number of 60kg (132lb) bags in 2016: 55,000,000
There are many different coffee varieties grown across Brazil and many of them were developed in the country or evolved there, including Mundo Novo, Yellow Bourbon, Caturra, and Catuai.

Bahia

This large state in the east of Brazil is one of the northernmost coffee-growing areas in the country. In recent years there have been more and more interesting coffees from this region and many people sat up and took notice when in the 2009 Cup of Excellence competition, five out of the top ten lots came from Bahia.

Diamond plate

This beautiful area of Brazil, known for its national park, is named after its geology: Chapada describes the steep cliffs in the region and Diamantina the diamonds found there in the 19th century. A notable number of farms in the region are producing coffee biodynamically, an organic method of production originally developed by Rudolph Steiner.

Altitude: 1,000–1,200m (3,300–3,900ft)

Harvest: June–September

Cerrado de bahia/west bahia

Large-scale, industrialized, and irrigated coffee production is possible in this location. This area was part of a government scheme to stimulate agriculture in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which gave low-interest loans and other incentives to roughly 600 farmers who relocated here. By 2006, over 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of land had been planted, with coffee accounting for only a small portion of this. Because a consistent, warm, and sunny climate encourages bigger harvests, it’s a little more difficult to find something truly remarkable in this section of Brazil.

Altitude: 700–1,000m (2,300–3,300ft)

Harvest:May–September

A farmer in Brazil uses a sieve to separate coffee cherries from the chaff, which is carried away by the wind

Bahia plateau

This coffee region has more of a focus on small-scale production, taking advantage of the cooler temperatures and higher altitudes to produce higher-quality coffees.

Altitude: 700–1,300m (2,300–4,300ft)

Harvest: May–September

Minas gerais

In the southeast of the country, the state of Minas Gerais has some of the highest mountains in Brazil, providing a good altitude for coffee.

South of minas

Historically, this region has produced a large portion of Brazil’s coffee, and it has been home to many generations of smallholder farmers. Perhaps this is why there are so many cooperatives in the area. Despite the presence of small farms, the area is nonetheless heavily industrialized, with a high level of mechanical harvesting. Carmo de Minas, for example, has recently gained increased interest within the region. This municipality, which includes the village of Carmo, has a significant number of producers who are making use of the soil and climate to grow excellent coffees.

Altitude: 700–1,350m (2,300–4,400ft)

Harvest: May–September

Chapada de mines

This region is further north, away from the other coffee-growing areas clustered together to the south. Coffee growing took hold here in the late 1970s. It is a relatively small area of production, with some producers taking advantage of the āat land to mechanize their farms.

Altitude: 800–1,100m (2,600–3,600ft)

Harvest: May–September

Mine forests

This is a region where coffee was introduced early on, and which prospered thanks to coffee and dairy between 1850 and 1930. Despite recent diversification, coffee still accounts for roughly 80% of the region’s agricultural income. Harvesting is typically done by hand because of the uneven terrain and steep hillsides. Despite a large number of smallholders in the region (almost 40% of farms are less than 10 hectares/24 acres), the region lacks the established reputation for excellence that one might expect. This is, however, changing for the better, and there are numerous farms producing excellent coffee in the area.

Altitude: 550–1,200m (1,800–3,900ft)

Harvest: May–September

Sao paolo

The state of São Paolo contains one of the better-known coffee-growing areas of Brazil, Mogiana. The region was named after the Mogiana Railroad Company, which built the ‘coffee railroad’ in 1883, leading to better transport and a great expansion of coffee
production here.

Altitude: 800–1,200m (2,600–3,900ft)

Harvest: May–September

Mato grosso and mato grosso do sul

Only a minor portion of Brazil’s annual harvest is produced in this region. The great number of cattle raised here, as well as the extensive soybean crop, are better adapted to the wide, flat highlands.

Altitude: average of 600m (2000ft)

Harvest: May–September

Holy spirit

While small in comparison to other coffee-growing districts in Brazil, Espirito Santo produces the second-largest portion of the annual harvest, and the capital city, Vittoria, is a vital port for export. However, cotillon accounts for roughly 80% of the coffee it produces (Robusta). Farmers in the south of the region tend to grow Arabica, therefore there may be some more interesting coffees there.

Altitude: 900–1,200m (3,000–3,900ft)

Harvest: May–September

Parana

Some argue that this state is the world’s southernmost coffee-growing zone, and it is a significant agricultural region for Brazil. It produces approximately 25% of the country’s agricultural output despite having only 2.5 percent of the country’s territory. Coffee was formerly the most important crop in this region, but following frost damage in 1975, many farmers switched to other crops. The region used to produce 22 million bags of coffee every year, but today only produces around 2 million. The first colonists arrived near to the coast, but coffee drove many of them inland. Although the lack of altitude prohibits truly high-quality coffees from being grown here, the colder temperatures do aid in the fruit’s maturation.

Altitude: up to 950m (3,100ft)

Harvest: May–September

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