How Coffee Came to Brazil
Even though the roots of the coffee plant lie in Ethopia, it is Brazil that is leading the world in the crop’s production. Story has it that back in the early 1700, Francisco de Melio Palheta smuggled the seeds of the plant from French Guiana, on his way back from a diplomatic mission there. They were embedded in a bouquet of flowers given to him by the wife of the territory’s governor, whom he had seduced.
Those first seeds were planted in Pará, Brazil, a state situated in the northern portion of the country. The area’s rich soil and warm, humid climate proved to be well suited for the plant’s growth. Even though fields of the crop started to spread along the northern shore, the main crop of the country at the time was sugarcane. Coffee production at the time was essentially intended for the local population.
Over a period of roughly a hundred years, around 1820 the dynamics changed; sugar cane started to lose ground on the international markets while coffee picked. With this changing scenario, the production of coffee picked up in Brazil also. There has been no slowing down ever since.
Coffee Growing Regions & Production
Brazil is the world’s largest coffee producer, and it is a position it has claimed for the past century and a half. It supplies roughly thirty per cent of the world’s coffee from its estimated three thousand plantations, situated in thirteen states and close to two thousand cities. One of the reasons it is able to do this is due to the size of the country. However the fact that it has the favourable conditions the plant needs is obviously also vital. The states of Brazil accommodating the largest coffee producing industries are (in order of importance) São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, Espírito Santo, Bahia, Paraná and Goiás.
The states in the northern region of the country cultivate mostly the Robusta variety of coffee. The terrain here is more flat and the climate warmer, hence the plants are cultivated under the shade of larger trees protected for the sun’s direct rays. The better grades of Brazilian coffee are cultivated in the southern states. The best variants of Arabica are cultivated at highest possible elevations here.
Unlike the rest of South America, Brazil is not gifted with the high altitude terrain. Hence, most of the coffee grown in the country is low-altitude, between two to four thousand feet, significantly below the average of 5,000 feet common in the rest of South America.
The coffee plant cultivated at lower elevation experiences harsher climatic conditions. The temperatures are higher and rainfall less. Under these conditions the beans mature and ripen faster leading to tastes that are blander and simpler. Plants that are cultivated on slopes above five thousand feet tend to produce beans that develop more slowly. This gives the bean time to develop the more complex flavours. For the same reason, beans of plants from higher altitude are denser, and harder compared to beans of plants grown at lower elevations. These beans tend to be soft and more porous.
Due to the lower altitude of cultivation, Brazilian coffees tend to be smooth, more mellow and sweet, unlike their counter parts grown at higher elevations, which have a harder more concentrated taste. Low altitude coffee is also less acidic than coffees grown at high altitudes.
The elevation of Brazil allows for the cultivation of both types of coffee plants – Arabica as well as Robusta. Coffee beans from the Arabica plant are more highly valued and are more typically found in the high-end coffee shops and specialty stores. Beans of the Robusta plant are considered to be of low quality and commonly used in production of instant coffees. However, even the Arabica coffee grown in Brazil is at the lower end of the spectrum, as Brazil does not have the necessary elevation needed to cultivate the high-end Arabica.
Considering that Brazil does not have the elements necessary to cultivate the exceptionally good quality coffee, how is that it ended up being the largest exporter on the planet? The reason is that Brazil’s interests are more economics based as opposed to winning the limited market of gourmet coffees. Hence, they focus on bulk and profitable grades of coffee, instead of the smaller niche markets.
Coffee Processing in Brazil
The way coffee beans are processed impacts flavour significantly. Brazil is one of the few countries in the world where almost all the coffee is processed using the dry (also known as natural) method. In this method the cherries in which the coffee bean is buried, cleaned and placed in the sun for up to ten hours daily for several weeks. The dry outer layer of the fruit is then removed and the beans sorted, and packed. The sun drying process is long and time consuming but because the weather in Brazil facilitates this process and it is economical, it is most commonly used in the country. It produces coffee that has smooth, sweet fruity flavour. Coffee processed in this way is called Brazilian naturals.
The other two less commonly used methods of processing used in Brazil are wet washing and semi-washed processes. The wet processing method involves pulping and removal of cherry pulp before drying. The coffee processed in this way is higher in acidity compared to sun-dried method, with some body and sweetness. The semi-washed method is a combination of these two main methods.
Coffee Culture in Brazil
Brazilians love their coffee. Not only is Brazil the largest coffee producer in the world, it is also the second largest coffee consumer in the world! According to one survey, more coffee is consumed by Brazilians over ten years of age daily than any other beverage! This translates to almost 80 liters of coffee gulped by each person in the country per year. Brazilians use the word “cafezinho” for coffee, which in Portugese translates to “little coffee”. There is also a tradition in the country of taking a dedicated coffee break called “cafezinho hour” in which coffee served in tiny cups is enjoyed.
While they drink a lot of coffee, Brazilians are not particular about the type of coffee they consume. The lowest grades of coffees produced in the country are consumed by the local population, while the best qualities are saved for export. The general consensus is that why pay a lot of money to enjoy a cup of coffee. For the most part, they like their coffee black and strong; at most a little milk is added to prepare the popular drink “media”. The very popular Mochas, Lattes, Frapuccinos, Cappuccinos and the numerous other coffee based concoctions are not as well received here as they are in the rest of the world.