Long before we knew the words “single origin,” we were probably drinking a coffee blend whose parts included a coffee from Brazil. The country’s profile has, for many of us, informed our very idea of what coffee tastes like: nutty, chocolatey, and full-bodied. But glance at menus at specialty coffee shops now, and Brazil doesn’t always make the cut. A look at the country's coffee economy is a foray into the chapter in coffee history that's propelled the drink into so many homes around the world for so many years. Unique on many levels, the story of Brazil's coffee cues us to the possibilities and perils of growing this beloved crop.
The World's Largest Producer
For 150 years, Brazil has dominated the global coffee market, at times producing the majority of the world’s supply. Coffee was first planted in Brazil to satisfy the tastes of European immigrants in the eighteenth century. Within generations, it became a global export and key domestic industry. By the time coffee leaf rust decimated Indonesian coffee markets in the early twentieth century, Brazil was poised to nearly monopolize the market, and by the 1920s, it did: Brazil’s production accounted for at least eighty percent of the world’s coffee.
Today, one-third of the world’s coffee is grown in Brazil. In 2010, this amounted to nearly three million tons of coffee. Arabica comprises the majority, though a thriving Robusta industry feeds the unquenchable appetite for cafezinho, the small cups of coffee Brazilians drink several times a day. About 10,000 square miles—roughly the size of Massachusetts—are in coffee cultivation, and 3.5 million people earn their living somewhere along the supply chain.
From Seeds to Industry
Legend goes that coffee entered Brazil through the wiles of Francisco de Melo Palheta, who went to neighboring French Guiana under the guise of mediating a border dispute. Along the way, he seduced the governor’s wife, who in turn gave him a parting bouquet that included hidden coffee seeds. In 1727, the Portuguese entered the coffee market when those seeds were planted in the state of Pará.
During the colonial era, Brazil’s coffee industry centered around plantations called fazendas, where land barons first exploited native populations and then Africans sold into slavery. When slavery was outlawed, contract laborers from European like Italy filled the void—though working conditions were scarcely improved. Japanese migrants also came to work, and Japan's relationship to Brazil proved consequential for both countries: An infusion of free Brazilian coffee in Japan during the early twentieth century propelled its coffee culture to become one of the most refined in the world. Japanese Brazilians no longer work in coffee at the numbers they once did, but with a population of 1.6 million, they remain the largest community outside of Japan.
Today, labor in developed Brazil is a prohibitive cost. This fact, coupled with the lower elevations and flatter landscapes of Brazil's coffee belt, has given way to mechanized cultivation and picking. Brazil's reliance upon machines makes it incredibly productive. Every grade of coffee, from high-quality to inferior, finds a willing market. Espresso blends have long depended on Brazil's lower-density beans (a result of elevation) to create a dependable base with good body. Instant coffees use low-grade Arabica and Robusta, and the worst coffees often go to feed Brazil's own avid coffee habit.
Mechanized agriculture comes at an environmental cost. Some of Brazil’s coffee farmland is planted on grassland; elsewhere, land has been completely deforested. Full-sun coffee is the norm here, and years of mono-cropping and reliance upon synthetic fertilizers and pesticides have led to poor soil quality. Climate change is a looming threat—one that has already impacted recent years' harvests after a severe drought. For some smaller farms, yields were so diminished that they were forced to shut down. Despite all of this, many in the coffee industry believe that Brazil's use of technology is a portent for the future of coffee farming everywhere.
Processing as Quality Control
Specialty coffee is distinguished by selective picking of only ripe cherry. The fruit on Arabica trees does not ripen all at once, so pickers scour the same tree several times in a season to glean mature cherry.
Brazil bucks this trend. For the most part, mechanized pickers harvest all of the cherry in one picking for a heterogenous yield: Cherry range from hard and green to overripe. As a result, producers must find ways to remove the unwanted cherry, which contribute to off-flavors in the finished coffee.
Natural coffees comprise the majority of Brazil’s production. All of the cherry is picked at once, but at a later stage in maturation than in other countries—when the fruit is dry, but not yet falling off the tree. Large-scale producers rely on methods initiated at the dry-milling stage, like electronic color sorting and density tables. For producers in other countries, these measures are used for quality control; in Brazil, they are fundamental to building an acceptable cup.
An additional method called pulped natural processing, or honey processing, is widespread and allows for the removal of unwanted cherry. Falling somewhere between natural and washed coffee, the process begins as if it was a washed coffee. After an initial soak, dried fruit floats to the top and is skimmed off. Then, when the batch is forced through a pulper, the pulper catches unripe cherry that’s unable to pass through. After removing the fruit's skin and a varying amount of the pulp, the sticky coffee cherry is then spread on large tables to dry. The result is a more consistent coffee that mimics the muted acidity and body of a natural, but without the same vivid fruits.
Brazil’s coffee industry is oriented toward producing mild coffees that are typically characterized as nutty, sugar-saturated, and soft. They’re tolerant of darker roasting, which is one reason why so much of Brazil’s coffee goes into espresso blends. The country's reputation rests on its abundant production of versatile and pleasant coffees. Brazil is not regarded as an earth-shattering origin, but certain outlier producers show just how good its coffee can be.
Farms that Inspire Us
Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza (FAF), a 2,000 hectare estate, has ignited a movement in the southern state of São Paulo. Led by Silvia Barretto and her husband, Marcos Croce, they returned to Brazil after having fled the country during the military dictatorship decades earlier and converted all of their land to organic production. Years of large-scale farming had reduced the soil to “dirt.” FAF offered workers ownership in the coffee they grew, and actively reforested a portion of the land. After years of intensive organic fertilization and intercropping, they’re making some of the most delicious naturals from any origin. We feature single origins from them and use their coffee in our standard espresso blend, Hayes Valley. FAF has also become an exporter for other regional farms who have adopted the same stringent organic standards, and we’ve carried their coffees, too.
In a time when environmental degradation is a present threat to one of the world’s biggest producers, FAF is forging a community of producers committed to restoring soil health and meticulously natural-processing their coffee—thereby receiving premium prices while minimizing water use. This year's harvests from FAF and nearby farms are the best we've tasted yet, and are the kinds of coffees we love to drink—for being delicious, and for reshaping a complicated legacy that remains the bread and butter for so many.
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