Brazil has been the dominant world coffee producer for over a century and a half. In the early 20th century, Brazil produced 75% of the world’s supply. Today it produces about 30%. Coffee is grown over a vast swath of the country. Unlike other coffee-producing countries, Brazil is also a giant consumer of coffee, second in the world only to the United States. Although the vast bulk of its production is commercial grade, some very high-quality lots are beginning to be produced by farmers in response to rising quality demand in Brazil and in the world specialty market.
The designation “Santos” is often applied by coffee retailers to indicate higher quality, but this is a meaningless term. Santos is Brazil’s most important coffee port, and its name was once conferred on the best grades. No longer!
Quality grades have a unique Brazilian nomenclature, reflecting the cup characteristics of Brazilian coffees. The highest-quality grade is strictly soft, followed by soft, softish, hard, and finally, Rio, which smells medicinal like iodine. The very rare strictly soft-grade coffees give a mellow, sweet cup with little or no tang.
Almost all Brazilian coffees are grown quite far from the equator and at moderate elevations, ranging from 2,800 to 3,500 feet. In a few small areas, like Pos de Caldas and Zona das Montanhas, coffee is grown at over 4,000 feet and is more acidic in the cup. Both areas frame the state of Minas Gerais, the first to the west and the second to the east; Minas Gerais is the state with the greatest diversity of terroirs. To the south is Sul de Minas with mostly gentle hills, reminiscent of parts of Vermont, rising over the 3,000-foot plain. To the north of the state are the table-like landscapes and ancient soils of Cerrado, a savannah once considered too dry for coffee growing. Cerrado, a world frontier of coffee growing, harvesting, and processing technology, produces coffee with the least acidity, ideal for espresso. Other states producing the best qualities are Espiritu Santo (very recently), Parana, and Bahia.
Many varieties of Arabica are grown in Brazil, Mundo Novo, Catuai, Icatu and the heirloom variety Bourbon being the main ones. Almost all Brazilian coffees are processed either the natural or the pulped-natural way. In both processes the sugars of the drying coffee fruit migrate to the seed, the coffee bean. These added sugars contribute more soluble solids to the coffee bean, which impart greater body to the coffee. Coupled with Brazilian coffee’s “soft” character, this heavier body can make it ideal for elegant, lighter-roasted espressos, so popular in Milan and Trieste.