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.
The massive Andes mountain chain marches up from Ecuador, just above the equator, into the southwestern Colombian state of Nariño, tumbles into the contiguous states of Cauca and Huila where it quickly branches into three ranges, the Occidental, the Central and the Oriental Cordilleras, enfolding two valleys whose rivers, the Cauca and the Magdalena, descend ever northwards for hundreds of miles to conjoin and disgorge into the Atlantic Ocean, while the sole remaining Oriental range finally comes to rest in Venezuela.
Dense clouds form from the Pacific releasing heavy rainfall on the west-facing slopes of the Cordillera Occidental. They glide over the Cauca valley, and are squeezed again as they ascend the Central Cordillera. The process happens a third time with the Cordillera Oriental where Pacific moisture mixes with moist streams from the Amazon. Coffee grows on all three ranges throughout Colombia, ranging in altitude from 4,000 to over 6,000 feet and with a hefty yearly rainfall averaging 80 inches or more. Colombia’s proximity to the equator results in two coffee harvest seasons per year a main one, in which the best qualities are produced, and a minor one, referred to as the “mitaca.” The main harvest occurs April to July for some regions and during September to December in others.
For over one hundred years Colombia has been one of the world’s largest producers of coffee, often ranking second and providing approximately 10% of the world’ supply, all higher quality Arabica. The northern coffee regions such as Antioquia, Bucaramanga and Medellin are today dominated by large relatively efficient farms producing very good commercial qualities, while more Southern states, such as Huila, Cauca, Tolima and Nariño, are composed nearly entirely of very small farmers. Just about all of Colombia’s coffee is sold by grade (size beans and number of defects) and, for more upscale markets, by region. Thus my Coffee Connection (1975 – 1994) used to sell Colombian Supremo (large size beans with the fewest defects) from Nariño. Quality pioneers such as Terroir Coffee have now taken the search for quality a crucial step further.
Most small farmers have well under 10 acres of land, many only 2 or 3 acres. Each farm, no matter how small, produces finished green coffee ready to be sorted and exported. Their outputs, for obvious economic reasons, have always been lumped together to produce large easily exportable lots. There has been no incentive to produce more than what is acceptable. This has led to generally good commercial qualities lacking standouts. Terroir Coffee is now drilling down to the individual farmer level, meeting with them individually and in groups, cupping micro-lots consisting of as little as 100 lbs. and selecting the very best for which it pays prices to the farmers at far higher rates than Fair Trade and on a rising scale based strictly on quality. We are finding certain farmers who are naturally inclined craftsmen are also naturally committed towards ecological farming. It really is in the cup!
Colombian coffees are generally lively, mild yet distinctly flavored with notes of honey, tropical fruits and molasses. I believe Colombia has huge potential for the emerging single origin quality market.