The history of coffee in Brazil


The coffee tree was introduced to Brazil in the early 17th century. Legend has it that thanks to ingenious bio-spying, coffee flourished there. Francisco de Melo Palheta planted the first coffee tree in the state of Pará in 1727, then coffee began to spread southwards until it reached Rio de Janeiro in 1770.

Originally coffee was planted only for domestic consumption but during the 19th century the demand for coffee began to increase in America and Europe. By the 1820s, coffee plantations began to expand in the states of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais, representing 20 percent of world production, and by 1830 coffee had become Brazil's largest export.

Coffee workers in Brazil

By the early 20th century, Brazil had global production in its grasp. It supplied 80 per cent of all the world's coffee and is still the world's largest producer with about a third of global imports, or three trillion tonnes a year. Together, the plantations occupy an area almost the size of Belgium. They are mostly located in cooler climates and higher altitudes in the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais, where Arabica is at its best.

Coffea arabica, the species of coffee tree that produces the finest coffee beans predominates and can be further subdivided into varieties. Varieties are hybrids or natural mutations and retain most of the main characteristics of their subspecies, but differ from them in at least one important way.
Typica and Bourbon are the parents of almost all coffee varieties you will hear about. Bourbon is usually more productive and is part of the reason why Brazil became one of the world's super-producers in the 1860s. Back then, it was introduced as a replacement for the market losses caused by leaf rust that broke out in Java. Slightly sweeter with a semi-caramel quality, Bourbon coffees also have a nice crisp acidity, but can offer other flavors depending on where they are grown.

There are plenty of unique Brazilian variations. Bourbon itself has color variations including red (Bourbon Vermelho) and yellow (Bourbon Amarelo). Confusingly, 'Brazil Santos' is sometimes seen as a variety, but is usually used to refer to Brazilian coffee rather than an Arabica variety. The name refers to the port in Brazil through which the coffee passes and was considered to be of a higher quality than 'Brazilian coffee', yet it is mostly of the Bourbon variety.

The Mundo Novo variety accounts for around 40 percent of Brazilian coffee and is a hybrid between Typica and Bourbon, which was discovered in Brazil in the 1940s. It is particularly suited to the Brazilian climate and farmers like it because of its disease resistance and abundant harvest. Coffee drinkers like it because it produces a delicious cup with strong body and low acidity.

Caturra is a natural mutation of Bourbon varieties and was first found in Caturra, Brazil. This variety produces a higher yield than its parent. This is mainly due to the smaller stature of the plant. It is also more disease resistant than older more traditional varieties and has more citrus acidity, such as notes of lemon and lime. Maragogype is a natural mutation of the Typica variety and was also discovered in Brazil. This variety is known for its above-average grain size and smaller yields than Typica and Bourbon varieties. Catuai is a hybrid of the Mundo Novo and Caturra varieties bred in Brazil in the later 1940s.

Coffee processed using the 'natural' and 'pulped natural' methods dominates Brazil, with natural processing by far the dominant method. Legend has it that since coffee was traditionally processed in this way 150 years before de-pulping machines were introduced, there is a distinct 'Brazilian' cup. In fact, these processes have helped to compensate for the country's generally lower altitudes, and both natural and pulped-natural have added a new layer of sweetness and complexity that wouldn't have been achievable without them. In Brazil, the fully graduated process is achieved in very small quantities despite being the dominant method in the world.

Some Brazilian beans - especially those processed using the pulped natural or "Brazil natural" method - have a pronounced nutty quality and full body, making them common components in espresso blends. Chocolate and some spice is typical, and these coffees tend to linger in the mouth with a less clean aftertaste than other South American beans.

Three main growing zones provide most of Brazil's finest coffees. The oldest, Mogiana, lies along the border of the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais north of São Paulo city. It is known for its deep, rich red earth soil and its sweet, full-bodied, rounded beans. The rugged rolling hills of Sul Minas in the southern part of the state of Minas Gerais are the heart of Brazilian coffee and home to two of its largest and most famous farms, Ipanema and Monte Alegre. The Cerrado, a high, semi-arid plateau surrounding the town of Patrocinio halfway between São Paulo and Brasilia, is a newer growing zone. It is the least picturesque of the three regions, with its new towns and high plains, but arguably the most promising in terms of coffee quality, as its reliably clean and dry weather at harvest time encourages more thorough and balanced drying of the coffee cherry.

In fact, the city of São Paulo as we know it exists entirely because of coffee trees. Like San Francisco before the discovery of gold in the nearby California mountains, São Paulo was a small town primarily used as a travel outpost for raiding, mineral exploration, and slave-seeking Portuguese prospectors known as bandeirantes. The arrival of coffee and the suitable terrain for its growth meant a rapid transformation for the small town into one of the largest and fastest growing metropolises in the world. After slavery was abolished in the late 19th century, millions of immigrants from all over the world flooded the fields to work and seek their fortunes in the coffee boom town. Today, the city's rich cosmopolitan demographics reflect this.

Despite this, Brazil looks to have lost, its previous reputation as a global coffee supplier - nor does it have as renowned a coffee culture as, say, Italy, not helped by the third wave that inspired parts of Australia, the United States and the UK.

One reason is that most Brazilian coffee is exported and turned into wholesale instant or pre-prepared products sold without a coffee origin label. This part of the market has also changed a lot with the arrival of Vietnamese coffee after the end of the Vietnam War, which is made up mainly of the harder robusta variety. The latter can be grown at lower altitudes. It is of inferior quality and considerably cheaper.

The more moneyed coffee connoisseurs, who have been known to crave beans from easily identifiable origins - apart from individual parcels of land, altitude and the name of the farmer - tend to appreciate African (Rwanda, Ethiopia) and Central American (Guatemala, Colombia) beans the most.

One might come to the conclusion that the Brazilian coffee industry is like being between a rock and a hard place, losing market share in both the low-end and high-end coffee spectrum from harvest, but that wouldn't be entirely true. For one thing, the Brazilians themselves were actually happy to see their economic dependence on coffee exports decline. 100 years ago, the influence of coffee and dairy producers was so great that an entire political system emerged, characterized by the dominance of often corrupt agricultural oligarchies over the central government, and given the pithy moniker café com leite (coffee with milk) politics. As the country industrialized after the 1930 revolution, this system - with its corruption and dysfunction - naturally fell away.

But the fact remains that Brazil has lost its competitive edge because of its generally high infrastructure costs, strong currency and notoriously inefficient 'custo Brasil' bureaucracy. Trade protectionism also plays a part with the ban on green bean imports, meaning that local roasters cannot produce blends of beans from different origins - which often produce some of the most interesting and complex coffees. One of São Paulo's renowned coffee roasters even considered setting up in less protectionist Uruguay to import green beans from abroad to form unique blends and then ship them to Brazil. We might ask if the import/export industry seems to be constrained in all these ways, what then about the domestic market?

In fact, consumption is high: the average Brazilian drinks about as much coffee as the average Italian. It just happens in a completely different way - in Brazil it's all about cafezinho. This drink is prepared as follows: ground coffee is brewed with a huge amount of sugar, filtered through a reusable cotton cloth and left to sit in a thermos for a few hours. Baristas around the world would blanch at the very idea, but its evolution as a national tradition has a certain logic. Historically, the best coffee was balanced and what was available in Brazil was of poor quality. It was heavily roasted, so the coffee drink itself needed sugar to mask the unpleasantly bitter taste of the bad burnt beans.

Because this bad coffee was dirt cheap, cafezinho it was affordable and today forms a large part of the ritual of hospitality in most households. This also explains why there was no fine café culture like you would find in Europe, where coffee was traditionally sipped in social settings outside the home in part because of its status as an exotic imported product.

Yet these Brazilian habits are changing. Already we are seeing farms at higher altitudes producing premium arabicas (Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza in São Paulo state is one of the best), and more and more specialist importers in Europe and the English-speaking world are showcasing smaller batch 'cup of excellence' beans from Brazilian growers (good examples are UK roasters Ozone, Has Bean and Notes).

Local consumption habits are also changing. It's unlikely cafezinho to lose its place among Brazilian hearts, but at least among the urban population there is growing evidence that locals are beginning to appreciate that Brazilian coffee tastes much better when expertly prepared. One of the pioneers of this nascent trend has been São Paulo's Coffee Lab, a specialist roastery, café and coffee retailer based in the popular Vila Madalena neighbourhood and run by the inimitable Isabela Raposeiras. It serves only Brazilian coffee made on imported Italian machines by expert baristas and is constantly busy. Lately, a diaspora of Coffee Lab alumni and returning Brazilian expats has led to a new wave of specialty coffee masters like Takkø Café (ex-Beluga) and KOF. The future looks promising.