Observations on Brazilian Coffee

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When the coffee plant was introduced to Brazil in the 1700s, legend has it via a cunning bit of bio-espionage, it flourished.  By the early 20th century Brazil had global production in a vice-like grip, supplying 80% of all the world’s coffee.  It is still the world’s largest producer with roughly a third of the global supply, or three billion tonnes a year.  That is a lot of coffee.  In total, plantations take up an area a tad shy of the size of Belgium, mostly in the cooler, higher altitudes of São Paulo state and Minas Gerais where the arabica plant is most content.

And yet, in spite of this, Brazil seems to have lost its previous reputation as the global supplier of coffee – nor does it have a well-known coffee culture in the same way that Italy does,  or even parts of Australia and the US.  What gives?

One main reason is quite easy to understand: most Brazilian coffee is exported and turned into mass-market instant or pre-ground products sold without indication of the bean’s provenance. This part of the market has also been greatly changed by the arrival after the Vietnam War of Vietnamese coffee, which is made mostly from the hardier robusta variety that can be grown at lower altitudes.  It’s of inferior quality, but is cheaper.

Higher-spending coffee connoisseurs, meanwhile, who have been known to lust after beans of highly traceable origin – down to, no joke, the individual parcel of land, its elevation, and the farmers’s name  - tend  to value African (Rwanda, Ethiopia) and Central American (Guatemala, Colombia) beans most highly.

One could imagine the Brazilian coffee industry as having been caught between a kind of pincer movement, losing market share at both the low and high end of the quality spectrum since its heyday, but it wouldn’t quite be accurate.  For one thing, the Brazilians themselves have been quite happy to see a reduction of their economy’s reliance on coffee exports.  100 years ago, the clout of the coffee and dairy producers was so great that an entire political style, characterised by dominance of oft-corrupt agrarian oligarchies over the central government, was named café com leite (coffee with milk).  As the country industrialised after the 1930 revolution, this system – with its corruption and dysfunction – naturally fell away.

The fact remains, however, that Brazil has lost a competitive edge due to its generally high infrastructural costs, strong currency and the infamously inefficient ‘custo Brasil‘ bureaucracy. Trade protectionism, too, plays its part, with the ban of green bean imports meaning that local roasteries cannot make blends from beans of different origins – which often make some of the most interesting, complex coffees.  One may rightly ask, if the export industry appears to be constrained in all these ways, what then of the domestic market?

In fact, consumption already is high: the average Brazilian drinks about as much coffee as the average Italian. It’s just done in a very different way – in Brazil, it’s all about the cafezinho.  This beverage is prepared as follows: ground coffee is boiled with vast amounts of sugar, filtered through a reusable cotton cloth, and left to sit, sometimes for hours, in a thermos.  Baristas across the world would blanch at the very thought, but its development as a national institution does have a certain logic to it. Historically the best coffee was exported and what was left available in Brazil was of poor quality.  This was heavily roasted, thus the coffee drink itself needed sugar to mask the unpleasantly bitter taste of bad, burned beans.

But since this bad coffee was dirt cheap, the cafezinho was affordable and today forms big part of the hospitality ritual in most homes.  This explains why there is no vibrant café culture as you’d find in Europe, where coffee was traditionally drunk in a social setting away from the home in part due to its status as an exotic imported product.

These Brazilian habits will change.  Already one sees higher-altitude farms producing world-class arabicas (Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza in Sao Paulo State is one of the best), and more and more specialist importers in Europe and the English-speaking world are showcasing small-batch ‘cup of excellence’ beans from Brazilian producers (in the UK, Has Bean and Notes are good examples).

Consumption habits could be changing, too.  It’s unlikely that the cafezinho will lose its place amongst Brazilians’ hearts but amongst the urban population, at least, there is every reason to think that people are starting to appreciate that Brazilian coffee tastes so much better when it’s expertly prepared. The shining example of this nascent trend is Coffee Lab in São Paulo, run by the inimitable Isabela Raposeiras.  It’s specialist roaster, café and coffee retailer located in the popular Vila Madalena neighbourhood.  They serve only Brazilian coffee, made on imported Italian machines by expert baristas, and it’s busy all the time.

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