Coffee Origins: Brazil

Brazilian Coffee – Stockpiles, Cycles, And A Governor’s Wife

The world of coffee is full of myths and stories, and the history of Brazilian coffee is no different. In 1727, the first coffee in Brazil was planted by Francisco de Melo Palheta when the Portuguese controlled the country. The story suggests that the Portuguese wanted to enter the coffee market, but the Governor of neighbouring French Guiana refused their requests for seeds. Palheta was sent north on a diplomatic mission to resolve a border dispute. During this time, Palheta seduced the Governor’s wife, who gifted him some coffee seeds hidden in a bouquet of flowers.


A map of Brazil


The Birth of a Giant

From these small beginnings grew a coffee giant. By 1830, Brazil produced 30% of the world’s coffee supply, increasing to 40% in 1840. The associated increase in supply led to a drop in the global price of coffee, a sign of things to come.

The Brazilian coffee industry would go through a second massive expansion starting in the 1880s and continuing to the 1930s, with Brazil producing 80% of the world’s coffee. People at the top of the coffee industry became wealthy, making them highly influential in Brazilian politics. Known as Coffee Barons, they were responsible for Brazil embarking on valorising coffee, first in 1906 – 1914 and again in 1917. A protectionist policy, valorisation saw the Brazilian government buy coffee from producers at an inflated price when the market was low. They held it until the demand was high, creating stable prices for the barons and preventing oversupply.

This massive production increase did not come without problems. By the 1920s, coffee was financing a significant amount of national infrastructure, whilst the political protection fuelled ever greater production. When the Great Depression crashed the world economy, Brazil’s government burned 78 million stockpiled bags of coffee to stabilise the price. Which ultimately had little effect.


A hessian sack of Brazilian Coffee


Growing Pains, Quotas, and the ICA

In the 1940s, World War Two shut down European coffee markets, causing concern in the US. The fear was that declining coffee prices could drive coffee-producing countries in Central and South America into the arms of the Nazis or the Communists. In reaction, an international quota-based agreement was drawn up that helped raise and stabilise coffee prices.

This agreement paved the way for the creation of the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) in 1962. Like the previous agreement, the ICA would grow to include 42 coffee-producing countries. Quotas were defined against the indicator coffee price as decided by the International Coffee Organisation (ICO). When the price went down, quotas shrank; when the price went up, quotas increased.

This system stayed in place until 1989 when Brazil refused to accept a reduction in quota, and the ICA failed. The resulting unregulated market saw coffee prices drop significantly. Combined with the re-emergence of Vietnam as a producer after decades of war, bad weather and worse economics, a coffee crisis developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In response, the Fair Trade movement was born. Ensuring good practice by under pressure coffee farmers in return for a reasonable price floor for raw coffee.


View of a Brazilian coffee tree and farm


On / Off Cycles

One notable practice of Brazilian coffee farmers is to give their trees a heavy pruning after the harvest. They have established the cyclical Brazilian harvest that swings yearly between large and small yields. Due to Brazil’s harvests’ effect on world coffee prices, efforts have been striving to change this in recent years.

For example, in 1975, the black frost reduced the following year’s crop by almost 75%, doubling coffee prices practically overnight. Similarly, in the early 2000s, two small harvests were followed by a bumper harvest in 2002. This created an excess of coffee on global markets, causing a sustained period of low prices. To borrow a phrase, when Brazil sneezes, the coffee world catches a cold.

Unsurprisingly for the world’s largest coffee producer, Brazil’s coffee sector is highly industrialised, focusing on yield and production. Many farms are on large, flat, low-altitude land unconducive to producing outstanding coffees. Often these farms use strip picking or other indiscriminate harvesting methods that result in many unripe cherries in the crop. Combined with sun-drying whole cherries (replaced in the 1990s by the pulped natural process), it led to a reputation for quantity over quality. A belief that speciality coffee producers in Brazil have been fighting hard to overcome.


Freshly harvested Brazilian coffee cherries


A Taste Of Brazilian Coffee

Despite this reputation, many wonderful speciality coffees come from Brazil. Carefully grown crops from the lowlands can yield a clean, sweet, low-acidity cup. Whilst, at slightly higher altitudes, many farmers produce coffees over the 80-point mark. The classic Brazilian coffee profile is of nuts and chocolate, with a full body. Excellent speciality coffees like our pink label coffees, Auntie Mary’s Green Canary, also deliver a delicate acidity such as citrus or apple, making them a beautiful allrounder.

Unsurprisingly for a country the size of Brazil with fourteen major coffee-producing regions spread over seven states, there is considerable variation amongst farms or fazendas. These range from small family plantations of less than 10 hectares to big estates of more than 2000 hectares, whilst the varieties grown include both traditional varieties and more experimental ones such as Catucaí, a hybrid of Catuaí Arabica and the Robusta (known as conillon in Brazil) variety Icatú.

bag of Auntie Mary's Green Canary Brazilian Coffee


Don’t Just Read It! Try It!

If this has piqued your curiosity, why not order a bag of our Brazilian coffee Auntie Mary’s Green Canary? Hailing from the Cerrado Mineiro region of Brazil, this canary has the smooth timbre of chocolate-coated hazelnuts, resonant with overtones of dried fruit and a crisp apple top. Treated to a gentle medium roasting that adds body whilst maintaining clarity, Aunty Mary’s Green Canary is a beautifully balanced brew, amazing at any time of day.

It’s also part of the awesome Café Delas Programme, which means it has been cultivated by skilled women farmers. The programme is founded on the principle that given better access to resources and an equal voice in leadership, women farmers produce fantastic speciality-grade coffee whilst creating many positive impacts within their communities.


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