Coffee’s roots in South America reach to the early 18th century, when European colonists introduced seeds into Suriname and French Guiana, then Brazil. Cultivation then spread to the continent’s northern countries. Growing conditions were so favorable that within a century, the world’s top three coffee producers, boasting 75 percent of global production, were South American: Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela.
Whereas Brazil and Colombia have organized government and industry-level support, Venezuela devoted its financial attention to oil, neglecting coffee into a sad decline. Today, Brazil and Colombia turn out high-quality beans, with Peru on the rise.
By any measure, Brazil is the leading coffee country in the world, providing at least one-quarter of the total industry. Despite its standing, Brazil has not garnered a reputation for specialty coffee, especially compared to neighboring Colombia. This was partly by design. Brazil’s Institute of Coffee (IBC) and the International Coffee Organization had set quotas for decades that favored higher-quantity production over the specialty sector. Harvesting was generally conducted by “strip-picking” coffee cherries, meaning one or two passes per tree, sometimes by machine. It’s fast and saves labor costs, but brings unripe cherries into processing. As a result, Brazil developed a broad reputation for somewhat bitter and unbalanced coffees with production often relegated to blends, rather than to showcasing unique flavor characteristics.
Brazil’s government finally repealed the quota structure in the 1990s, setting conditions for a renewed focus on quality. Over the last decade, Brazil has promoted its specialty coffee. For example, in 2013, Brazil held its first International Coffee Week (ICW) to champion its specialty-grade coffees, and hosted the World Barista Championships in 2018.
Brazil is one of the few countries to conduct dry processing thanks to its weather having distinct dry and wet seasons. It is also home to dozens of varieties, many developed in Brazil, either as natural mutations or through engineering, to boost productivity and hardiness. Key varieties include Typica, Caturra, and the hybrid Catuai, which is derived from Caturra, Mundo Novo, and Yellow Bourbon. The best Brazilian specialty coffees can exhibit gentle sweetness, notes of fruit and flowers, low acidity, and full body.
One of the top three countries worldwide in coffee-export production, Colombia is the sole country in the world growing only Arabica beans. Coffee is a source of national pride in Colombia, as well as economic importance — it comprises roughly 7 percent of GDP — to the extent that in 2018, the government reserved 100 billion pesos (then $35 million USD) to subsidize small farmers challenged by low coffee prices.
Driven by the creation of the National Federation of Coffee Growers, a non-profit NGO known best worldwide by the fictitious Juan Valdez, Colombia’s vast network of small coffee farmers have flourished compared to other South American countries.
Colombia has favorable, near ideal, growing conditions. The mountainous coffee zones receive over 80 inches of rain annually, are free from frost, and benefit from nutrient-rich volcanic soil. Coffees from the warmer, lower-altitude northern regions tend to have fuller body with lower acidity. In the southern growing areas, such as Cauca, Narino, and Huila, higher altitudes lend higher acidity, along with concentrated sweetness, as the longer maturation and better drainage promotes more complex sugars.
Harvests are cherry-picked, meaning pickers continually inspect the lots for fully ripe cherries. This may be a labor-intensive decision borne out of necessity due to the mountainous terrain, but it adds to the romance of Colombian coffee, as well as its global reputation.
Traditional varieties Typica and Caturra once comprised roughly 70 percent of Colombia’s plantings. Today, however, farmers are phasing those out in favor of disease-resistant hybrids such as Variedad Colombia (Colombia) and Castillo. Colombian coffees are famed for their citrus acidity, hints of spice, and slightly fruity sweetness in a medium body.
Compared to Brazil or Colombia, Peru is a distant third in South American coffee production and reputation. However, Peru’s entry into the Cup of Excellence program in 2017 testifies to its increasing quality, with the best growing conditions following the north-south axis of the Andes Mountains that bisect the country. Common varieties include Typica and Caturra, which offer a pleasing balance of bright acidity and subtle sweetness in a medium body.
In 2019, coffees from Cajamarca, near the Ecuador border, engendered half the winning lots for Peru’s Cup of Excellence, the international competition created to recognize, reward, and auction off the best green coffee from the country.