You may be sipping your brew in the peace and safety of your own home, but the coffee world has not always been drama-free. For example, coffee came to Brazil via espionage and intrigue.
Prior to the 1600’s, coffee cultivation was a closely guarded treasure, and the few countries possessing coffee plants were determined that other countries would not join their ranks. But as coffee became a popular beverage in Europe, the stage was set for profit, and Portugal wanted a piece of the action. Enter Francisco de Mello Palheta, Lt. Col. in the Brazilian army. In 1727, he was dispatched by his government to negotiate a border struggle with French Guiana, but his secret mission was to acquire coffee seedlings for Brazil. Story has it that upon seeing how heavily guarded the coffee plantations were, he abandoned the direct approach and instead set out to endear himself to the wife of the governor. Apparently he was successful with more than border negotiations, as she presented him with a bouquet containing cuttings from coffee plants on the eve of his departure.
He planted these in Brazil’s state of Pará, and in a relatively short time, coffee cultivation had spread spread throughout the country--so much so that by the mid 1800s, Brazil took the lead as a coffee producing country, and at its peak during the 1920s, supplied almost 80% of the world’s coffee. Although this number has dropped as other countries’ exports have grown, Brazil still supplies 30-40% of the world’s coffee.
In Brazil, cutting-edge coffee research drives heavy production, and most coffee plantations are huge—some covering 10,000 square miles. The country’s coffee-growing terrain lends itself to mechanization, which is not the best news for specialty coffee, as mechanization of picking and processing tends to reduce the quality of the end product. Also, because much of Brazil’s coffee is grown at lower altitudes and in non-volcanic soil, these differences come out in the cup as a lack of flavor and intensity. That said, there are some stellar Brazilian offerings reaching the specialty coffee market, which we seek out for Crema.co. A great cup of coffee from Brazil carries a distinctive profile: soft, low in acidity, nutty, with bittersweet chocolate notes and distinct fruit.
“100% Colombian coffee, the richest in the world.” Remember the smiling and moustachioed Juan Valdez and his mule? At the risk of bursting a few coffee bubbles, ol’ Juan was not a real person. He was actually the clever brain-child of Colombia’s Federación Nacional de Cafeteros (FNC). More on Juan and the FNC later, but first, a bit about how coffee cultivation came to Colombia…
Stories vary, but in most cases, Catholic priests get the credit for introducing coffee seeds to Colombia ca. 1723. One tale has it that a certain Father Romero imposed upon parishioners the penance of planting coffee seeds in their backyards, and soon coffee was growing in a lot of places! What we do know for sure is that the country is rich in all the elements that make it prime coffee-growing territory: volcanic soils, lush climate, and altitude. By the 1870’s, large plantations of coffee began to change commerce in Colombia, and in 1879, the far-sighted Coffee Act (Law 29) began sponsoring coffee cultivation. Within 40 years, coffee production went from 107,000 bags a year to more than 2.4 million, making Colombia second only to Brazil as coffee exporter to the world.
Back to the FNC. Created in 1927 as a private non-profit organization designed to defend the interests of coffee producers, the FNC has been key not only in export-related fields, but also in infrastructure. Juan Valdez and his mule came along as an advertising campaign launched in the 1950’s. Hugely influential, the FNC has become a somewhat unwieldy and sometimes difficult bureaucratic entity that tends to favor coffee quantity over quality yet still has impacted the lives of many subsistence farmers positively over the years. But of course, the specialty coffee world is concerned with quality, and for us, traceability is huge. In Colombia, knowing exactly where a coffee comes from can be challenging and is made more difficult by the official Colombian grading designations. “Supremo” and “Excelso” refer not to quality but size, and sorting for size often obscures the origin of the coffees. Crema.co roasters tend to work directly with larger farmers or farm collectives, as well as with specific importers dedicated to finding and preserving quality microlots.
As a country, Colombia is no stranger to warfare: most recently FARC, a guerilla organization, has run counter to the government for 52 conflict-filled years (a recent peace treaty has yet to be ratified). But long before that, ancient cultures rose to power, flourished, then faded. Now gods and mythical animals hang out in the mountains, stone monuments to a civilization that faded circa 1320 A.D.
Dig into Costa Rica’s past, and the sheer weight of history weaves magic over this land of mountains, valleys, coastland, verdant jungles, and often-active volcanoes. Ten thousand years and more ago, hunter-gatherers came into the area, and little by little, they began to settle, building great stone cities, creating mysterious granite spheres, crafting gold and pottery.
The Spanish, relatively latecomers, arrived in 1502, and coffee didn’t take root in Costa Rica until the 1700s. But once it found the fertile soil, perfect elevation, and microclimates that National Geographic calls the finest coffee-growing region of the world, coffee cultivation began to shape the country. Circa 1800, the Costa Rican government began offering free land to coffee farmers, and by 1829, coffee revenues surpassed other crops. At first, beans were exported via Panama to Chile and re-labeled “Café Chileno de Valparaíso.” But England soon became the largest pre-WWII importer of Costa Rican beans, and Costa Rican coffee came into its own.
Wealthy coffee barons rose to power mid 1800s and into the 1900s, but ultimately a more democratic form of government brought about modernization, railroads, and education for both sexes. In 1982, the Costa Rican government ruled that all coffee grown in the country must be of the Arabica variety. Though yields can be considerably less than Robusta varieties, this law has has made Costa Rica famous for coffee quality. The country is currently the 13th largest coffee producer in the world, and it is not coffee barons who turn out approximately 1.5 million bags of coffee a year--it is small farmers with an average of 5 hectares (12 acres) of land apiece, and hearts to coax the very best out of their holdings. As a result, traceability is usually readily available: most Costa Rican coffees are identified by the farm (finca) on which they are grown, the member cooperative, or beneficio where they were processed.
The “Ticos” take pride in their land and their coffee. They have a phrase, Pura Vida, which encapsulates the optimism of the people. This multipurpose phrase is translated “pure life,” and carries with it an underlying thankfulness, along with the understanding that no matter what the situation, somewhere someone is experiencing something worse, so maybe the situation isn’t so terrible after all! In essence, no matter how much or little you have, life is short and we’re here together so—pura vida!
Ecuador is a country straddling the equator on South America’s west coast. Its diverse landscape encompasses Amazon jungle, Andean highlands and the wildlife-rich Galápagos Islands. In the Andean foothills at an elevation of 2,850m, Quito, the capital, is known for its largely intact Spanish colonial center, with decorated 16th- and 17th-century palaces and religious sites, like the ornate Compañía de Jesús Church.
Coffee looks so peaceful in the cup. Fragrant. Evocative. But its journey there has often been anything but. This is especially true of coffee from El Salvador. “El grano de oro,”--the “grain of gold”-- came to El Salvador near the end of the 1700’s, and at first was only consumed in country, a drink for the ones who grew it. But before long, the government started giving tax breaks and military exemption for coffee workers, and eliminated export duties. With these incentives, coffee soon surpassed indigo as the nation’s leading export crop. Obviously, this was good news for coffee drinkers the world over, but it set the stage for coffee barons, a class of wealthy landowning elitists who rose to power on the labor of the less priviliged.
Thus for nearly 200 years, the El Salvadorian coffee scene has been one of conflict, hardship, and economic depression. By the 1970s, the country had become the 4th largest coffee exporter on the globe, but laborers still suffered under almost non-existent wages, few rights, little recognition. Time and again, the country was ripped by civil war as plantation owners and workers clashed.
Interestingly, though coffee cultivation led to the amassing of wealth for the few, it also ultimately provided the golden ticket to reform. Fair Trade cooperatives and human rights activists began to bring change, and by the 1990s, over 78% of coffee farms were in the hands of small coffee producers. Through these cooperatives, members obtain help in production, sales, and exporting, as well as better prices for their coffee beans. Furthermore, the years of conflict inadvertently preserved the more traditional coffee cultivars, preventing replacement by higher yielding, less flavorful sun-grown hybrids.
El Salvador’s ocean-influenced climate and mild topography tends to produce softer, less acidic coffees than neighboring countries, but some very complex, deep offerings reminiscent of the finest Central American coffees are finding their way onto cupping tables. Most El Salvadorian coffee is shade grown. In addition, some farmers are cultivating a pacamara hybrid (often marketed under the name Tizapa)--large-beaned and fascinating in that it surpasses both parent varieties in cup quality.
The Guatemalan coffee grading system defines the Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) grade to include “coffee beans grown at elevations higher than 4,500 feet (1350 meters) above sea level, while the Hard Bean (HB) grade includes coffee beans grown between 4,000 feet and 5,000 feet (1300-1500 meters) above sea level.” The higher the elevation, the slower the growth and ripening, thus the denser the bean, rendering it of higher quality.
The first coffee to grow on the Hawaiian islands arrived in 1817, but those initial plantings didn’t survive. Then in 1825, Chief Boki, Governor of the island of Oahu, visited Brazil on his way home from Europe, and picked up some coffee plants there. These not only survived but thrived, and soon plantations were springing up on all the islands.
All was not smooth sailing for the coffee industry here, however. For instance, in 1858, coffee production on Kauai came to a sliding halt after coffee blight insects decimated plantations. Then there was competition with sugar growing, and landowners switching from coffee to sugar to bring in more revenue. These factors led to the abandonment of many plantations, which were subsequently split up into smaller farms.
The U.S. began occupying the islands in 1898, and the protecting tariffs for coffee were lifted, further collapsing the market. As a result, more farmers began growing sugar cane. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the coffee industry took a decided turn for the better due to the falling price of sugar. Currently, there are 12 coffee regions scattered throughout the islands, with Kona being the most well-known. Though prices for Hawaiian coffees tend to be high, traceability is great. Coffee tourism is also on the rise throughout the islands!
Honduran growers are justifiably proud of their coffee. It was coffee that saved the nation from bankruptcy in 2009 after a political coup. In 2011, Honduras was named the largest coffee producer in Central America, 7th in the world for coffee exports in 2012, and the second-largest exporter of Arabica beans. Considering that coffee was slow to start up in this land of jungle and mountain, even more impressive.
Europeans brought coffee plants to the country in the late 1700s; the stage was set for the industry to blossom, but bananas got in the way. Yes. Strange as it seems to coffee lovers, bananas held sway as principal export crop for almost two centuries after the arrival of the first coffee plants. Over the years, various presidents attempted to promote coffee as a commodity. However, large corporations controlled the banana industry, and coffee production was mostly the realm of individual farmers. It wasn’t until the mid-1900’s that coffee cultivation became widespread in Honduras. Widespread, yes, but prices for coffee were so low that growers would often smuggle their beans across the border into Guatemala to sell at a better price. In addition, lack of infrastructure has meant that many farmers continue to process and dry their coffee themselves and mix these small lots together to sell to exporters. It sounds neighborly, but the results can be disappointing flavor-wise.
In 1998, just as a number of coffee farmers and exporters were finding their way into the American specialty coffee market, Honduras was devastated first by hurricane Mitch, and then by the storms and floods of 1999, devastating 80% of the nation’s agriculture. Since then, new export taxes, incentives for coffee farmers, and improved roads and infrastructures have been changing the coffee industry. Cooperatives, support from the Instituto Hondureño del Café (IHCAFE), "protected origin denomination," and notoriety gained by Cup of Excellence winning coffees: all are helping to awaken the world to the excellent coffees coming out of Honduras.
Yes, Honduras has battled hardship, disasters, and violence, but coffee is helping to make a difference. In fact, there is an active program for young gang members who are caught in a round of violence and poverty. In this coffee vs. gangs program, they learn how to grow coffee, manage a farm, and carry on exporting business. The next generation of coffee growers is taking shape through family farms and programs such as this. No wonder Hondurans are proud of their coffee.
As is true of every country but Ethiopia, Jamaica did not always grow coffee. Someone had to bring it there and plant it. In this case, that someone was the Governor in 1728, a Sir Nicholas Lawes, who received a coffee plant from the Governor of Martinique, and promptly planted it in the St. Andrews area. Production was limited in the first half of the century, but as coffee cultivation spread up from St. Andrews to the Blue Mountains, it flourished on 686 plantations. By 1814, Jamaica was producing more than 16,500 tons a year at peak, as compared to only 30 tons in 1752.
That was the heyday for Jamaican coffee. Production began to decline due to labor shortage primarily, and by 1850, only 180 plantations were still producing. Quality issues began appearing toward the end of the century, leading to a program to improve quality and infrastructure, with limited success. By 1944, a Central Coffee Clearing House was built to route all coffees through, followed by the formation of the Jamaican Coffee Board in 1950.
Fast forward to the present: Though the journey has not been swift, coffee quality and savvy marketing put Jamaica on the map for clean, sweet specialty-grade coffees before many of the other producing countries. Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee has come to be considered as some of the finest in the world.
Coffee trees love the temperate zone, so it was only logical that some beans journeyed to Mexico from the Antilles in the closing years of the 1700s. Stories vary, but Juan Antonio García is credited with bringing coffee cultivation to the country through the port of Veracruz, while an Italian by the name of Geronimo Manchinelli helped establish coffee in the Chiapas region near the border of Guatemala.
Early on, wealthy settlers purchased large tracts of land for coffee plantations. Great news for coffee but bad for the indigenous people, many of whom ultimately ended up working on the plantations. Mexico began sharing its coffee with the world, especially to consumers in Europe, in the late 1870s. Roughly 50 years passed, along with a few laws, and in 1914, land was redistributed back to the people, who in turn used their acquired coffee-growing expertise on their own small farms. Again, good news for coffee.
INMECAFE (Instituto Mexicano del Cafe’) came on the scene in 1973 to provide technical and financial assistance to growers and to facilitate the International Coffee Agreement . With these aids, coffee production in Mexico exploded, in some rural areas increasing by nearly 900%. But then oil prices plummeted, the country began defaulting on its loans, and INMECAFE came to a grinding halt. Farmers could get no credit. Predatory coffee brokers--”coyotes”--bought coffee beans from farmers for pennies and resold at profit. Soon growers could no longer afford fertilizers, pest protection, or resources for farm management, and production dropped. Some smallholders stopped harvesting their coffee completely. Ultimately, this crisis birthed cooperatives with collective power to purchase and maintain mills, lobby for rights, and develop direct trade relationships with buyers.
These days, Mexico is the one of the largest producers of coffee in the world, and the largest coffee trade partner with the U.S. Yet of the 12 states that grow coffee, most aren’t even known by name. This is due in part to the fact that only about 10-15% of Mexico’s coffee is considered specialty grade. But with the advent of the Cup of Excellence competition, coffee farmers are taking more interest in the quality of their coffee, not just the quantity. Coffee aficionados project that we’ll be tasting a new generation of flavors in the future, and learning some new names from the Mexican coffee scene.
It is said that in Nicaragua, everyone is considered a poet until proven otherwise. Certainly this land with its misty jungles, cloud-covered volcanoes, its mountain lakes and streams inspires poetry. But it also gives rise to great coffee. In fact, coffee is the main export from Nicaragua; 53% of the country’s agricultural jobs are in coffee production, and more than 45,000 families depend solely upon coffee for their main income. Yet it has only been cultivated here for a relatively short 200 years.
10,000 years before Columbus landed in 1492, people lived in what is now the nation of Nicaragua, creating cities, trade routes, civilizations. A mere 500 years ago, conquistadores founded their own cities, and 275 years later, coffee arrived on the scene courtesy of Catholic missionaries. Grown at first more as a curiosity than a possible cash crop, by 1870, coffee had become Nicaragua’s principal export, and for the next 100 years, coffee cultivation boomed, helped by government incentive programs and coffee cooperatives.
But in 1979, the country became a battleground between communists and contras, and the coffee industry was caught in the crossfire. Coffee transports and workers were attacked. Mills sabotaged. Then hurricane Mitch hit in 1998, devastating agriculture. Coffee prices plummeted between 1999-2003, and to top it off, drought hit the nation. Thankfully, Nicaragua is emerging from these dark times. Democratic elections are bringing stability, and some great things are happening in the coffee sector.
These days, most coffee is grown in three regions: Jinotega, Matagalpa, and Segovia, Predominately shade-grown, it carries a fragrant, complex profile with medium body and acidity, and hints of nut and vanilla along with citrus top notes. Many Nicaraguan farmers have never actually cupped their own coffees, but this is changing. In pursuit of a more excellent product, farmers are setting up tasting labs on site as well as improving cultivation and processing practices.
Despite the hardships they have faced, the Nicaraguan people are “muy sympatico”--very pleasant, and they genuinely care about the quality of the coffees they grow, not just individually but for Nicaragua as a whole. As one co-op leader expressed, “...producing quality coffee, just like working to improve people’s quality of life, is the responsibilidad de Todos (responsibility of everyone).” Smallholders and their co-ops are working together to show the world that coffee from Nicaragua is something special, and they take this cooperation seriously.
You might say that love brought the first coffee plants to Panama. When a retired English sea captain married a Panamanian lady circa 1800, he brought coffee seedlings with him. Before long, other colonists planted Arabica varieties in the volcanic highlands of Panama, and coffee cultivation took firm root. Many of these first coffee farmers were engineers and managers from Europe who had relocated during the construction of the Panama canal. Their extensive knowledge of agriculture and experience dealing with commerce helped establish coffee farming in Panama on a more scientific level than was the norm.
This narrow country, bordered on the north by Nicaragua and on the south by Costa Rica, is home to the highest inactive volcanoes in Central America. The altitude and the influence of both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans create microclimates which, combined with rich volcanic soils, make for perfect coffee growing conditions. Because of this, coffee seeds from all over the world have been brought here for cultivation and observation. Among these is “Geisha” (Gesha) coffee, an Ethiopian strain of Arabica with a very distinctive taste profile--floral, fruity, and highly sought after.
Biodiversity is valued highly in Panama. Much of its coffee is grown beneath the canopy of native rainforest. Water sources and animal habitat are protected as farmers combine their traditional growing and milling practices with innovative technologies in cultivation and processing.
Many of the seasonal workers who help with coffee harvest are of the Ngäbes (Ngobes) people who originally occupied Panama before the coming of Columbus. Since no machines can be used to harvest the ripened cherries, these skilled workers are integral to the success of the Panamanian coffee industry. They alternate between their ancestral holdings in the comarca area and the coffee farms of Costa Rica and Panama, bringing with them their culture, their art, and the expertise so key to specialty coffee production.
Panamanian growers are well-versed in coffee quality, cupping and grading their beans with confidence, and able to recommend profiles to buyers and price their coffees correctly. Growers here also have the advantage of functional infrastructure. With the Panama Canal and accessible ports, shipping is easy, and within the country, travel to farms is for the most part accomplished on excellent roads. The Best of Panama competitions and subsequent coffee auctions are drawing increased attention from international specialty coffee buyers as they come to taste and to acquire the distinctive coffees of the Panamanian highlands.
Peru is a land of mist-drenched mountains, ancient Incan ruins, and giant mysterious patterns on the plains. For thousands of years, the Moche, Nazca, and Inca people were engineers, builders, skilled metal workers, weavers, and warriors. Stories of their silver and gold eventually brought the conquistadores looking for treasure, and in due process of time, the first coffee seeds arrived.
Story has it that Dutch immigrants arriving in the northern port of Pacasmayo ca. 1740 brought with them coffee seeds/seedlings, and planted them in the Chinchao district of Huánuco province of northern Peru. It was a fortuitous event for both the country and eventually the world, because nutrient-rich soils, abundant rainfall, and ideal elevation welcomed that first coffee endeavor, and before long, cultivation spread north and south wherever conditions were favorable.
Peru had its first coffee shop as early as 1771, but it wasn’t until 1895 that it began exporting the magic bean. Here on the lush slopes of the Andes, many of the older farms and smallholders continue to cultivate the original varieties brought by the early settlers. Most farmers are of Incan descent, with Spanish as their second language. Except for the areas closer to the Pacific coast, farms tend to be hours from the nearest electricity and indoor plumbing. Winding one-track roads clinging to mountainsides, rendered perilous by rain and mud, make travel by vehicle challenging, and most farmers don’t own a vehicle anyway.
This lack of infrastructure translates into transporting cherries to the nearest mill--often hours away--or using hand pulpers and on-site wood fermentation tanks. Farmers transport their beans to market by foot, horseback, or mule to the nearest town--anywhere from 30 minutes to a full day’s journey from the farm. For these remote areas, coffee is sold on Saturdays, after which farmers buy supplies and head back up the foot trails to their farms. Unfortunately, prices at these markets can be disappointingly low, a situation made worse in the 1970s by guerrilla activity of The Shining Path communist group which often destroyed crops and drove farmers from their lands.
These days, about a fourth of the 100,000 small producers belong to cooperatives, which among other benefits, enables them to earn Fair Trade certification and more equal pay for their coffee. Much of Peru’s coffee is shade-grown, often organically (though most farmers can’t afford to become certified). Though in the past producers have been disconnected from the end product, many are increasingly understanding the connection between their efforts and the beverage in the cup. As this happens, their vision for quality continues to grow.