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Coffee Origins 101: South America
Written by: Garrett Oden
Take your appreciation for great coffee to new heights by learning about the world’s many coffee origins. In this blog, we’ll walk through South America’s main coffee producing countries.
Though a few other countries, such as Chile and Paraguay, grow some coffee, the production is so limited that we won’t cover it in detail this time.
We’ve got six countries to cover, so let’s jump right in.
Producing 12% of the world’s coffee supply, second only to Brazil, Colombia’s, made a huge name for itself. To many, Colombian is ubiquitous with “quality”.
Coffee arrived in Colombia in the early 1700’s, but didn’t become a significant commercial crop until the first decade of the 1800’s. Throughout the 19th century, coffee seeds were distributed and planted all over the country, causing coffee to be a very widespread crop.
In 1927, the launch of the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia marked a new era of growth for Colombian coffee. The organization took the lead in coffee research and development, causing Colombia’s market to boom and approach the output of Brazil and Vietnam.
Read: 3 Reasons Buying Cheap Coffee Is Bad For The World
Sadly, the organization’s ground-leveling efforts caused many exceptional coffees to remain hidden. Yet, at the same time, many lower-quality, impoverished producers saw a rise in quality of life.
Colombia grows arabica coffee exclusively, leading to a better than average crop. Beans from this country often have a medium acidity, medium body, a rich citrus and fruity flavors.
Colombian Coffee At A Glance
Flavor: Medium Acidity And Body, Citrus, Nutty, Fruity Notes
Processing: Washed, Natural
Main Growing Regions: Antioquia, Boyacá, Huila, Santa Marta, Quindio
Harvest: September to December
Coffee arrived in Ecuador in the mid-1800’s, though it didn’t take off as a major commercial crop till the late 1920’s.
With so much income from petroleum, Ecuador relies less on agriculture than its neighboring countries, so it produces coffee on a smaller level. In fact, it’s the only Latin country that imports more coffee than it exports.
Ecuador imports robusta beans from Vietnam to create locally-consumed instant coffee. The country sells much of its higher quality arabica coffee to Colombia, which uses it to create its own instant coffee.
Read: Here's Why Some Coffees Are Very Expensive
Ecuador is seeing its share of specialty coffee grown these days, thankfully. A natural hybrid variety, Sidra, was created in Ecuador and has led the charge towards quality, featuring a bright acidity, low body, and bright fruity and floral notes.
Ecuadorian Coffee At A Glance
Flavor: Bright Acidity, Low Body, Floral And Fruity Notes
Processing: Washed, Natural, Honey
Main Growing Regions: Carchi, El Oro, Loja, Galapagos, Manabi, Pichincha
Harvest: It’s Always Harvest Season Somewhere In Ecuador
The mid-1800’s brought coffee to Venezuela, and the country quickly began growing it on a large scale. Between the mid-1800’s and 1900’s, Venezuela’s coffee production was approaching that of Colombia’s. It was the world’s 3rd largest producer at one point.
However, when Venezuela’s oil economy busted at the seams in the 50’s and 60’s, making Venezuela the richest South American country, coffee became a neglected crop. Compared to petroleum, it was not profitable enough to continue pursuing.
Read: 5 Ways To Make Your Coffee More Eco-Friendly
Today, Venezuela produces less than 1% of the world’s coffee.
The few beans that do make it out of the country typically have a medium acidity, low body, and gentle sweetness with the occasionally fruity note.
Venezuelan Coffee At A Glance
Flavor: Medium Acidity, Low Body, Gentle Sweetness, Occasionally Fruity
Main Growing Regions: Lara and Portuguesa, Mérida, Trujillo, Táchira
Harvest: September to March
Peru, though receiving coffee in the mid-1700’s like its neighbors, didn’t start producing coffee commercially until the early 20th century.
There was an instant boom in coffee production around 1920 when British officials seized nearly 2 million hectares as payment of debt. British settlers purchased the land and began growing coffee on it to satisfy the growing demand for coffee in Europe.
As European land was sold and distributed to smaller farmers in the late 20’s, coffee farms became smaller and more independent, but also less connected. Peru lacked the infrastructure to connect small farms to larger markets, stunting the country’s coffee industry.
Read: How To Taste Coffee Sweetness
The new many thousands of farmers didn’t give up, and Peru is now the 5th largest exporter of arabica coffee beans, many of which are of exceptional quality.
Specialty-grade Peruvian beans often feature a light body, crisp acidity, and refreshing sweetness with the occasional floral note.
Peruvian Coffee At A Glance
Flavor: Light Body, Crisp Acidity, Sweet, Floral
Main Growing Regions: Amazonas, Ayacucho, Cusco, Huánaco, Junín, Pura, Puno, Villa Rica
Brazil, the world’s #1 exporter of coffee beans, is also one of the most complex. The sheer size of the country lends itself to a wide array of flavor profiles, and four distinct processing methods are used around the country, often even at the same farm during a single harvest.
Brazil received coffee in the early 1700’s and ran with it. By 1820, it was producing nearly 30% of the world’s coffee. By 1860, when Asia and Africa were facing major coffee plant diseases, it produced an astounding 80%.
Brazil is also home to dozens of new and exciting coffee varieties. Some are natural mutants, others were cultivated for the purpose of creating hybrids.
While there’s much diversity, there is one thing that’s consistent across the country: low altitude. Brazil grows coffee at elevations between 2,000 and 4,000 feet, often 1-2,000 feet below its Central American cousins.
This causes most Brazilian coffees to feature low acidity levels and a heavier body. Flavor-wise, it’s all over the board. Many coffees have low chocolate and earth notes, some are quite floral, and a few are fruity.
Brazilian Coffee At A Glance
Flavor: Low Acidity, Heavy Body, Pleasant, Fruity, Floral
Processing: Washed, Natural, Honey, Pulped Natural
Main Growing Regions: Bahia, Espírito Santo, Minas Gerais, Paraná, San Janeiro, São Paulo
Harvest: April to September
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and has experienced the least immigration from non-South American natives of all its neighboring countries.
The country had coffee in the 1800’s, but the industry didn’t take off until as recently as 1990’s, when aid groups began training and financing farmers in the country. Though the output of coffee is still very low, Bolivian coffees are not low-quality.
Read: How To Taste Coffee Mouthfeel
Though landlocked in the center of South America, Bolivian coffee is widely considered to be very similar to Colombia’s. This is largely due to the very high elevation growing areas of 4,500+ feet, which leads to a bright acidity. Bolivian coffee is also known for its low body, floral and fruity notes, and clean flavor.
Bolivian Coffee At A Glance
Flavor: Bright Acidity, Low Body, Floral, Fruity, Clean
Main Growing Regions: Yungas, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Tarija, Beni, Pando
Harvest: July to November
South American coffees are beloved by the specialty coffee community, and we can’t wait to share them with you. Subscribe to the JavaPresse Coffee Club and we’ll roast and send the world’s best coffees right to you.You’ll always be stocked with freshly roasted, specialty grade beans, you’ll get to try coffees from all over the world, and your love for great coffee will grow. Check it out!