June 13, 2019

The Coffees of Latin America

Coffee is a big deal in Latin America, tracing back several generations and being a staple in cafés across the region. Furthermore, coffee is currently produced more in the Americas than any other continent on the planet, particularly in Latin America.  But Latin America is known for more than just coffee quantity – it’s also known for coffee quality. Producing some of the finest coffees to ever grace the lips of man, Latin America always has been and continues to be a prime agricultural location to produce coffee, which loves the region’s climates and high-altitude growing locations. But before we begin to delve into how this perfect marriage of soil and plant began, let’s look into the numbers.

Producing Most of the World’s Coffee

Although Latin America joined the coffee industry quite late compared to many of its competitors, it swiftly grew into the world’s premier region for coffee export. While quite sizeable and varied in terms of landscapes and regional climates, Latin America possesses the gift of the Andes, boasting a massive variety of mountain ranges, various sources of volcanic ash, and the perfect temperatures and soil composition for growing a variety of delicious coffees.

Ideal for full-bodied, sweet, and semi-acidic coffees, Brazil, in particular, boasts the region’s highest coffee production, and to this day remains the #1 producer and exporter of coffee. On average, Brazil alone accounts for roughly a third of the region’s coffee consumption in a given year, which is certainly nothing to scoff at. Far behind Brazil in second place is Columbia, with the equivalent of less than a third of Brazil’s total production. Other countries producing coffee in vast amounts include Honduras, Mexico, Peru, and Guatemala, as well as Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ecuador, Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba, Panama, and more. While Brazil and Columbia dominate, many countries in Latin America avidly produce, drink, and export coffee (with the exception of Chile and Bolivia, where coffee is produced and exported but consumed less often than tea).

Aside from geography, however, Latin America’s coffee has a troubled history, and much of its success today is rooted in the import of the coffee plant by European settlers.

A Quick History on Coffee in Latin America

Although the coffee industry is only a few centuries old, Latin America got its first few coffee plants quite late into the game, well after African and Arabian coffee growers first began cultivating the plant and nurturing a rich coffee culture. As far as history tells us, the first instance of coffee in Latin America can be dated back to the early 1720s, when a French naval officer brought a coffee plant from Europe to the Caribbean, to the island of Martinique.

Decades later, coffee had spread to Haiti, Mexico, and other places throughout Central America. Coffee had also made it to countries in South America through the Spanish and the Portuguese, who began using the region’s ideal climate and altitudes to grow and expand coffee plantations, and export back to Europe. Although coffee arrived in a similar time in Brazil (1727), it took until 1822 for coffee production to truly kickstart, after the Brazilian independence left Brazilians looking for ways to drive up commerce. Coffee made in Latin America began becoming popular further up north, where Americans had begun switching to coffee over the course of the American Revolution.

A Troubled History in Latin America

While many plantations began as signs of oppression in Latin America, where indigenous people were made to work for the invading populace, revolutions and wars eventually led to the independence of much of Latin America, followed by countless booms in the coffee industry through each of these countries as coffee became a viable cash crop to support the development of their own local economies.

Even after independence, however, oligarchs rose up to control the production of coffee and further the oppression of thousands of workers, and millions of farmers throughout the continent. Over the past few decades, efforts have been made in most countries throughout Latin America to uphold basic trade laws that would ensure the growth of sustainable coffee with workers who are properly compensated for their work, but issues remain, particularly when regarding the environmental impact of deforestation for coffee, and the continued poor treatment of workers.

A dip in global purchasing power over the course of the Second World War left much of the region greatly affected, and intervention from the US led to the survival of the coffee market through the course of the war. It was around this time that Brazil, which dominated coffee production worldwide since the 1850s, first began to see pressure and competition from other coffee producers throughout the world, from Colombia and Ethiopia to Vietnam. Brazil remains number one nonetheless, followed closely by Vietnam.

Dominating the Market: Brazil and Columbia

There’s no question about it, Brazil and Columbia are the region’s largest and most prolific producers of coffee, together accounting for well over a third of the region’s coffee consumption. Brazilian coffee is known for being nutty and sweet, with relatively low acidity. This is because, in comparison to much of the rest of the region, a lot of Brazilian coffee is grown in lower altitudes. This makes for a less acidic coffee and changes the flavor profile from something fruity or berry-like to much more grounded. This is also partly why Latin American coffees are often blended with African coffees, particularly Brazilian and Guatemalan with Ethiopian coffees.

Notable Minorities: Costa Rica and Venezuela

Costa Rican coffee is a bit harder to come by because there isn’t as much of it being produced. Costa Rica never had massive full-scale coffee production, and its history of coffee cultivation is mired with many issues and speedbumps. Nevertheless, Costa Rican coffee is still renown for its unique flavors, described as distinctively fruity and chocolatey. Be sure to keep an eye out for wherever you might find Costa Rican coffee because you’re not likely to find it again anytime soon.

Venezuela’s coffee production used to rival that of the top producers in the world, but increased competition and other factors have led to Venezuelan coffee taking on a much more muted role in the world of coffee.

A Famous Delicacy: Jamaica’s Blue Mountain Coffee

Unique to the region is Jamaica’s Blue Mountain Coffee, renown for being one of the rarest and most expensive coffees on the planet. Several reasons are cited for this, chief among them the limited availability of the coffee, Jamaica’s limited ability to produce coffee, and the fact that much of it is sold directly to companies in Japan. However, the intense care and labor that goes into every bean are apparently meant to produce an astounding cup of coffee.

Although coffee is not indigenous to Latin America, many countries throughout the region have fully adopted coffee both in its classic European forms and as a proud local product. Local coffee consumption has grown rapidly in Latin America, and the popularity of coffee shops throughout the world has only helped further build interest in the beverage, paving the way for much innovation in the field of cultivation as well as production. Despite being in the game for generations, Latin America continues to have a bright future in coffee.