Brazil is South America’s most influential and economically powerful country and one of the world’s largest economies. It also produces over a third of the world’s coffee, with over 5 million people in the country employed in the cultivation or harvest of over 3 billion coffee plants. The strength or weakness of the global coffee market is largely governed by what happens in Brazil, such is the size of its yearly harvest. El Nino – the weather system that dictates climatic conditions in the country during the summer months – also has a major impact on the coffee futures market.
Coffee was introduced to Brazil in 1720 in the southern state of Paraná and has since become the powerhouse of the coffee world, accounting for more than a third of all coffee produced. Legend has it that around that time, the Brazilian government had wanted a cut of world coffee production, and sent Lt. Col. Francisco de Melo Palheta to French Guiana on the pretence of mediating on a border dispute. Aware that he would not be allowed to visit the closely guarded coffee plantations, the lieutenant instead used his charms to woo the first lady of Guiana and encouraged her to give him the coffee seedlings he wanted. Unable to resist his charms, she presented him with a bouquet spiked with coffee seeds at a farewell banquet held in his honour. Whether sex and deceit can really be attributed to Brazil’s introduction to coffee cannot be proved, but there can be no doubt that now, in the 21st century, Brazil’s dominance in world production is unrivalled. Annual crops as high as 60 million bags are becoming common place.
Coffee plantations cover about 27,000 square kilometres of the country and of the approximately six billion trees, around 75% are arabica and 25% robusta. The states of Minas Gerais, São Paulo and Paraná are the largest producers due to suitable terroir: elevation, climate and rich soil. Most plantations are harvested in the dry months of May to July. The average farm size is misleading, however: due to the sheer scale of the country and its coffee production, farms range from smallholder size – around 0.5 hectares – right up to 10,000 hectare estates. On these large estates, much of the cherry harvest is done by picking machines, meaning that both ripe and under ripe cherries are picked simultaneously. Whilst this mechanised system is extremely efficient and serves its purpose for large volumes, hand picking is still the preferred practice on smaller, specialty-focused farms.