Sometimes, some of the more obvious ideas or conclusions can take a long time to come together and congeal in one’s head. For the past several years, I have increasingly grown interested in coffee: its cultivation, importation, and ultimate business around its consumption.
In college, I graduated from drinking Wawa’s French Vanilla coffee, usually imbibed with a further sweetener (though Wawa has now released a [surprisingly good] Kenya AA premium blend) to drinking coffee black. In State College, I increasingly sought out different types of coffees at various local coffeeshops: the dark roasted coffee served at Irving’s and the acidic and always-interesting coffee at Saint’s Coffee.
Arriving in Philadelphia post-college, I continued to indulge this nascent interest, buying an Aeropress and manual burr grinder for home brewing and exploring Philadelphia’s upstarts (Ultimo Coffee) and classics (La Colombe, continuing to take over the world) in the Philly coffee scene. These coffee habits went on the road with me as well: as I traveled around the country for work (oftentimes at the expense of my sleep schedule), I would survey the city’s area coffee shops to learn about the different coffees offered and any quirks associated with the shop, such as the seemingly all-mustachioed baristas at Intelligensia in Chicago, or Philz baristas pouring the brewed coffee into the cup at an almost comical, hibatchi-chef-like distance (which I was informed helps to bring out the scent / character of the coffee).
My move to New York helped solidify this passion – while Oslo was my “local” neighborhood spot, I traveled up to Greenpoint to try the infamous $10 coffee at Budin, and sought out different coffees brands, blends, and origins at coffeeshops across New York to consume at home or at their shops.
During this 5-year span, the market for single origin coffees and the coffeeshop chains serving these coffees (Blue Bottle, Bluestone Lane, Blue-something-else), exploded. It seemed like people’s coffee consumption habits changed dramatically (remember when Keurig was going to take over the world?) and our pallets became more accustomed to the wide variety of origins and extraction methods beyond the humble 12-cup Black & Decker.
My coffee crazy was cemented by a trip to Japan, where like many other non-Japanese innovations, coffee has been elevated into an art form. Coffee was an essential part of my daily routine in Japan, and served the all-important role of providing me with much-needed respites, and an essential energy boost during 15 mile+ days, as well as providing me with a survey of some of Japan’s foremost cafes: including the legendary Café de l’Ambre (Ginza), with its vast library of bean offerings (pic), and Norwegian Fulgen Coffee (Tomigaya) in Tokyo, Kurasu and Vermillion Cafe and the legendarily gorgeous % Arabica situated right off the Katsura River in Arashiyama in Kyoto, and LiLo Coffee Roasters in Osaka. The Japanenese clearly held coffee — its cultivation, the best extraction methods, and the ideal conditions to serve it — in incredibly high esteem and with an obvious level of respect.
Brazil, the world’s largest exporter of coffee, has a much more nuanced relationship with coffee. Colloquially, Brazilian coffee is served sweet, oftentimes with mounts of sugar or the eyewatering-sweetness of the eye-dropper ‘adocante’ to a single cup of espresso-sized “cafezinha.” This has taken the form of a saying:
“Negro como o diabo, quente como o inferno, puro como um anjo e doce como o amor”
Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel and sweet as love.
Economically, the story of Brazil’s coffee trade has been a longstanding saga of export-based commodity dependency, and a strong desire to seek out industrial independence and make themselves less beholden to exogenous global shocks. Coffee production exploded in Brazil in the 1800s, accounting for 75% of all growth globally and unseating the slave-labor dependent sugar and cotton to become 60% of all Brazilian exports by 1913.
Following the winding down and eventual end of the slave trade in Brazil, the capital accumulated by slave owners was used to fund banks, invest in railways, and build coffee plantations. Railways and coffee grew hand in hand, as the coffee fazendeiros, or plantation owners, saw the railways as a necessary investment to replace slave-abetted muleteers, creating necessary infrastructure in the country and creating Brazil’s global coffee trade.
In the process, the plantation owners grew into a powerful political interest, and played a formative role in the development of Brazilian economic and social policy in the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais, whose wealth concentration and disproportionately strong indicator performance continues to date. As Brazil’s share of the global coffee trade increased, coffee production began to dictate monetary policy in Brazil as well. Brazilian finance ministers pursued a policy of valorization to stabilize, subsidize, and insulate Brazilian coffee barons from global shocks in price. Brazil’s coffee trade was an extremely important aspect of Brazilian historic inflation, and its turn to state-led industrialization to reduce Brazilian dependence on extremely expensive imports given the relatively expensive, propped up currency.
In the 1910s, this resulted in a price “floor” being created, whereby the Brazilian government would buy up and store the depressed coffee crop. This only served to increase Brazilian dependence on global coffee whims, as it prevented the fazendeiros from pursuing other more lucrative agricultural opportunities in favor of the artificially inflated coffee price.
During the global depression of the 1920s and 1930s, the global price of coffee crashed as incomes and demand fell. This resulted in an overall reduction of Brazilian exports by 60%, and leading the Brazilian government to buy up and destroy 78 million bags of coffee between 1931 and 1044 to try and push up the price, as well as wrote off the growing debts of the prominent and politically-powerful coffee fazendeiros.
Brazilian coffee exports as share of total exports value
Through the 1960s, Brazil’s dominant share in the global coffee market remained, and the cost of producing coffee in Brazil increasingly determined the global price. This prevented Brazil’s finance ministers from devaluing the Brazilian currency, the cruzeiro, making other imports more competitive, lest they displease the all-important coffee fazendeiros.
Today, coffee plays an important, but significantly less prominent role in Brazilian agricultural production, and its economy. It remains the home of much of the world’s “commoditized” coffee, i.e., the coffee that you find with ubiquitous brand names like Folgers and Nestle. Whereas Brazilians has seemingly resisted the entrance of Starbucks (I remember there was just one, comically overpriced Starbucks on Avenida Paulista when I first arrived to Brazil in 2011), today Starbucks’ aggressive expansion has resulted in the coffee chain popping up in shopping malls all around the City. Local chains like Suplicy, focused on attentive service and good coffee, have sprung up, and there is even an upswing in “premium” coffee-focused shops serving single origin coffee with your choice of extraction methods, such as Takko Cafe and Um Coffee Co.
These consumption habits and related geekery still exist on the fringes of Brazilian society (I don’t think home brewing coffee is much of a thing in Brazil, aside from Nespresso-like dispensers), but it’s growing in popularity, and given Brazil’s propensity to oftentimes be 3-5 years behind the Americans in the adoption of popular habits, I could see coffee’s popularity as an expensive, premium diversion only increasing over the next few years.
For my part, I plan to connect the dots between my coffee interest and time in Brazil to learn as much as I can about coffee production and the broader trade as it is practiced today. While a trip to Colombia’s Zona Cafetera in December whet my appetite for the beauty and allure of coffee-producing regions, I hope to visit coffee-rich areas within the statest of Sao Paulo, Espirito Santo, and Minas Gerais (and maybe others!) to learn about mass production and smaller concerns. Simultaneously, I hope to continue developing my pallet for different coffee origins and flavors, though I’m certainly not aspiring to reach the heights fo the sommelierlike q-grader status. From there, who knows where this journey will take me. For now, I’m enjoying the recent connecting-of-the-dots, and as always, am eager to learn more.
Note: Brazilian coffee-related history pulled from Michael Reid’s useful (and compact) history of Brazil: Brazil: The Troubled Rise of a Global Power.