Brazilian coffee, from seduction and slavery to world domination

Seduction, smuggling, coffee barons, slavery… today, we are talking about Brazil’s colorful, captivating history with coffee. From the Brazilian bean’s illicit beginnings to world arabica domination, Brazil’s coffee history is as bold and vibrant as her beans.

Image taken from Tribuna do Pará

The history

Brazil’s first bourbon coffee beans were brought to the country by a determined Portuguese Lieutenant Colonial named Francisco de Melo Palheta. In 1727, while on a diplomatic mission to French Guiana (and after many failed attempts to secure Guiana’s prised coffee seeds), De Melo Palheta got creative. According to legend, de Mel Palheta seduced the coffee-coveting governor’s wife to get his hands on some precious seeds, which he then smuggled out of the country in a bouquet of flowers.

De Melo Palheta planted his seeds in Pará (northeastern Brazil) where they quickly thrived and started spreading south. By 1770, crops were being grown as far away as Rio de Janeiro and by the 1830s, Brazil was producing 30% of the world’s coffee. This extraordinary output was the product of near perfect coffee growing conditions and massive slave-manned plantations. Unlike many of their small farming South American neighbour’s, Brazil’s coffee industry flourished on expansive estates. This mass production created extreme wealth for Brazil’s 19th-century plantation owners, and with this wealth came power. Referred to as the coffee barons, plantation owners were influential in shaping much of Brazil’s policies, particularly those regulating and relating to the coffee industry, such as railway development and credit financing.

Life was wonderful for the coffee barons until it wasn’t. As previously mentioned, these plantations were manned by slaves and later by European immigrants. Barons took their first hit (though we consider this a win!) in 1888 with the abolition of slavery and their second during the Great Depression of 1930. A final hard blow was dealt to Brazil in 1962 with their entrance into the International Coffee Agreement (ICA), which established quotas and price setting for the world’s dominant coffee producers. Collectively and successively, the abolition of slavery, the brief depression-era decline in global demand, and the establishment of quotas proved taxing on plantation owners who struggled to maintain quality standards while attaining production and financial goals. The ICA quotas were dropped in 1989 and in the 1990s Brazil deregulated the coffee industry, giving rise to the next great wave of Brazilian specialty coffee. Presently, Brazil is the world’s largest producer of arabica beans and a trailblazer on coffee research and seed hybridisation.*


The coffee

Brazil has 14 primary growing regions, spread over 6 states, with the largest growing areas located in São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Rio de Janeiro. Much of Brazil’s coffee is grown on soaring mountain ranges that sweep up the country’s southeastern coast. Today, Brazil has an estimated 300,000 farms, of which 70%+ are small farms (less than 10 acres); fewer than 5% of farms are the vast estates that dominated 19th-century production.

Of the coffee grown in Brazil, a staggering 80% is arabica with the most popular bean varietals being bourbon, catimor, catuai, caturra, mundo novo, pacamara, and typica. Brazilian beans have average to moderate acidity and a light, velvety mouthfeel. In terms of flavor, most Brazilians offer a nut-toned base with sparkling upper notes of dewy melon and fruit flower sprinkled with hints of dark sugar-spice. Due to their consistency and history of high production Brazilians are often used in high quality blends, particularly espresso, but they can and do make superb single origins for those who enjoy a smooth, balanced coffee. To try some delicious Brazilian Santos, click here.

To learn more about South American coffees or varietals, please visit the following blogs:

Regional coffee profile: South America

Beans, beans, beans! Arabica coffee varietals and cultivars


To learn more about Brazilian coffee history and research, we encourage you to visit the following:

The History of Brazilian Coffee

Brazilian Coffee Industry

Brown University write-up on Brazilian coffee

Coffee Varieties of Brazil

Brazilian Coffee Research and Development Consortium

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