Around the Caffeinated World: Latin America


A processing mill in Nicaragua. [Photographs: Meister]

Of course we're all familiar with the image of a Latin American coffee farmer, thanks in large part to Juan Valdez: Crisp white Panama hat, donkey, traditional dress, picking ripe coffee cherry gingerly and with a smile...

Okay, that doesn't actually very accurately describe the majority of coffee farmers in Latin America, but the mental picture we have of Senor Valdez both raises and answers some interesting questions about coffee in the southwestern hemisphere. We know how coffee first made its way there (initially thanks to the Dutch, French, and English), but what happened once it arrived?

Coffee plants first hit the Americas in the 18th century, as briefly discussed on the last leg of this journey: Jesuit priests are credited with introducing it to Colombia in 1730; Conquistadors brought coffee to Nicaragua and El Salvador, mostly as a novelty; and the Costa Rican government jumped on the bandwagon in the late 1770s, encouraging farmers to invest land in the cash crop. Soon, the plants spread like wildfire throughout Central and South America—especially in Brazil, where landowners would clear massive sections of tropical forest to make way for the gigantic coffee plantations that still predominate the caffeinated landscape there.

When a disease called leaf rust all but decimated coffee production in the Dutch East Indies during the 1870s, all eyes turned to Latin America as a potential lifesaver, exploding the market there even more. Additionally, entrepreneurial types—interested in cashing in on what was fast becoming a very lucrative agricultural venture in the late 19th centurys—began emigrating from Europe to Latin America, spreading coffee's seeds throughout not only colonial landholdings in places like Guatemala and Mexico, but also on newly acquired private farms in Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Cuba, etc.

Large farms controlled either by governments or private landholders dominated the landscape throughout Central America and parts of South America up until the 20th century. Predominantly run by European immigrants but powered by labor drawn from both nearby villages and waves of traveling migrant workers, many of these farms became symbols of sociopolitical and agroeconomic unrest; in Nicaragua, for instance, the uneven division of wealth and power in coffee-producing sectors was a major catalyst for political revolution, leading to wide-scale redistribution of land from the moneyed gentry to the laborers.

Today, Brazil is responsible for about a third of the world's coffee supply, much of it coming from large plantations. Though weather has wreaked some havoc on Colombia's coffee production in recent years, the nation is still one of the largest contributors to the global market. And thanks to the development of farmer-run co-ops throughout the southwestern hemisphere, smaller landowners in Central and South America are better poised now than ever to command fairer prices for their crops, and to have more of a voice as a growing power, even among industry giants.

Drinking around the world: Coffees from the Americas have long been the classic flavor prized by stateside drinkers: We can't seem to get enough of their smooth chocolate flavor, snappy but not overpowering acidity, and sweetly clean aftertaste. One that I've been enjoying a lot recently is the nutty Ecco Caffe. Stumptown has a nice, berry-and-milk-chocolatey Guatemalan offering, Antigua Buenavista.

And of course I'd be lying if I didn't say that my favorite this season has been Counter Culture's own Los Cipreses from Honduras—a stunner of a cup that's perfect with breakfast.

Tired of all this traveling yet? Get up and stretch your legs, but hang in there, because we're almost done: All we have to do is fly all the way back around the world, almost-but-not-quite to the spot where we began.

Next stop: Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi.

More Coffee History

Around the Caffeinated World: Ethiopia »
The Ottoman Empire »
Brewed Coffee Takes Over Europe »
The First Colonies »