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Coffee Yesterday and Today

  • Posted on November 18, 2017 at 3:18 am

HOW about a cafezinho, freshly made and piping hot? For some, this custom is on the wane, but Brazilians still enjoy the fame of drinking coffee from early morning till late at night.

Inflated cost of coffee has not caused a hurried switch to other drinks. In fact, one third of the world’s population still are coffee drinkers. For instance, every year the Belgians drink 149 liters (39 gallons) of coffee, compared with only six liters (1.6 gallons) of tea. The average American drinks 10 cups of coffee to one of tea. In the Western world, only the British break the general rule by annually consuming six liters of coffee to 261 (69 gallons) of tea.

Brazil holds the title as the world’s largest producer and exporter of coffee. In the first four months of 1977, receipts for exports of this “brown gold” reached the staggering total of $1,000,000,000 for 4.5 million bags, an all-time record.

However, coffee is not at all native to Brazil. Would you like to know how the use of this almost universal drink developed, where it originated, and how it got to Brazil?

Origin and Use

The word “coffee” is derived from the Arabic qahwah, meaning strength, and came to us through the Turkish kahveh. Coffee’s early discovery is shrouded in legend. One story tells about Kaldi, a young Arabian goatherd who noticed his goats’ frolicsome antics after nibbling on the berries and leaves of a certain evergreen shrub. Moved by curiosity, he tried the mysterious little berries himself and was amazed at their exhilarating effect. Word spread and “coffee” was born.

Originally, coffee served as a solid food, then as a wine, later as a medicine and, last, as a common drink. As a medicine, it was and still is prescribed for the treatment of migraine headache, heart disease, chronic asthma and dropsy. (Immoderate use, however, may form excessive gastric acid, cause nervousness and speed up the heartbeat. The common “heartburn” is attributed to this.) As a food, the whole berries were crushed, fat was added and the mixture was put into round forms. Even today some African tribes “eat” coffee. Later on, the coffee berries yielded a kind of wine. Others made a drink by pouring boiling water over the dried shells. Still later, the seeds were dried and roasted, mixed with the shells and made into a beverage. Finally, someone ground the beans in a mortar, the forerunner of coffee grinders.

Coffee in Brazil

Although coffee probably originated in Ethiopia, the Arabs were first to cultivate it, in the fifteenth century. But their monopoly was short-lived. In 1610, the first coffee trees were planted in India. The Dutch began to study its cultivation in 1614. During 1720, French naval officer Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu left Paris for the Antilles, carrying with him some coffee seedlings. Only one survived and was taken to Martinique. From Dutch Guiana coffee spread through the Antilles to French Guiana, and from there Brazilian army officer Francisco de Melo Palheta introduced it to Brazil by way of Belém, doing so about 1727. During the early nineteenth century, coffee cultivation started in Campinas and other cities of São Paulo State, and soon reached other states, especially Paraná.

Nowadays, coffee plantations are planned with technical rigidity. Instead of sowing seeds in the field, seedlings are cultivated in shaded nurseries. About 40 days after planting, the coffee grain germinates. Its unmistakable appearance gave it the name “match stick.” After a year of careful treatment in the nursery, the seedlings are replanted outside.

Usually on hillsides, the seedlings are placed in curved rows to make mechanized field work easier and to prevent soil erosion. Four years after planting, the trees are ready for the first harvest. All the while, irrigation boosts growth and output up to 100 percent.

On the other hand, the coffee grower’s headache is his never-ending fight against insects and plant diseases, such as leaf rust and the coffee-bean borer. Rust is a fungus that attacks the leaves and may kill the tree. The coffee-bean borer is a worm that ruins the beans by eating small holes into them. Of course, there are effective fungicides and insecticides, but their constant use increases production cost.

Preparation of the Coffee Beans

On the plantation, coffee may be prepared by either a “wash” or a “dry” process. It is admitted that the wash process yields a fine quality product, since only ripe coffee berries are selected. But because of less work and lower cost, Brazilian coffee usually goes through the “dry” process.

First, all the berries, from green to dry, are shaken off the bush onto large canvas sheets. Then they are winnowed with special sieves. Next, the berries are rinsed in water canals next to the drying patios, in order to separate the ripe from the unripe and to eliminate impurities. Afterward, they are spread out in layers for drying in the open air and sun. They are turned over frequently so as to allow even drying. Eventually, the dry berries are stored in wood-lined deposits until further use.

The drying process, by the way, is of utmost importance to the final quality of the coffee. Some plantations, therefore, use wood-fired driers for more rapid drying, especially in rainy weather.

In other Latin-American countries and elsewhere, the “wash” process is customary, although it is more time-consuming and costly. First, a pulping machine squeezes the beans out of the skin. They fall into large tanks where they stay for about 24 hours, subject to light fermentation of the “honey,” as the surrounding jellylike substance is called. After fermentation, the “honey” is washed off in washing canals. Next, the coffee is laid out to dry in the sun, as in the “dry” process. Some growers make use of drying machines, perforated revolving drums, in which hot air circulates through the coffee. Finally, the coffee beans pass through hulling and polishing machines. And just as the best quality coffees are hand-picked, so the inspection of the berries after washing is done by hand.

Soon the last step is taken–packing the coffee in jute bags for shipment. The 60-kilogram (132-pound) bag, adopted by Brazil, is held world wide as the statistical unit. Bags are stacked in clean, well-aired warehouses. At last, the coffee is ready for sale.

Classification, Commercialization and Cost

The Instituto Brasileiro do Café (IBC: Brazilian Coffee Institute) supplies technical and economic aid to Brazilian coffee growers and controls the home and export trade. For classification, coffee is judged by its taste and aroma. No chemical test for quality has ever been possible. The senses of smell and taste are still the deciding factors. According to its source, preparation and drying, it is classified as strictly soft, soft (pleasant taste and mild), hard (acid or sharp taste) and rio (very hard type preferred in Rio de Janeiro). Other types are less important to the trade.

For the last 20 years coffee has brought about 50 percent of Brazil’s export receipts. Some 15,500,000 persons are employed in its cultivation and trade. But Camilo Calazans de Magalhães, president of the IBC, warned that 1978 will present an unheard-of situation in the history of the coffee trade. For the first time ever, it will depend entirely on the harvest, as any stocks of Brazilian coffee outside Brazil will be exhausted by then. Additionally, the IBC fears that the specter of problems with frost, insects and diseases may unleash new losses in the 1977/78 and 1978/79 harvests.

Very recently, a series of misfortunes befell some of the world’s large coffee producers, causing scarcity of the product, price increases–and a lot of speculation. It all began in July 1975. Brazil was hit by an exceptional cold spell, which destroyed almost half the plantations, or 200 to 300 million coffee trees. Next, in Colombia, a drought, followed by torrential rains, devastated their plantations. In Angola and Uganda, political unrest affected exports. And then an earthquake struck Guatemala. The “coffee crisis” was on!

While the reserves dropped, tension grew in trade circles. Brazilian coffee was first to go up in price, dragging behind it the Colombian coffea arabica, traditionally more expensive because of its superior quality. The African coffea robusta, usually less esteemed, followed the trend. To make things worse, Brazil imposed an export tax of $100 (U.S.) on each bag, which in April 1977 went up to $134 (U.S.) a bag.

Speculation amplified trade tension, as coffee is bought in advance. It is a veritable gamble. Traders and roasters foresee a “high” and buy up great quantities, which, however, are delivered only months later. The movement gathers speed and prices skyrocket. The IBC permits registering of export sales some months before delivery of the goods, provided the registry fee is paid within 48 hours. Consequently, exporters often “take the risk” of registering sales that, in reality, have not yet been effected. This enables them to favor their clients or take advantage of higher prices.

Despite the upward trend, Brazilians are not yet paying the high coffee prices others have to pay. The Brazilian government is protecting the local coffee roasters, and the price per kilogram (2.2 pounds) is to continue lower than abroad, it being $4.08 (U.S.) in July 1977. Nevertheless, statistics reveal that Brazilians are drinking less coffee. In 1976 the consumption was 3.5 kilograms (7.7 pounds) of ground coffee per person, whereas it was 5.7 kilograms (12.6 pounds) in 1970.

Producers seemed satisfied with the new price policy, since they get more money from the consumer. The coffee-plantation worker, too, is benefiting financially. To keep prices high, Brazil bought up large quantities of Central American and African coffees. Suddenly, however, Brazil’s exporters had to face the absence of international buyers. As an immediate reaction, prices abroad began to fall, and in July 1977, a sudden maneuver at the New York and London Exchanges slashed the price further, so that a 50-percent drop has been registered since the record prices three months earlier. Exporters are jittery. Buyers ask, Will Brazil reduce the price? What will be the future of coffee? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s Conselho Monetário Nacional approved a plan to revive and upgrade the nation’s coffee plantations by adding 150 million trees during 1977/78, bringing the total to 3,000,000,000 trees and an output of 28 million bags by 1980. So there is no fear of coffee going off the scene. Although this popular beverage now is more costly, yesterday’s enjoyment of coffee remains with us today.