This week our coffee origins series takes us to Peru, which is a mystical and mountainous country in South America. It is probably better known for its superior quality chocolate, but it has a heritage in speciality coffee too. Let’s learn more about it together!
Peru is a land that is rich in natural resources including many crops that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Its fertile land and climate are controlled by the Pacific Ocean to the west (that’s a 2,400 km coastline) and the Andes mountains that run parallel to the coast from North to South, which cover more than 3.3 million square kilometres. Then there is the Amazon rainforest to the east which occupies a good proportion of the flat terrain that there is in Peru. Almost the entire country, which is the 19th largest in the world by area, occupies the space between the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn, otherwise known as ‘the sweet spot’ in coffee terms. There is a reason that it is recognised as a ‘mega-diverse’ country. Peru is famous for a lot of things, music, ancient cultures like the Inca Empire and, of course, chocolate. Some of the world’s rarest and most sought after cacao plantations are in Peru, many of them in places that are almost impossible to reach by motor vehicles high up in the Andes mountains. This includes the White Criollo variety, the rarest of the rare! You’ll soon understand that a similar theme applies to Peruvian coffee, making it an equally treasured product for speciality coffee lovers. The bottom line is that if you see a Peruvian coffee on the specials board at your local speciality coffee house, you order it! It’s not just precious fruits that Peru is famous for as precious make up a huge chunk of the country’s economic exports, especially gold. With that being said, the list of agricultural exports from the country is extensive too with mangos, avocados and paprika to name just a few.
Coffee production in Peru
Peru is the 11th largest coffee producer in the world, producing more than 192,000 metric tonnes of coffee each year. This on its own is an amazing feat but perhaps the most extraordinary thing about it is that so much of its coffee is of excellent quality. You can of course attribute this to the rich land on which coffee is grown in Peru. Most plantations are located 1,000 masl which is perfect for Arabica beans. The country’s own grading system has two categories that are specifically tied to altitude. There is SHB (Strictly Hard Bean) for coffees grown above 1350+ masl, and HB (Hard Bean) for 1200–1350 masl. As we’ve just alluded to, more than three-quarters of coffee cultivation in Peru takes place above 1,000 masl. Well-known speciality growing regions include Amazones and San Martin which both run along the eastern side of the Andes. In fact, there are many prominent coffee growing regions throughout the land. You could say that’s the good thing about having a mountain range and the world’s largest rainforest running the length of the country.
The land does create important challenges for coffee farming in Peru. In most cases it is too steep and perilous for heavy plant machinery, so almost all of the coffee is picked and processed by hand. One could argue that this supports an emphasis on high-quality coffee, as high-yield farming would be almost impossible for many. Then, even once the coffee has been grown and dried (in regularly rainy climates), it needs to be transported down the hills to the market and the ports. Not easy! Smallholdings are prevalent for this reason, the average size of a single farm will range from two to five hectares. There are naturally advances being made that will one day make coffee farming on a larger scale possible in Peru, but it’ll likely never be able to match the likes of Brazil where farms can be hundreds of thousands of hectares in size.
In other coffee origins that are mostly made up of smallholdings, like Keyna, Rwanda and Honduras, farmers are incentivised by their governments to nurture the development and infrastructure of overall coffee production. In Peru this hasn’t taken as much of a front seat, perhaps because it has so many other major exports aside from coffee. There is the CENFROCAFE that operates as a cooperative of more than 80 farm associations in Jaen in the northwest, which has helped hundreds of coffee farmers access international markets. It has been suggested that this fragmented style has limited Peruvian coffee in reaching its full potential on a global scale. There is a high proportion of certified coffee from Peru however, especially organic and Rainforest Alliance. Such certifications may not offer guarantees on quality, but they are certainly a push towards the right direction and have helped in boosting the profile of Peruvian coffee to consumers worldwide. Among CENFROCAFE members, more than 90% are organic certified!
What does Peruvian coffee taste like?
You’ll probably have already guessed that Peruvian coffee can be very diverse based on its incredible patchwork of coastal provinces, highlands and rainforests. A lot of the varietals grown in Peru are similar to those found in neighbouring Brazil and Central America. You’ll generally find Typicas and Bourbons which both offer good levels of sweetness. That’s about as close as we can get to attaching a broad identity to Peruvian coffees as they really are quite variable due to those unique microclimates between different regions. In our experience, the best way to enjoy Peruvian coffee is to brew it using a pour-over filter method like a V60. The most popular method for processing the beans is to wash them as well, which makes it great for an Aeropress. You can expect a cup that’s bright and fruity that’ll live long in your memory!