Clear Lake Coffee Roasters - Dreams, Dust, and the Promise of Organic Peruvian Coffee
“The coffee of Peru is delicious. The qualities of Huanuco, Chanchamayo, and Carabaya are equal to those of Oaxaca, Colima, and Uracapam of Mexico … or that of Costa Rica, Brazil, or the varieties classified in commerce under the denomination of Mocha.”
-Report of the Belgian Consul in Lima, February 1897
When the Belgian consul in Lima engaged in what would one day be known as “marketing” to describe the coffees of Peru in 1897 as delicious, there was every reason to believe he was right, and it was the perfect time to start dreaming of coffee as an eternal source of increasing export revenue. That same year, coffee exports had reached well over 20,000 bags², almost triple the 7,000 bags exported in 1894. But the turn of the century would prove to be a peak for that generation of Peruvian coffee exports. By 1913, exports had dropped back down to 9,000 bags.
This sudden growth and then slow contraction in coffee exports coincided with a time of relative peace, political stability, and export-driven economic growth in Peru; but the coffee industry was competing with other countries that could more easily bring coffee to market and inside its own borders it was competing with cotton, sugar, silver, copper, and other sectors for land and labor. It appears coffee exports might have settled in around 10,000 bags a year if the First World War hadn’t brought an end to this era of prosperity while setting the Peruvian coffee industry back 30 years.
It would have been difficult to imagine on the eve of WWI that for most of the next 100 years Peru would be numbered among the top 10 coffee-producing countries in the world and even rise to the number 5 spot a few times. Looking back, it’s not only easy to understand why but easy to imagine increasing success in producing specialty coffee as a leading supplier of organic coffee.
To look closely at Peru is to see a large producer of specialty coffee in the making. There are many distinct coffee growing regions in Peru that run north to south and most have the potential for producing specialty coffee and more certified organic Peruvian coffee for the specialty market.
Northern coffee region, near the coast and sitting under the boarder with Ecuador is Piura, where coffee grows in a semi-tropical climate among steep “inter-Andean” valleys at 900-2,000 meters. Most coffee grows in the province of Huancabamba. The most common varieties are typica, caturra, and catimor.
Northern coffee region, just east of Piura and also boarding Ecuador is Cajamarca, where coffee grows from 900-1,950 meters, mostly in the provinces Jean and San Ignacio. Caturra, typica, and bourbon grow under shade in a jungle environment.
Northern coffee region, moving northeast toward Colombia, we are in the Amzonas, where grows from 900-2,100 meters in the jungle areas of all seven provinces. The most common varieties are typica, caturra, and catimor.
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Northern coffee region, to the south of Amazonas, on the lower eastern slopes of the Andes, is San Martin, which grows 23% of Peru’s coffee at 900-1,200 meters. Typica, caturra, and catimor grow in tropical and subtropical jungle climates.
Central coffee region, just northeast of the capital city, Lima, is Huanuco, one of the first regions in the country to produce coffee commercially. Coffee grows at 900-2,000 meters. The typica, caturra, and catimor grow in rain forest conditions. With 138 inches of rain annually, Huanuco is the wettest coffee region by far, receiving twice as much rain as its immediate neighbors.
Central coffee region, very similar to Huanuco is Pasco, just to the south. The capital, Cerro de Pasco is one of the highest cities in the world. Typica, caturra, and catimor grow in jungle conditions at 900-2,000 and surrounded by a wide variety of climates.
Central coffee region, just south is the Junin zone where most coffee is grown in the provinces of Satipo and Chanchamayo, another one of the oldest coffee growing regions in Peru. Typica, caturra, and catimor grow in jungle conditions at 900-1,800 meters and surrounded by a wide variety of climates.
Southern coffee region, southeast of Lima is Ayacucho, where most coffee grows at 900-1,600 meters in the provinces of La Mar and Huanta. Typica, caturra, and catimor grow in a tropic climate.
Southern coffee region, moving southeast, Cuzco grows coffee caturra, typica, and bourbon in jungle climates in the province of La Convencion at 900-2,000 meters.
Southern coffee region, hugging Lake Titicaca on the Bolivian boarder is Puno where they grown caturra, typica, and bourbon at 900-1,800 meters in the province of Sandia.
These coffee lands produce income for more than 220,000 families growing coffee on just a few hectares. 90,000 of these hectares are growing certified organic Peruvian coffee, making Peru the world’s largest exporter of organic coffee.
On the eve of WWI, when Peruvian coffee was on the brink of starting over, small stakeholder farmers were not the norm. Most coffee was cultivated on European colonial style plantations, usually owned by Europeans, some who had immigrated but also many who didn’t live in Peru.
And so, as with Central American coffee prior to WWI, most Peruvian coffees was being exported to Europe. Unlike Central America, Peru had not been “courted” by American roasters in the years before the war, so the path had not been paved to easily switch exports from Europe to the United States. The wooing of Central America was a project of San Francisco roasters, which included Folgers, Hills Bothers, and MGB. But Peru and the other smaller coffee producing countries of South America were left behind. Coffee exports fell from 10,000 bags in 1915 to just 2,000 bags in 1916 as German submarines kept ships from reaching Europe and the British fleet kept ships from reaching Germany.
In the highly inflationary environment following the war, Peru imposed an embargo on the exportation of coffee because internal consumption was outpacing supply and driving up prices. In 1923, Peru exported less than 100 bags of coffee while importing 5,500 bags from Bolivia and other countries to meet internal consumption demand. William Ukers wrote in the 1921 edition of All About Coffee:
“Coffee is one of the minor products of Peru, and the country does not occupy a place of importance in the international coffee trade. The larger part of the production is apparently consumed in the country itself.”
Despite Ukers’ dismissive tone, his magazine, Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, noted that a 1919 delegation of coffee roasters from the Mississippi Valley planned to visit Peru during a tour of South America. Clearly, some in the U.S. coffee industry saw value in Peruvian coffee characteristics³ and recognized potential for growth. Elsewhere in his book Ukers added:
“Although possessed of natural coffee land and climate, little has been done to develop the industry in Peru. A finely flavored coffee grows at an altitude of 7,000 feet, while that grown in the lowlands along the Pacific coast is not so desirable. Such small quantities as are grown are cultivated in the mountain districts of Choquisongo, Cajamarca, Perene, Paucartambo, Chaucghamayo, and Huanace. The Pacific-coast district of Paces-mayo also grows a not unimportant crop.”
In 1923, Peru would export just over 7,000 bags, roughly the same amount as 1884. And although Peru had finally surpassed 20,000 bags by 1935, William Ukers could only produce one short paragraph about the country in his second edition of All About Coffee, published that year, and he used it to simply say the coffee was grown at low altitudes and not very good. Where was the promise of Peruvian coffee, so enthusiastically articulated by the Belgian consul 40 years earlier?
With 100 years of hindsight we can make an educated guess. In the 1890’s our Belgian friend was likely drinking high altitude coffees from the “Montana” that had not been blended (probably from landowners he knew personally). As the 20th century dawned the government was pushing hard on increasing exports. At the same time Europeans took over large portions of coffee land in the service of debt. Combined with the extension of rail lines these circumstances meant “efficiencies,” such as centralized milling, which meant blending.
This was a shame because even then Peru was capable of producing a wide variety of highly differentiated coffee. Today, the dream of Peruvian coffee is steeped in this potential. The diverse micro-climates of Peru are more reminiscent of Central America than its South American neighbors and utterly unique in their extremes.
It was, no doubt, these extremes that led two Spanish botanists, Hipólito Ruiz and José Antonio Pavón, to spend 10 years exploring Peru in the late 18th century. From 1778 to 1788 the pair collected 3,000 specimens and made 2,500 illustration. In 1794, after returning to Spain, they published Flora Peruviana et Chilensis in ten volumes and it remained a seminal work well into the 20th century. Among the specimens they collected were coffee plants, which they found growing wild in the Andes. The botanists never claimed the coffee plants they found were indigenous to Peru, but a few writers in the 19th century took their findings to mean coffee was native to Peru. To be fair, throughout the 19th century it was generally believed that several countries could claim coffee as an indigenous species.
What we can glean from the work of Ruiz and Pavón is that coffee probably arrived in Peru in the middle of the 18th century and earlier than many of it’s neighbors. Though coffee is mentioned as a commercial crop as early as 1783, it was likely grown primarily as a garden and barter crop for perhaps 100 years before the idea of exporting seemed feasible. In 1878 Peru exported just 35 bags of coffee to the United States. One hundred years later, in 1979, Peru’s exports would top 1 million bags for the first time, with some help from frosts in Brazil that decreased that country’s exports. The weather in Brazil would help Peru again in 2000 when exports grew from 1.9 million to 2.5 million bags.
Exports would double in just 11 years, topping 5 million bags in 2011 (and in that year Peru was the 5th largest producer in the world) before the coffee plant disease known as “rust” cut production in half and reduced exports to 3 million bags. Coffee in Peru has fought its way back, topping 4 million bags exported for a few years now, but the promise of Peruvian coffee is a dream yet to be realized relative to its potential throughout all the growing regions for specialty coffee.
Despite it’s rise to a place among the top 10 coffee producers, coffee was for many years an afterthought in terms of exports for those in charge of such things, especially in terms of quality, but also in terms of attention to basic agronomy. When coffee rust arrived in 2012, many farmers had no idea what it was. They called it the “yellow dust” because they lacked anything beyond word-of-mouth education in farming, which is not helpful when rust has not struck your coffee in more than a generation and when most of the coffee is grown under organic conditions.
Stretching back 100 years prior to this, coffee had not really been a priority in Peru, home to a wealth of natural resources. Recognition of Peru’s potential as a specialty coffee producer was driven first by coffee roasters all over the world who stumbled upon the gems from niche exporters who found a way to keep coffees separated and let them shine. This, along with the pervasiveness of organic Peruvian coffee, made the country an “emerging” specialty origin in the 1990’s. Unfortunately, the “emerging” status has remained now for over 20 years. But the dream remains.
Today, most coffee farmers in Peru understand that better quality means better prices; and Olam has invested in their potential for realizing that dream with a significant footprint, building two state-of-art mills in the northern growing region and nurturing direct relationships in the central and southern regions, always with an eye on improving quality and remaining as close to the farm gate as possible when it comes to sourcing. We’ve helped farmers receive better pricing by accessing markets more directly, without the involvement of “middle-buyers,” and are teaching farmers to cup coffee so they can play an active role in determining the value of their coffee. Peruvian coffee characteristics range widely in the cup, from berry and stone fruit to savory sweetness like dark chocolate, toffee, and caramel.
Producing specialty coffee is never really a policy decision and, in fact, policy makers are notoriously bad at “regulating” specialty coffee into existence. At the farm and mill level, specialty coffee is the result of many small and sometimes seemingly inconsequential adjustments, changes that often resemble acts of faith for a farmer or the owner of a mill. Nowhere is this truer than in a country like Peru, where the diversity in climate is nothing short of mind-boggling. But imagine, or maybe dream, of all the coffee that can come from such a place. It’s a good dream, at seven in the morning or any time of day.
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