If Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, Brazil is where it went to business school. Really though, coffee as a globally traded commodity has been more impacted by Brazil then any other country of origin. The saying goes that when Brazil sneezes, the rest of the coffee world catches a cold. Anyone who wants to understand how coffee prices have been (and still are being) set, learn why Fair Trade was established, or glimpse the full potential of highly mechanized coffee production cannot do so without learning about Brazil.
Brazil is a huge country with huge farms. Many 'single farms' here exist on a scale that is hard to fathom, looking very different from the humble family operations found elsewhere in the world. Some of these farms will produce more crop per year than the entire nation of El Salvador and often have their own hospitals and schools. This all goes back to the way Brazil was originally colonized and formed.
We aren't going to spend too much time on Brazil's national history here, but it is important to understand that its inherited infrastructure of gargantuan coffee estates has had a tremendous impact on its origin philosophies. These philosophies inform all aspects of production, including methods of growing, sorting, and processing as well as preferred coffee varieties.
The Rise Of The Machines
When you visit the coffee farms or 'fazendas' in Brazil, something you will notice right away are the relatively low number of workers per square mile and the high amount of machines. Most coffee in Brazil is harvested mechanically with devices that look like they belong in the Great Plains of the Midwestern United States. This style of harvest is possible because so much coffee there is grown in fields instead of on mountain slopes.
One advantage to this practice is the ability to use larger trees. If you don't have to pick coffee cherries by hand, you are only limited by the height of your machines instead of the height of humans. These contraptions are really tall, and taller coffee trees pair quite efficiently with them. Some varieties will be able to grow two or three times a standard 'mountain grown' height and yield two or three times as much fruit.
The downside of this technique is that mechanical harvesting will not distinguish among ripe cherries, underripe cherries, leaves, or even branches. This strip harvesting must be tempered with great amounts of hand sorting after the fact when attempting to satisfy specialty needs.
In The Cup
Traditionally, Brazilian coffee cherry fruit has been removed using the natural process of drying whole and then milling. In recent times, the development of 'pulped natural,' a hybrid process which removes some of the fruit before drying has added another popular option. Even more recently, fully washed Brazils have popped up, but the other two are still the mainstays.
Whether full natural or pulped natural, Brazilian coffee has a reputation for being low in acid and full-bodied. One very popular use for these beans is as a base for an 'espresso blend.' Italian blenders might use generous amounts of a Brazilian bean and then add something from Central America, Africa, Indonesia, or all three to create what they consider an ideal 'balance' amongst coffees of the world in their espresso.
Those who shy away from blends might consider the general cup qualities of a Brazilian coffee to be a bit muted and basic on their own.
Efficiency Gold Standard
Brazil stands as the example to the world of just how efficient coffee production can be. They have taken everything to the limit, from the size of their farms to the size of their trees. The wealthiest coffee producers in the world and throughout history are associated with this origin. For better or worse, we are all (in coffee) effected by this country and the decisions made there. Brazil has at times stabilized the market and other times destabilized it.
We can become frustrated by how Brazil tends to manipulate or control the market, or we can learn more about why and do our part to participate in making things better. How that is done is up to you, but remember your biggest contribution to the industry will always be what you buy.
Make thoughtful choices when buying coffee. Read "Certifications: Don't Export Your Ethics, Use Them Here" or "Coffee Hype And What It Means"