Because the state of Espirito Santo is located on the coast, just north of Rio de Janeiro, almost three-quarters of all coffee grown in the state is of the Robusta variety which tolerates lower elevations and higher temperatures. While this coffee is mostly grown for the mass commodity market, the mountains of Espirito Santo offer a much better climate for Arabica coffees that are renowned for their specialty grade.
While much concern is given to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in the northern and western parts of Brazil, the Atlantic rainforest is actually Brazil´s most threatened ecosystem. Shade-grown coffee varieties, especially in higher elevation areas where forest cover is still present, offers a unique conservation area to help small farmers and local residents conserve the last remnants of the tropical forests along the Atlantic coast where Espiritu Santo is located. In fact, much of the best specialty coffee grown in the state of Espirito Santo is grown in the regions around the Caparaó National Park, which is located between the states of Espírito Santo and Minas Gerais. This park is home to Pico da Bandeira, the third highest mountain in Brazil at 2,892m high. Furthermore, this park is one of the most important areas for the preservation of the Atlantic Forest.
Coffee production in Espirito Santo has a long and detailed history. Originally, coffee was introduced during the time of the Portuguese Empire. Portuguese migrants to the American continent continued to grow immense plantations of coffee with slave labor in the mountains of Espirito Santo well after Brazil gained independence in 1822. However, when slavery was finally abolished in 1888, these huge farms were abandoned. In the following years, Italian and German immigrants came to take over these semi-abandoned coffee farms. Coffee production in the state of Espirito Santo continues to reflect the migrant culture of these European descendants and is an important part of the Capixaba identity.
Of the 10,000 or so coffee farmers scattered around the state of Espirito Santo, the growers in the lower and hotter regions have recently been devastated by prolonged droughts that affected the region from 2015 to 2017. Because many of these farmers grew low-cost Robusta variety coffee, many of them have been forced to turn to other crops such as pepper in order to survive. However, the mountainous region of the state has a much higher annual rainfall. The higher elevations, increased humidity, and the pronounced dry season have allowed coffee growers to avoid some of the challenges of their neighboring growers in lower areas.
The transition from bulk, commodity coffee crops to more specialty coffees has allowed producers in this region to survive and thrive in a competitive global market. Furthermore, due to the uncertainties that have come with climate change, small coffee growers are also investing time in organic cultivation methods including mulching and low-cost irrigation which help to increase the resiliency of the crop.
While most of the coffee consumed within Brazil is low-cost, commodity coffees, small producers in the mountains of Espiritu Santo are challenging the stigma that all Brazilian coffee is low quality. Producer cooperatives are teaming up with fair trade organizations to market their coffees to specialty shops in North America and Europe. Today, coffee from the “Montanhas Do Espirito Santo” is becoming recognized for the highly sweet and complex flavors that come from the long maturation process that leads to unique cup profiles.
The longer wet season in the mountains of Espirito Santo allows for a longer cherry development which is what allows for the sweeter and more intensely aromatic floral notes. The mountainous terrain also favors a hand-picked harvest which allows small farmers to focus on the best quality and ripest beans. Even where mechanical harvesters are used, small farmers invest time in sorting the cherries by hand. The processing of Espirito Santo coffee beans also contributes to the unique flavor and quality. The beans in this region are typically washed instead of natural pulped, which makes for a much different flavor than that of their neighbors. However, there are also areas where honey processing, which leaves some of the coffee cherries’ mucilage on the beans, is utilized.
The smaller size of coffee plantations (around 20 hectares), allows for more organic practices to be used, especially in organic soil management which is essential for the robust flavor profile of these coffee varieties. While much of the coffee from Espirito Santo is exported to Belgium, Japan, Italy, the United States, and Germany, Brazil is also a leader in coffee consumption which contributes to a strong internal market as well.