Organic Peru Coffee
The Inca Empire ruled Peru until 1532 when Francisco Pizarro conquered the country in the name of the Spanish Monarchy. The early Spanish colonizers were more focused on mining silver and missionary work than on agriculture, and it wasn’t until the 18th century that coffee was introduced, cultivated, and sold on the international market.
In the early 20th century, Peru defaulted on a massive loan from Britain. To pay their debts, the Peruvian government transferred millions of acres of land to the British Government (under the name “the Peruvian Country”), who in turn sold the agricultural land to The British Company. The Company increased production of coffee to levels never seen before, and sold it all around the world. It was during this period that Peru became one of the world’s bigger coffee exporters.
In the post-WWII years, the British Company left Peru, and the new independent government enacted land reform policies that redistributed the land to some of the same peasants who worked the large, British-run plantations during the colonial period. In the 60’s and 70’s, many of these smallholders formed worker cooperatives, which were highly successful on the world stage. However, during the 80’s the coffee industry in Peru basically fell apart. A combination of the Fujimori government’s disinvestment in small farmers and the terrorist violence of the Shining Path forced many of the coffee farmers to abandon their farms and move to the cities.
In the late nineties, with the rise in popularity of gourmet and specialty coffees and the Fair Trade system, Peru bounced back from the disastrous eighties. Today, Peru is the seventh largest producer of coffee in the world, with a particularly large organic sector for a relatively small country.
Does Altitude Matter?
A large percentage of Peruvian gourmet coffee is grown in the Andes Mountains. This means that coffee sourced from this region comes from some of the highest altitudes in the world. Baristas and wholesalers claim that altitude means quality. The higher the bean, the better the cup. Is this true? And if so, how does a higher elevation affect flavor?
It’s true that higher altitudes are associated with sweeter, more complex coffee flavors. However, it’s not the altitude that improves the bean but the cooler temperature. At lower temperatures, coffee trees grow more slowly. The slow-growth of the tree means that the coffee cherries ripen more gradually, which gives them more time to develop the complex flavors we look for in a cup of specialty coffee. Shade-grown coffee works on the same principle.
While there are some disadvantages to growing coffee at lower temperatures—such as plants growing less fruit and requiring more care from the farmers—there are other advantages to consider as well. At these cooler temperatures, it is harder for certain pests and diseases to thrive. Leaf rust, the scourge of coffee crops for centuries, cannot survive temperatures below 59 degrees Fahrenheit. Another enemy of the coffee tree, the coffee berry borer, who lays its eggs inside the coffee cherry, also exists only in hotter climates. Even if pests and diseases do not destroy the plant, they can cause other imperfections in the bean that translate into worse flavors in your cup.
Altitude is good for flavor and pest control, but it also affects how the coffee is roasted. Beans that are grown in colder climates are harder and denser, and have a closed fissure line, while beans that develop quickly in warmer climates are low-density and have an open fissure line. Knowing the differences in the density and physical composition of the beans is important to a coffee roaster, as low-density beans require a different roasting style than high-density beans. For example, low-density beans have more air pockets. This means that, during roasting, heat will be transferred more slowly and erratically. As such, roasters should use a lower temperature to avoid burning or scorching the beans.
In short, altitude matters. But coffee is a complex crop, and there are exceptions to this rule. Latitude and local weather patterns can also have a strong effect on temperature, and therefore on flavor. The Galapagos Islands, for example, produce coffee that is sweet and acidic—like the kind you would find in a highland region—despite its being just a few hundred feet above sea level. This is because the Humboldt Air Current brings in cold air from Chile and Peru, and keeps the temperature within the correct range for growing good coffee.
So, altitude isn’t an absolute indicator of quality—you need to know more about the context of the sourcing region to be sure. But in general, knowing the altitude at which coffee beans are grown is valuable information for the barista and the consumer alike.
Creamy body with fruity overtones, bit of a spicy aroma, mild acidity, clean finish