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Brazil’s best coffee: Bourbon Santos


When not suffering catastrophic frosts, Brazil produces 30 to 35 percent of the world’s coffee. Vast plantations of millions of trees cover the hills of south-central Brazil. For the commercial coffee industry, Brazil is of supreme importance, a giant in every respect, but for the specialty-coffee trade, it shrinks to something smaller than El Salvador. Despite all the coffee produced in Brazil, none ranks close to the world’s best. The Brazilian coffee industry has concentrated from the beginning on producing “price” coffees: cheap, fairly palatable, but hardly distinguished.

Of the many market names for Brazilian coffee, only one, Santos, is of importance for the specialty-coffee trade. Another, Rio, is significant mainly because it lends its name to a peculiar medicinal flavor that coffee people call Rioy.

Santos coffees are grown mainly in the state of Sao Paulo. In the nineteenth century, the harsh flavor of Rio coffee competed for popularity with the mild Santos. Much of the famous New Orleans coffee was Rio coffee, with chicory added, and some coffees dark-roasted in the United States today for the Latin taste may still include Rio coffee. This is because Latins, who drank the cheap, Rioy-tasting natural coffees at home while the more expensive, washed milds were being sold to the United States, may still crave a bit of the old home-country harshness in their dark-roast blends.

Santos coffee, named for one of the principal ports through which it is shipped, comes mainly from the original Bourbon strain of Coffea arabica brought to Brazil in the eighteenth century from the island of Bourbon, now Reunion. For the first three or four years these trees produce a small, curly bean that coffee people call Bourbon Santos. This is the highest-grade coffee Brazil produces, and it will more than likely be the coffee a store sells as Brazilian. After three or four years, the beans begin to grow larger and flat; this coffee is called Flat Bean Santos and is cheaper and less desirable than Bourbon Santos. Bandeirante is a particularly good and consistent Brazilian estate-grown coffee that appears frequently on specialty coffee lists.

Bourbon Santos is smooth in flavor, medium in body, with moderate acidity in short, another decent but hardly extraordinary coffee. Since it generally sells for about the same as more distinguished, unusual coffees, I see little reason to buy it except gourmet curiosity. The cheaper Brazilian coffees are occasionally for sale in specialty stores, presumably to be used by consumers to save money in their private blends.

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