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Your guide to Peru Coffee
When you hear the word ‘Peru’ you probably think of the lost city of Machu Picchu, or the majestic Andes mountains, the ancient Inca civilisation, or llamas. The first word on your lips might not be ‘coffee’, so it may come as a surprise to find that Peru produces some of the best coffees in the world. By way of proof, for two years running in 2018 and 2019, Peru coffee was judged to be Best in the World as its growers won first prize at the Speciality Coffee Association of America awards. A partnership from Valle Incahuasi followed up the initial success of a growers' co-op in Puno. Peru is now making its mark as a producer of high-quality and speciality coffee.
Geography of Peru
Peru sits just outside the top ten of global coffee producers, producing around 4 million bags (240,000 metric tons) annually. That may be only a fraction of the output of its big-hitting neighbours Brazil and Colombia, but Peru is the world's leading exporter of organic, high-quality fair trade coffee. It is recognised as a producer of some of the best speciality coffees in the world. Smoothness, balance and fruitiness are the characteristics.
Peru is a big country: covering an area of 500,000 sq miles, it's about the size of South Africa and twice as big as Texas. To the west is the South Pacific; to the north lies Ecuador, to the south Chile and eastwards are Brazil and Bolivia. Sitting just south of the Equator, backed by the Andes and benefiting from plenty of rainfall, high humidity and the Pacific's cooling breezes, Peru has the ideal environment to be part of this vast growing zone for coffee plants.
There are four main areas in Peru: about half is rainforest or selva which includes the Amazon and Madre de Dios river basins; the sierra (Andean highlands) where some of the highest peaks on earth can be found; the Ceja de Montana, a strip of jungle on the east slopes of the Andes, and the largely barren coastal desert region.
Peruvian coffee can be grown just about everywhere but is mainly cultivated at higher altitudes between 1,000 and 1,800 metres in three areas - Cajamarca in the north, the central Chanchamayo Valley and Cuzco in the south. Most beans are Arabica, the most common varietal being Typica.
History of Peruvian Coffee
Coffee is thought to have been introduced to Peru in the 18th century, most likely from the Caribbean. European investment in the 1900s transformed it into a commercial business with burgeoning exports. British owners took advantage by establishing large plantations, making the cultivation and harvest of coffee beans more efficient. After the Second World War, however, most British interests were sold and the farms were redistributed among thousands of small growers. These days there are about 150,000 coffee farmers in Peru, most of them working a plot no bigger than 3 hectares (7.4 acres). Many coffee farmers work on terraced hillsides and given the small scale of operations, the rugged and difficult terrain presents quite a challenge for getting the crop to a processing station or to market. A severe outbreak of leaf rust in 2014 didn't help. Nevertheless, Peru's coffee farmers are coping well, about a third of them working in co-operatives. Shade-grown plants make up most of the crop, which now counts for $600 million of the nation's exports annually. Traditionally, a lot of Peruvian coffee beans, thanks to their light body and mildly acidic flavour, have been blended with other Latin American coffees. But now an increasing number of growers are concentrating on turning out well-reputed speciality coffees. Many of these are organic and shade-grown, high-quality Arabica beans.
Peruvian Coffee Production
Peruvian coffee beans are harvested between May and September then carried to processing stations where the beans are wet-washed, by hand or mechanically. The Peru coffee farms figure among the most highly rated producers of organic, Rainforest Alliance and UTZ certified coffees. Apart from the Typica varietal, Bourbon, Catua and Pache are also being cultivated.
Peru's sheer scale and its varying terrain and micro-climates mean that different coffees are grown in different places. Just as varieties of grapes produce different wines according to the terroir and prevailing climate, so Peru's coffee growers produce beans with characteristics unique to the region.
For example, in the northern region of Cajamarca, the farmers grow Bourbon, Caturra and Typica which connoisseurs say are noted for their sweetness, fruitiness and acidity. In neighbouring Cutervo the Bourbon, Pache and Catimor beans are reckoned to have hints of vanilla and peaches.
Around the capital Lima, sits the coffee-growing region known as Huanaco, which can climb up to 2,000 metres (6,500 feet). A beautiful forested and fertile area, it was the first part of Peru to grow coffee commercially and is the wettest coffee-producing part of the country. The Typica, Caturra and Catimor beans are plump, sweet and have touches of orange and caramel. The adjacent regions of Amazonas and San Martin are responsible for about 40 percent of Peru's coffee. Further south are the provinces of Chanchamayo and Satipo, whose coffees are notable for an intense acidity, flavour of dark fruits and creamy texture.
The south of the country is thought to produce the best coffee in Peru. Cuzco, albeit not a producer on a large scale, is recognised to provide the highest quality of Bourbon, Caturra and Typica thanks to the fertile soil and climate.
And on the border with Bolivia we find Puno - home to the winner of the Cup of Excellence in 2018. Like Cuzco, it puts quality ahead of quantity and grows mainly the same beans. This is the one to plump for if you want coffee with a real zing. Tasters have described Puno coffee variously as complex, juicy and floral, sweet with flavours of pineapple, tropical fruits and chocolate.
IS COFFEE FROM PERU GOOD?
The short answer is yes. How good depends on the source. We've been drinking Peruvian coffee for years in some of the best-known chains, either as a single origin or more likely blended - perfectly pleasant, mild, but not outstanding. That is changing as the Peruvians have upped their game to grow high-quality, Rainforest Alliance certified organic coffee. Some have been acknowledged as the world's best.
WHAT DOES PERUVIAN COFFEE TASTE LIKE?
The Peru coffee taste and aroma will depend very much on the growing regions of the coffee beans. Most of it is mellow, sweet and mildly acidic with a lovely aroma and hints of chocolate. Then there are nuances of taste:
- Coffee from Cajamarca suggests vanilla and peaches.
- The beans from the Huanaco region are noted for hints of caramel and orange.
- If you want the cream of the crop from the south around Cusco, you will be rewarded by a complex and juicy cup of coffee, creamy with notes of chocolate and tropical fruits.
Our Peruvian coffee has a fruity and floral taste, a low-to-medium acidity and a subtle chocolate finish. Our Peru coffee works perfectly in your favourite filter coffees, but will also give you a delightfully sharp espresso.
HOW DO PERUVIANS DRINK COFFEE?
Surprisingly, perhaps, Peruvians at home tend to drink tea rather than coffee, especially compared to other South American countries. If you ask for a standard coffee in a restaurant or hotel in one of the big cities they might serve you a packet of instant and a jug of hot water. Locals in Peru have their own traditional way of making coffee. Their drip-drip coffee method uses a cafeteria, which is a small pot with lots of tiny holes in the base that sits on top of a jug - a bit like an Italian Moka pot without the pressurised steam. Coffee grounds are placed in the top chamber then hot water is poured in very slowly, so the liquid gradually seeps through. The resulting extract in the jug is used straight away to make a drink by adding hot water or milk to taste, or it can be bottled as a concentrate and used later.
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